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While there are certainly a multitude of tangled, opposing and inexplicably linked emotions running through my head about our experience at Pine Ridge, one thing is clear to me: as people from a very different society and way of life, we have much to learn from the Lakota people and their traditions.
At first glance, one might think the opposite. Because the Lakota have such low life spans and income and such high unemployment, alcoholism and substance abuse, it’s easy to say that they are they ones who have much to learn from us, the ones who live longer, are richer and don’t drink as much. And while it is certain that a calculated exchange between the two cultures would be beneficial to both parties, there’s one aspect of their tradition that I think we significantly lack in our lives: the practice of “group therapy” arising from the sweat lodge.
The sweat lodge allows for people to open up in ways that are foreign to day-to-day interaction. It has the incredible power of raising everyone to the same, vulnerable state, both physically and mentally, allowing people to stop the detrimental comparisons, judgments and competitions that so often create debilitating levels of self-consciousness within a person’s psyche. When somebody is able stop worrying about what other people may or may not think about them, they can let go of their fears and share things in their life that they need help getting through. Whether it’s expressing how worried someone is about their sick family member, or how someone can’t get along with a person in their life that is very important to them, whatever problem or worry it may be, the sweat lodge is the time and the place to share it with the compassionate listeners, both the other individuals in the sweat lodge as well as the healing spirits.
Relief surfaces almost immediately when somebody is able to share what is bringing them down in life. This group therapy experience, the sharing of thoughts and allowing others to share the burden, sympathize and pray for you, is something that I definitely lack in my life and is definitely missing from our culture in the US. People are conditioned to sweep their problems under the doormat, avoiding confronting the things that need to be confronted, inhibiting deep reflection and healing.
There’s a giant stigma surrounding expressing personal fears and anxieties in the US. People are embarrassed to talk about their problems. They think that people will think less of them and that they are weak if they have problems. When you have people afraid of telling others what is draining them mentally, coupled with the fast-paced society that we live in in which there often isn’t even time in people’s schedules to confront their problems, we end up with a lot of miserable people. And often times, these feelings manifest in detrimental ways: random acts of aggression, depression or treating people you love in a way that they shouldn’t be treated.
If we had a platform to share, talk and feel (such as the Lakota have through the sweat lodge), and if we accepted this as a normal and necessary part of life, I think that we would be a lot happier.
I find it almost impossible to reflect on the trip as a whole, so I thought I would start at the beginning. Driving into South Dakota, I was expecting nothing but feeling a small sense of familiarity. Not because I had been in the state before, I knew what I experienced was to differ wholly from the reservation and the lives they lived, but I was maybe expecting a semblance of modern life that corresponded with my own, especially in the gas station. The first thing I noticed was the amount of people gathered in the space and how quick they were to notice the outsiders. I felt fine and safe, having trust in Bruce that he knew how to keep us here, yet my observations were quick and turned to the man in the corner smoking a cigarette not just at the gas station, but inside the gas station store with children very close by. Outside, multiple people came up to us trying to sell us their crafts, displaying desperation in our reaction. This was my first realization that maybe the sovereignty of this nation really should indicate to people that they indeed have entered a foreign country where habits and laws completely differ from the modern existence in the rest of the United States (this was not one of those United States).
Unable how to extend my response to our trip except in a lengthy and detailed way of every feeling I had, I felt myself getting bored with my own reflection. Then the sweet and inspiring lady, Justine Epstein, out of the blue, sent me an excerpt of a poem over text message that may have helped me with some point or perspective (let me try it out because otherwise I have no idea how to start).
Regardless of its connection to our time in Pine Ridge, I find this poem provoked something in me.
A LITANY FOR SURVIVAL
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who live in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who were imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
– Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn
Reading and re-reading this piece of writing, I tried to establish the subject of the poem as us, the students, or the Pine Ridge residents who welcomed us, and became confused trading out our experiences, deciding whether or not they were the ones with fear. If one thing is clear about our trip and our experience, they are the marginalized population living outside our dominant culture in which WE are entirely able to “indulge the passing dreams of choice” (ll. 4-5). Their oppression has been wholly caused by the society that we easily take part in without much of a second thought. The graffiti “Death white man” had been a notable mention of last year’s class and had remained untouched for at least a year, as if the message was wholly agreed upon. Although the message said “death white man” I was unsure what the writing meant. Was it a threat to those entering the reservation? Or was it, as I wish to interpret the message, a statement about white men and what they have and will always be associated with: death (to the people, to their culture, and especially to their land).
