Sunday, March 16, 2014

high rez: a week in photos

Here are a few pictures of Re-Member, the organization facilitating our service. Each night, Re-Member invites a Lakota speaker in to educate the volunteers about some aspect of Lakota culture. On the right, speaker Will Peters poses for a photo with the Marietta group. Will spoke about youth on the reservation and their exposure to the trauma and crime associated with such severe poverty, which leads to a high teen suicide rate on the Rez.
 On the first full day, Re-Member took us to the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Understanding this event is particularly crucial in understanding the hurt and the loss that seems so present in life on the reservation.

The Marietta group poses for a photo in the Badlands. The staff of Re-Member refer to this area as "the Sanctuary," and they allowed us time to silently reflect in this beautiful space. There were no other tourists in this part of the park.

A typical home on the reservation.

 Re-Member provides many services that residents of the reservation call in and request, on a first-come-first-serve basis. Many of their projects involve installing skirting around the bottoms of trailers, which helps to insulate during the long winters. They also build wheelchair ramps, latrines, and bunk beds, and they also provide chopped firewood or propane to families in need of heat. Senior Luke Badaczewski is working the table saw in the photo on the left.
 Members of our group worked on a skirting project for this particular home.Staff from Re-Member give instructions on how the skirting is prepared and installed, and us volunteers fill in to complete the work. By the end of the week, even the least experienced of us feel comfortable with a drill. Junior Maggie Watt and freshman Hollie Young are working on skirting insulation in the photo below.

Another group went out to Custer National Park to collect large tree trunks that were cleared from the trails. Back at Re-Member, another group chopped the wood that we brought back. Volunteers and Re-Member staff then deliver the wood to those families on the reservation that need it most in order to heat their homes. Junior Abby Romesberg is in the photo on the right, splitting wood.

 The photo above is from our last day, which we spent in Custer National Park, at the Crazy Horse monument, and at Mount Rushmore. It was interesting to see these places and understand that although they are very significant landmarks to the United States, they stand on ground that was once sacred and even spiritual for the Lakota people. The faces of the presidents at Mount Rushmore are actually blasted into the Black Hills, the setting of the Lakota creation story. It was a strange feeling to visit these places after understanding the significance of the loss of the Black Hills for the Lakota people.

You may have been wondering about the title of this blog: Mitakuye Oyasin. Throughout the week, exposure to Lakota culture and tradition also exposed us to quite a bit of Lakota language. Mitakuye Oyasin is a phrase used at the end of Lakota prayers, sort of an "amen," so to speak. It means, roughly translated, "we are all related," and I think this phrase summarizes the Lakota culture and philosophy better than I ever can. These are a people from a society structured very differently from ours. Their world is centered on the family unit, with children viewed as sacred beings, elders as sources of wisdom, women as leaders, men as protectors. The world is sacred because it produces life, and is therefore respected and cared for. The humility, the compassion, the strength of community of the Lakota taught us all the value of ourselves, our relationships, and of one another. We learned that all of us - as a part of this world's creation - are related. And despite a long history of pain, we all possess the ability to begin to heal some of the harm we've done to our brothers and sisters, with whom we share this world. Mitakuye Oysin.

Friday, March 14, 2014

last days.

Yesterday was our last day at Re-Member. Instead of working, the staff took us around the reservation to see the lighter side of life on the Rez. 

We went to Oglala Lakota College, which is about the size of Marietta and one of the main ways young people on the Rez can have post-high school opportunities. Here we saw Lakota culture as it attempts to organize and work with the West, for better or worse. We also toured Red Cloud School, a private, Jesuit school that operates tuition-free and sends more Gates scholars to colleges than any other high school in the country. Enrollment is open to all, of any religious background - one need only pass the placement test.

We also stopped at a trading post and a favorite local eating spot, Betty's. Betty can trace her lineage back to Black Elk, made famous by books of his wisdom recorded by others. Each year, our group loves Betty's "fry bread," deep fried bread that is traditional on the reservation. 

That night, we came back to Re-Member for one last reflection. This time, they asked us what gifts we received during our time on the Rez, and what we wish to leave behind. Many, many people talked about receiving knowledge of Lakota culture and inspiration from their spirituality and values. Many talked of leaving hope, love, more time to volunteer and make things better.

Today, we said our goodbyes at Re-Member and took the scenic route towards home, stopping at Custer National Park and Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore. It was strange to be at those monuments and think about how they were all located in a place that was sacred to the Lakota - the Black Hills - and how that land was promise to the Lakota in treaties that were brutally severed. I think we all had mixed feelings about the monuments, then.

Now we're back on the road, heading across the plains and back to where we began. I'll add more reflections as I gather them, and (if you're patient), I'll post some of the phenomenal pictures of our photographers in the coming days.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

day four.

A quick update tonight: today a group of us delivered the beds to the families on the Rez who needed them. They all lived in modest homes, and all had called up Re-Member a few weeks ago asking for beds, most of them because they were hosting a few other folks in their homes who don't have heat this winter. One home we went into had eleven people living in one trailer. Another had the oven on and open to produce heat.

I interacted with the families as much as I could. I asked mothers about their kids, grandmothers about their hobbies, I read a book with a little girl and held a baby for a while. It's hard to put into words the impact these small experiences had on me, the fact of our very different lives crossing briefly,

I checked in this morning with a few folks in our group. Alex Chih '17 said, "I really like that we can be here and be making an actual difference."

"It's a whole new learning experience," Chih said. "Very eye-opening."

