The group we were traveling with consisted of three adults: my mom, a Quaker man coordinating the group, and a younger Native American woman. My mom was my mom, a sometimes embarrassing, but very confident and friendly woman with light brown, curly hair. Our coordinator was a heavy, serious man, who, being probably in his late sixties seemed to have diminishing patience for the teenagers in our group. The young woman had short black hair and an intimidating, stormy temper. There were also four teenagers in our group, including myself, a thirteen year-old girl and two sixteen and seventeen year-old boys. We had all met up in Denver, Colorado and traveled by van up to the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, constituting a boring drive filled with long, rolling hills, cows, and lots of corn.
This drive finished in the Wakpamni district of the Pine Ridge Reservation. We drove off the main road to a dirt one and soon after, pulled up to a long square concrete building, with a corrugated tin roof. The building was isolated in a field, but a little further down our dirt road, we could see a gate that opened into a community of mobile homes. We lugged our suitcases out of the trunk of the car and brought them in through a small kitchen on the side of the building to the room where we would be sleeping. It was completely empty, except for one wooden folding table and a few plastic chairs. It would have easily fit twenty or thirty people, so the seven of us spread our sleeping bags around the room. The cracked concrete floor was painted red, giving the already dim room a darker, more ominous feel. I learned later that when the building wasn’t being used to house community service groups, the town used it as the local morgue. These were the kinds of things that floated by me on the trip, something that I’m glad of, because I don’t think I would have gotten any sleep otherwise.
We also met Sheryl, a friend of our coordinator, and a woman who was said to make the best fried dough on the reservation. She invited us over to her house for dinner one night, and, after frying wheel after wheel of delicious, soft, dough, she let us try what is to this day the best fried dough I have ever had in my life. It wasn’t only the amazing dinner she made for us that had a lasting impression on me, but also the warm smile with which she welcomed us into her home. I realized that I had little reason to be afraid of what the people we met on the reservation would think of me, because no matter how violent our two cultures’ histories with one another were, in the end, we were all just people trying to make the best of our lives. In this way, the similarities between our two cultures overwhelmed the differences. I stopped thinking about our two cultures as warring teams, as “us and them,” and instead, I started to see one team, one universal “us.”
The sharp, dirt hills of the Badlands stretched up and fell down like drip-sand-castles. When I saw them, I imagined some giant hand scooping up a fistful of wet dirt and letting it drip slowly to the ground, creating spire after spire of steep, twisting mountains. Sunlight rained down on the peaks, and shadows welled up like puddles in the valleys. We stood on the edge of it all, where the dry, crunchy grass slipped to dry crunchy dirt, hard and red under our feet. Our hosts had told us to be careful: people had gotten lost in the maze of canyons, had gone out exploring and never come back. So we stared out into the jagged mountains, striped with millions of years of dirt and we didn’t say anything for a few minutes, amazed by the foreign beauty of the scene, so different and new.
This image stayed with us as we continued working on the grounds for the rest of the day. As we were about to leave, our hosts asked us if we wanted to join a sweat lodge they were doing in preparation for the spiritual gathering.
We had to wait until after sunset had painted the edge of the sky pink and filled the falling sun with a fiery red, until all of the colors melted into black, speckled with so many stars. In the middle of a field sat the two sweat lodges we were to use, one for the men and one for the women. They had frames made of sticks and they were draped in blankets to create a dome that was about six feet tall and six feet in diameter. Outside of the two lodges, a campfire had been built, around which we told stories and jokes while we waited for dusk to fall. When it had become completely dark, we entered the sweat lodges. It felt like we were entering a dark, warm cave. There was a pit in the center of the dome for the fire, and a hole at the top of the dome to let the smoke out.
My mom and I sat down cross legged around the pit, along with the other women in our group and our hosts. The coals were heated, and a bucket of water was handed in through the blanket flap that was the entrance to the sweat lodge, which was then closed. An old woman leaned forward and threw water on the coals, creating a sizzling sound that died out. She repeated this action until the air around us felt heavy and hot, and more humid than anything I’d ever experienced. The sound of the water on the stones was calming, like breathing. The woman then started praying in the local tribal language of Lakota, praying, she said, for our ancestors. “Mitakuye oyasin,” she said, “we are all related.” She and the other women started to sing Lakota songs, singing in their ancestors on the seven winds from the seven directions of the world. I listened, feeling myself become completely drenched with sweat, feeling the world concentrate into our safe and dark dome. I tried to pray, the best I could, for our shared ancestors, for each name carved on to the memorial of wounded-knee, for each small grave in the cemetery we had cleaned. Finally, once they decided we’d had enough of the heat, they let us climb out of the lodge. The cold night air met my skin, refreshed me. I felt lighter and cleaner than when I had entered.
On the trip to the Reservation, I learned how easy it was to get wrapped up in anger and guilt about past and current injustices. I saw many people on the Reservation who had lost hope, lost even their own self-motivation, after having been denied respect for centuries by an invading force that mercilessly took their land and ignored the requests of their people. I learned how easily I could let my own guilt about my government and culture’s actions overwhelm and intimidate me from trying to change the situation in which I play an integral role. But this trip taught me the value of working through these complicated feelings of anger and guilt and starting to mend the relationship between two seemingly contradictory cultures. The people I remember meeting on the trip were not the ones who were disheartened and bitter about their situation, even if they were rightly so, but the people who persisted against all odds to stand up for their rights and continue to have pride in their traditions. They did so with such a positive attitude, that despite all of the centuries of differences between my culture and theirs, I felt immediately welcomed into the community. Lakota beliefs explore the concept of a simultaneous past, present, and future, a continuous moment of creation, in which all beings are interconnected. This concept helped me to replace the words “us and them” with a universal “us”, and realize that while we cannot change the actions of the past, we can mend and celebrate our relationships in the present.