We don’t understand what survival means, one reason why many were uncomfortable with our trip and deciding whether our slight immersion in their culture was the “right” way to approach this subject. I found myself wondering if we would ever be able to understand having never ourselves been threatened as they had been, or “imprinted with fear.” We all saw their fight to keep their culture, as Lorde says “seeking a now that can breed futures,” with their ritual, which extended to their children, and with their education of us, outsiders, in order to maintain some sort of existence that includes their traditions.
At the start of the trip, I was grateful to have the chance to meet Mike Junior at the gas station, as he provided us all with comfort saying something like “you guys look like a bunch of CC students” and others responding “do we really stand out that much?” Yes, we really did.
The question of authenticity was an incredibly conflicting factor in my hesitations about the journey to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. My confliction really grew in the van driving to South Dakota while reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Learning about the absolutely horrifying history of cultural assimilation and the cultural massacre of various native tribes complicated everything I felt and thought. While driving through the vast lands of the Reservation I felt silenced by the history embedded into the land, and an overwhelming sadness of the reality and truth of what America is built upon. I found myself trying to sort through all of the complexities of my place in this course and trip by first understanding the word “we” in the narrative of America’s history with native tribes. “We took their land, we killed their people,” concepts troubled me and I began to trail back through my personal ancestry to understand if I was a part of that group of killers. My ancestry is from Ireland, France and Eastern Europe. My father’s grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe to escape the Germans and my mother’s grandparents fled Ireland during the time of extreme poverty and famine. Then I thought that, this means I am not a part of the “we” equation regardless of my white skin. But maybe I am in a sense a part of the “we” because I have done very little for cultural and human rights. And doesn’t knowledge entail responsibility?
With this, I found myself at the site of Wounded Knee. I couldn’t walk around the site for more than a minute when I began to cry. I sought solace walking away from the site and class, looking out onto the land scattered with deteriorating trailers and piles of trash. In this silence, I struggled to grasp with my passion for indigenous rights that has been the root of my academic path at CC and a significant part of my personal identity and the crushing sense of sadness I felt. With the sense of guilt, question of authenticity, being an outsider, and question of my place in this complex issue—I felt no clarity or any answer.
Each morning I would run, sometimes on the main road and other times on the dirt road near the Lakota Waldorf School. Running was incredibly helpful in beginning to unravel the complexities of this place and my emotions. The beauty of the land, in its vastness, the gentle slope of the hills, and the way early morning light illuminated different colors of the grasses and trees, evoked peace. On one of my runs 5 ecstatically happy dogs joined me, and we ran along a dirt road, past cattle and gorgeous fields. I ran without a music, phone, or watch and I felt blissfully disconnected which allowed me to connect to the present of this place. When I reached the end of the road, I stopped to listen to the hundreds of birds chirping in the trees, and the sound of the wind rustling leaves and tall grass. The love of the dogs, the happiness of the chirping birds, and the beauty of the land were rejuvenating in my confusion of navigating the complexity of the Reservation.
Sitting on the floor of Mike Jr.’s home, Mike told the class he didn’t want us to feel like we needed to problem solve or distance ourselves with cross-cultural misunderstanding, but to learn and to be present in this experience. Mike Jr. and all of the other community members who engaged with the class were giving us tools for cultural awareness. I think cultural awareness could be significantly helpful in the process of understanding the history and future of native tribes in America, because so many people are very uninformed and culturally naïve, including myself. I learned from the love of the sweet animals, the openness of the Lakota community members, and the pain of a heart-wrenching history, the need for cross-cultural compassion is imperative. I am uncomfortable with notions of superficial distinctions, such as the idea that I’m a privileged white American so what is my role in helping this underprivileged minority. I think it is healthier and more productive to view this is as we are all passionate about compassion, so as a human being who is pained by the suffering of other humans who are denied the basic right of culture and agency in their own identity, how can I help.
While hiking with Mike Jr. at Bear Butte, he spoke of a prophecy his elders told him. In the prophecy, his role was to share the native culture and keep the passion for spirituality and sacredness alive. In this, Mike Jr. said, “I am only a prayer tie.” I think it is important to be humble in trying to help with such a complex issue, while also being effective by harnessing the authenticity, insight, and resilience of a prayer tie.
I was prepared for spiritual enlightenment at Pine Ridge. I had heard stories from friends who took the class in previous years about magical, mystical transformations and looked forward to my own. I entered the sweat lodge in this mindheartspirit mode.