Maribeth Saleem-Tanner, director of the Office of Civic Engagement which coordinates the trip, said at this point in the week she felt that "...even though I heard so much and read so much and talked to so many people about this, there's nothing that could have prepared me for it."

Maribeth explained that she is proud to be a part of the work Re-Member's doing and the work Marietta College students are doing this week, even if our growing awareness of the issues on Pine Ridge makes our next steps as advocates unclear. What is important is our growing relationship with this organization, these people, and this place.

"Mostly I'm just really grateful to be here," she said.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

day three.

Again today we split into our work groups. Today I stayed at Re-Member and ventured down to the workshop to build bunk beds with the resident carpenter/character, Jerry. Jerry is an overall-clad, cap-wearing, ambiguously old hoot and a half, to put it simply.

However, despite the comic relief Jerry explained to us the reason for the beds in stories so vivid they sustained us through hours upon hours of sanding, drilling, and staining. Jerry said he'd delivered a bed that a one-year-old immediately fell asleep in - it was the boy's first time sleeping in a bed in his life. He said sometimes families of 18 were living in one trailer, with five sleeping in the bathroom, two in the bathtub. Jerry's stories motivated us all throughout the day, and despite our lack of carpentry skills we all somehow managed to catch on and specialize our work and learn.

Tonight Re-Member's guest speaker, Larry, told the Lakota creation story in pictures, prayer, and song. I am always amazed at the parallels across religious symbolism. But the Lakota also possessed some very unique insight as well. Larry explained that their society was actually matriarchal, with grandmothers as most revered. The way they respected elders, women, and children and saw those groups as particularly sacred prevented many of the social issues that plagued many other civilizations. I am still in awe of that.

Tonight the wind quieted and the stars were bright, and the hill behind Re-Member was the perfect place to reflect on this place, these people, and our place in this creation. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

day two.

Today we split into three groups for three different work sites, randomly mixed with students from the other schools also staying here at Re-Member.

One group stayed here on site and built bunk beds. One went out near Red Shirt Table - a beautiful canyon near the Black Hills - to skirt a trailer. The third went to Custer National Forest to collect firewood, and this was my group.

The ride out to Custer was fascinating. I watched as the Rez plains morphed into stone-cut buttes and again into craggy cliffs and forests. And then the neighbors - suddenly prairie dogs and deer and antelope and buffalo became more prevalent than other cars on the road. Seriously, we paused more for buffalo than for traffic.

Today is the day many of us begin to struggle with the weight of the injustice and disillusionment in this place, with the complexity of the poverty, with the tragedy of a trampled identity and culture. We aren't sure how we fit into this picture, coming from positions of privilege and most of us claiming citizenship in the nation that oppresses these people. It's a complicated process, and we're all in different places in it. And that's good.

A few things we're learning: the US government has not kept true to their word in a single treaty made with the Lakota - and they made dozens. The unemployment rate here is consistently between 75 and 80 percent. The teen suicide rate is 3 or 4 times the national average. Alcoholism, drug addiction, broken families are rampant issues. Generational trauma is what they call it - the results of significant cultural and physical trauma generations ago. There are those who still remember different times, in which the Lakota were a nation, a people. There are those who still remember when the Lakota were less than human. So how do we begin to heal? It's a question we're all reflecting on tonight.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

day one.

Today was our first full day at Re-Member, and full is a good word for it. Not just in terms of itinerary, but in terms of content. I think today left of full of many things - questions, emotions, spiritual explorations. We drove the reservation in this bus:

We began the morning with a trip to the site of the Massacre of Wounded Knee, where over 300 Lakota men, women, and children were brutally killed by US troops. Many are buried in a mass grave on the site. A young Lakota man named Dakota High Hawk told us the story of the massacre as it had been passed down in the oral tradition of his family. I think that everyone experiences Wounded Knee differently - some feel sorrow, others guilt, others discomfort at even treading on the hallowed ground. Julianna and I spoke to a headman who was with his wife selling crafts across the street. He spoke passionately about how American culture strips all people - not just native peoples - of their true autonomy, of their resources. 

Julianne is our photographer, but you'll have to wait to see her pictures from the trip. I can tell you, they'll be worth waiting for. After Wounded Knee, we picnicked overlooking the Badlands (or as the Lakota call them, the White Lands), and then headed into a part of Badlands park technically owned by the Lakota (although still managed by the national park service). 

They took us to a spot they call "the Sanctuary" and gave us time to spread out among the giant rocks and sit, and listen. Pictures to come, but for now, here's a picture of our muddy boots:

Tonight, we had dinner at Re-Member, then we listened to Lakota speaker Enila Wakan, who first "smudged" us all with burning sweet grass in order to purify the space. He spoke powerfully, about children commiting suicide on the Rez and his experience in a mission school in the 60s and lands he was fighting to get back. He asked us to simply love the young children we encounter here. That's the real work we're here for, he said. More on Enila later, perhaps, because I am particularly drawn to his spirit. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

home on the rez.

We made it to Re-Member, jumped out of our incarcerating vans, and practically ran out onto the hills. 

We're staying in Re-Member's facility, where all the volunteers stay. This is where we'll eat our meals and meet the other volunteers this week - all of whom are other students or staff from colleges across the country on alternative spring breaks just like ours.

Tonight we ate dinner together in what best can be described as the mess hall. Tomorrow, if the weather cooperates, we'll head out to the badlands. We'll also go to Wounded Knee and learn a bit more about the tragedy there.

The walls of Re-Member are covered with colors and images representative of the Lakota people, and I can feel myself growing excited about immersing into this beautiful culture once again.