By: Elizabeth McDonald
One of the first things they told us at Re-member was to leave our expectations at the door. Coming into the reservation, I couldn’t help but have preconceived notions of how it might be however, even upon driving in, I found that the little I had imagined wasn’t accurate. In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they weren’t all living in tipis but at the same time, the poverty that I did witness was nothing to be excited by. My expectations were continuously broken throughout the week so I learned to have as few expectations as possible when entering a new or unknown place.
Something we talked a lot about during our evening meetings was the idea of community. It was somewhat of a controversial topic, as many of us felt like, from the outside, the sense of community within the Lakota was lacking due to the spacing of the houses. However, I learned that community may look and be defined differently depending on the culture. For example, since more people live in a house here, it’s more likely that they have their own sense of community within their family.
Without having witnessed the passion with which the people speak and act, it’s impossible to explain. Sitting in the main room on the third night, we had a speaker who spoke about the Lakota culture, ending with a song which brought me to tears. It was so moving to hear them speak about such a tumultuous past with a strength in their voice that is incomparable. I learned from the first night at the pow-wow to our guide at Red Cloud school, the passion for their culture is alive and thriving.
I was raised Catholic and still consider myself so however over the past year or two I’ve lost touch with my passion for the religion. I still believe in God and many of the churches beliefs but found myself struggling to make a connection during the service. Some people said that the reservation is the most spiritual place they’ve been and that’s very easy for me to see. Prayer was a topic of emphasis for many of the speakers. For several of them, they began by smudging, which is a process of burning sage and cleansing the air around each of us. I found myself learning a renewed desire to connect with my spirituality as to find my purpose in this life.
- Respect—for women and children
I don’t think there is a culture out there that honors their women and children more than the Lakota. In fact, in the Lakota language, there is not a word for children. Instead, they use wakanyeja which translates to “sacred beings”. In addition, the women are considered the head of the household and all men should honor her as such because without her, they could not exist. I learned not only to respect the strength of women and children in my own culture but to honor myself as a sacred being.
If you look at the Pine Ridge reservation from the outside, it appears to be a mixed up jumble of broken pieces. There are old cars and kids toys in the front lawns. Some of the houses don’t have a roof. There are dogs roaming some of the streets. Their past would indicate a broken heart and there is definitely evidence of an exhaustingly long fight for equity. However, the smiles and laughter I have shared with some of the people, especially the kids, would paint a very different image. Some of the people have next to nothing yet went out of their ways to make us feel welcome. For example, at a house where I was digging an outhouse hole, one of the old men who lived there, brought us cold sodas to show his appreciation. I learned that happiness comes from within.
- To listen
There is no bigger lesson I learned on the reservation than to listen. The stories people have to tell, stories that make them who they are, can change your perspective on everything. Listening was one thing that has stayed consistent on my whole journey so far. During NOLS, I listened to the silence and appreciated the serenity of it. In Pine Ridge, I listened to the lessons from the elders and the laughter of kids and the passion for their culture. I learned to listen, which is something that I can carry with me throughout my life, and for that I am very grateful.