Nobody told me how physically grueling the sweats would be. The ladies went in first, while the hot rocks were being pitchforked in one by one. We were there for too long, already roasted like vegetables before the guys came in (we’re trapped like rats! – no, rats can’t be trapped this easily. You’re trapped like…carrots ~ Simpsons Movie).
A young woman came in and sat by me. I recognized her immediately. She is in the new Pine Ridge documentary by Swedish autodidact filmmaker Anna Eborn. In typical Scandinavian style, Eborn’s film simply follows characters with cameras, long shots and no narration, letting the viewer observe and make decisions rather than manipulating footage to express a specific angle. I knew this woman, I had watched a half hour of her feeding her kids mac and cheese and taking out the trash. And suddenly I was suffering next to her, sticking my head out of the back of the tent when I thought I was going to pass out, my forehead against her white tank top.
I didn’t expect to fight panic the entire sweat, I didn’t expect to almost pass out, I didn’t think about not breathing or my skin burning. They were right about praying – pleading don’t die, don’t let me die, let it be over, don’t panic, help me not panic definitely happened and definitely kept me focused. I crawled out of the womb and sat in the moonlight and couldn’t stand up for a while, reduced to baby simplicity of needing air and water and nothing else.
I value this experience. But doubt seeps in. I can’t ignore Jamie’s un-interest, or Mike’s inability to answer even the most pointed questions, or Justin joking in my ear during the supposedly most sacred ceremonies, or watching the men collect sacred (?) materials for the ceremonies at a kind of touristy shop, handing them to Bruce to pay for. Being an observer last week and reflecting now is tough. Should we have been there? Was it authentic? Was it sincere?
To quote the great Nicole Pey, it’s #complicated.
A lot of things have happened to me this past week. I felt as if I was climbing a mountain of emotional stress, exhausting but worthwhile finally on its peak. The past weekday, I had spent my time on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation and the weekend at my sister’s wedding. These events were completely different experiences yet I could feel a sense of similarity between the two.
At Pine Ridge, I felt a little uncomfortable, worried to the reason of why we were there and felt honored at the same time. There were so many layers to the community and the relationship between the Lakota people and others on the border of the reservation. Some were extremely hard to witness—the effect of alcoholism in the outside town and the stories of struggle between family members, money, and poverty. And some were beautiful— the prayers to each other in the sweat lodges, the support and strength of a struggling community, and their complete willingness to open up and show these strengths and weaknesses to a complete stranger. I know there was so much more hidden to me, but I would like to focus on a strength that I had experienced and has really stuck to me this week; the strength and connection of their community at Pine Ridge.
At first I felt like a complete outsider to the community. But as the days continued, I felt less like a complete stranger and more of a visiting friend. I loved listening to their stories, although very sad, it was nice of them to open up and talk to us. The warm-heartedness of cooking, playing with Nevaeh and company, and listening to the hardships of the family added to my sense of connection to the family as well as reduced my feelings of being an outsider. One instance when I felt completely connected to the family was when I had a panic attack in the sweat lodge and Big Mike’s wife helped me relax. We sat face to face and, while it was dark and extremely hot, it was nice of her to pray out loud and in English just so I knew there was someone near and encouraging myself to be strong and pray harder. I felt a strong sense of connection that I find when with close friends and family.
Which leads to my feelings of similarity of experiences at my sister’s wedding this weekend. People from all areas of class, and with their own multiple layers of suffering, complications, and connections come together to form one community. The music and prayers connect one another and you seemly forget your struggles. Some may feel like outsiders at first, yet at the end they are dancing their hearts out with each other. There is a strong sense of connection and love between the two families as they pray full-heartily for the new couple and their new beginning. This is kind of like how we prayed for the health of Big Mike and the community of Pine Ridge.
Going to the Pine Ridge Reservation is like entering a foreign country. As soon as we crossed into the reservation I felt like a stranger and a tourist in a way I’ve never felt anywhere else, even when I really was in a foreign country. Because most indigenous people in the US live on reservations, the majority of Americans have little to no contact with them, and therefore very little understanding of them; I have had teachers at Colorado College who implied or said outright that all of the Indians in North America had been wiped out. I could list all of the horrifying statistics about suicide rates, life expectancy, income, and housing conditions on Pine Ridge, but suffice it to say that conditions on the rez are third world, and most Americans would never believe such conditions exist within their country. Pine Ridge is a place that is fascinating for me to visit and learn from, but I cannot imagine myself living there. On the rez, it was very interesting to get a Lakota perspective on things (often many different, conflicting perspectives). One statement that particularly struck me was when Mike Junior said that many parents who have lived their whole lives on the reservation raise their kids to be racist. When talking about racism, we almost exclusively discuss racism against people of color. Yet in a colored (Lakota) community with very little contact with the outside world, racism against white people is very much alive. And not without good reason; the only white people many Lakota know are the government officials who have broken nearly every promise they have ever made, the FBI who occasionally come in and arrest people, the occasional church volunteer group, and the people selling alcohol in White Clay. When one considers this, coupled with the brutal history of oppression, broken treaties, and outright genocide against indigenous peoples by the US government, it makes sense that the first thing we saw driving into White Clay was graffiti reading “Die whiteman”.
Coming home, I could barely talk about my experience with my friends. I didn’t know how to respond to the simple question “How was your trip?”, because the honest answer would have taken hours to explain, and I’m not sure that I even know the answer yet. Before I could even begin to talk about my personal experience I had to give context about the poverty and living conditions there. One of my friends asked me to describe life on the rez and said she imagined it to be kind of like an Amish community, very isolated, little technology, and somewhat stuck in the past. I didn’t know where to start to explain to her what life on a modern Indian reservation is like, but it is far from Amish. There are so many things that we saw and experienced on the rez that would be very difficult to explain to someone who has no context within which to understand them. I will never fully understand life on the rez, no matter how many times I visit or how many questions I ask, because it is a completely foreign culture and belief system. One thing I began to understand more fully is that the Lakota way of life and manner of thinking and relating to the world is fundamentally different than our own. Even if it is possible for a Lakota to assimilate into our culture, the people as a whole have an outlook on life that most Westerners have trouble comprehending. They view everything from money to religion to family relations to time very differently from us. Living on “Indian time” means taking the day as it comes, doing things when you are ready or when they feel right, and not worrying too much about any agenda. This can be very relaxing and liberating; I don’t think I heard anyone say “we’re late” the entire trip, no matter how many hours behind schedule we were. This time management strategy is at odds with our modern lifestyle, where everything is scheduled and has a limit, but it makes sense in a hunter-gatherer society without clocks, where people’s only indication of time is the movement of the sun. This time seems like ages and ages ago to us, because for people of European descent, it was. But for the Lakota, this lifestyle is only about 200 years distant. That is only a few generations. Noah, Big Mike’s cousin, told us about how his grandfather met Crazy Horse. Noah spoke of the old days as if he had been alive, saying “It seems like only yesterday that we lived in tepees”.
We are separated from the Lakota not only by distance, socioeconomic status, and religion, but also by their location in time. It takes time to adjust to changes, especially if those changes are as brutal and destructive as those indigenous people have faced. We have not given the Lakota time, nor have we given them the respect and understanding they need to survive in such a fast, complex modern world. Perhaps my friend’s assumption that the Lakota reservation was like going back in time was more accurate than I thought when she first asked. Although there are cars and cigarettes and TV’s and casinos on the reservation, these are not what are most important to the Lakota. They are just side effects of being thrown into a fast, modern, technologically developed world. What really matters to the Lakota is family, respect for elders and all beings, relationships, and the land itself, things that we value all too little in our modern society.
Authenticity has been coming up a lot for me this weekend. I don’t have any answers and won’t pretend to, but I’ve tried to sort through some of the weird dynamics that were going on and where we fit into Pine Ridge.
As I go through all of the interactions I had from last week, doubt creeps into my head. I don’t like it. I don’t want to doubt the kindness of the people, the genuineness of the ceremonies. I want to believe in the interactions I experienced as real, unmitigated by outside factors like race, history, and economics. I want my experience to have been authentic.
As it turns out, all of these outside factors were present. So far, what I’ve processed is that these extras – the things I believed made my experience less authentic or made my interactions less genuine – don’t have to ruin my memories from Pine Ridge, and don’t have to change my experience into something inauthentic. The weird family dynamics, the heavy tobacco use, the unfocused look in Mike Junior’s eyes that told me he wasn’t present in our conversations? The not-so-sneaky leaving to go smoke pot before sweat? The conversations we overheard about needing more money from CC in future years? There are things going on in the world, and in Pine Ridge in particular, that are larger than myself and to try to ignore these sometimes confusing or unsavory things in order to interpret my experience as more authentic would be to miss the point of that experience entirely. What I’ve figured out is that I had a preconceived notion of what an authentic experience in Pine Ridge would be, and anything that didn’t fit this idea was labeled as inauthentic in my mind. I feel like an idiot, but at least I realized this logical flaw now.
So, going forward, I need to take a step back. It’s not always beneficial to try to parcel out every interaction and figure out a person’s motivations for doing this thing or that thing. Maybe a conversation I had or a ceremony I participated in was driven by economic reasons. Maybe it was because of someone’s kindness or a desire to educate. More than likely, all of my experiences from Pine Ridge were motivated by a multitude of reasons, and I should be focused less on the reasons for the interactions and more on the interactions themselves.
As the great Nicole Pey said, “#complicated”.
The word that I use most frequently when people ask me about my experience at Pine Ridge is ‘complicated’. I fumble trying to think of where to begin the discussion. Usually I start with generalities of the trip: We spent most of our time with an upcoming medicine man and his family, learning about Lakota traditions and religious practices. We visited sacred sites, participated in ceremonies, engaged in conversation with locals, among other activities. The advice that Bruce gave us before we left on the trip guides my narration. I don’t want to romanticize the religious practices that we participated in. And on the other hand, I don’t want to focus on the poverty and the grim reality of life on the reservation.
Discussing the experience is complicated because dynamics on the reservation are complicated. People are in poverty. A lot have seen suicide, substance abuse, or domestic violence within their extended family. Both inter-family and intra-family relations can be rocky and even hostile. This is not to say that family problems don’t exist elsewhere, but in this community where family and religion are inextricably linked, any sort of disruption to their traditional lifestyle has a large impact. We saw this in our discussions with Rose in which she expressed her frustration with certain family members’ alcohol abuse.
I also have to mention that our white presence caused tension. When Justin got back in the van after a trip to the gas station convenience store, he said that everyone was giving them shit for being with us. They thought the Little Boy family was selling out. He laughed it off, like he often does with things, but I felt a twinge of discomfort as he said these words. It brings up the question again: Should we even be here? #complicated
I definitely think we should. Gaining knowledge of this spiritual practice helps us to genuinely respect the Lakota culture. In Mike Jr.’s words, “It’s all in the name of education.” It also gives us the impetus to explore our own spirituality which is a positive learning opportunity in a religion course.
The time I spent with the Little Boy family showed that in order to thoughtfully discuss modern practices of Lakota religion you must understand the context in which the people live. I have only begun to discuss the context of Pine Ridge here but I’ll stop for now.
Quick side note. My connection with Nevaeh was not complicated. The tainted racial dynamics were not at play. We interacted authentically, human to human. We danced, played hand clap games, and taught each other a lot. She’s a shining star.
This class came at a time in my life where I crave more spiritual understanding. In the weeks leading up to second block, I became increasingly aware of how little exploration I’ve done into my spiritual self. At this point, I had done little reflection into what spirituality is or could be. But I nonetheless felt that my life lacked spirituality.
When I came to Pine Ridge, I was very ready to have a spiritual experience. I was fascinated by the mysticism of ceremony. I was intrigued by what supposedly happened in the darkness of the sweat lodge that could be felt but not seen. I had heard of Big Mike’s healing power from Celinda, and knew that magical things happened on the reservation. I wanted these things for my own experience. I wanted a profound understanding of my place in the cosmos. I wanted to become aware of super natural presence.
After the first night’s sweat, I was disappointed when these goals were not met. I wanted to be surprised. I wanted my scientific rationalism to be challenged. I wanted to communicate with dead people. I emerged from that first sweat feeling clean and rejuvenated, but the experience did meet expectations of what I imagined a “spiritual” to be.
Over the course of the week, my understanding of spirituality was continually challenged. When I participated in ceremony without experiencing the presence of pure divinity, I questioned the value of spiritual activity. But as the week progressed, new purposes of prayer become apparent. Despite 21-years of going to synagogue, my week in Pine Ridge was probably one of only a handful of times that I ever participated in prayer. Throughout my childhood, I viewed religious services as two things: going to synagogue was an opportunity to hang out with friends, but when this was not the case, going to synagogue was a boring drudgery.
Under conditions of excruciating heat, it was a much easier for me to actually pray. As Bruce told us during sweat, “suffering makes it more meaningful.” The heat of sweat made it much easier for me to be solemn, which in turn made it much easier for me to be sincere. My requests for healing and feelings of gratitude felt more earnest than any other experience I have ever had praying.
I came to the sweat lodge expecting my spiritual experience to be something supernatural and foreign. Instead, sweat simply made me experience things already known to me in a new way. Prayer allowed me to introspect on where I dedicate my love and what I am thankful for. It was an exercise in mindfulness. As I see it now, this was a very spiritual experience.