For the next couple of days, the RAs, along with past and current members of the community, will offer a reflection on their past service trips through the CCSJ.
I was lucky enough to go to the Rosebud reservation, specifically to the town of Hedog, SD. Anyone who has read Lakota Women will recognize this as Mary Crow Dog’s hometown, but, beyond that, most people probably don’t have a clue where it is at. So, courtesy of google, here’s a handy map:
Rosebud isn’t the closest reservation to Omaha, nor the most well known. It is, however, a large reservation, encompassing something like 2,000 square miles. Perhaps the most notable trivia is that The Price is Right host Bob Barker grew up there. The first thing that strikes someone entering the town is the exceptional poverty. 78% of the population lies below the poverty line, including with 84.4% of children. Across the span of a year, the average person makes less than $3000. . I have never traveled outside of our country, though I have to imagine that the simple, dilapidated houses lining the rutted dirt roads could be interchanged a similar scene in many places in the developing world.
The eight of us stayed in a res house, shared with us by a Teach for America volunteer and his family. He taught kindergarten in the Hedog School down the road, where each of us volunteered during the day
hours, helping in a classroom or in the school kitchen. Personally, I spent the week in Mrs. Mullin’s fifth grade class, where I helped
with reading, technology skills, math, and (unimaginably) with PE classes.
The classroom was an experience counter to anything I’d experienced in school; there were twenty some students enrolled in the class, but it was a ‘good day’ when only 6 were absent. Normal attendance hovered around 50%. Reading skills varied widely, with some fifth graders barely literate, others, about where they should be; this was a symptom of a South Dakota law stating children cannot be held back without parental consent — a consent rarely given.
Many people would argue schools like this are underfunded, and that more money would solve the issue; this clearly was not the case. Here, each student had a macbook laptop, each classroom a teacher and teacher’s assistant, the school a modern computer lab, music department, and cultural education — everything, really, you could want in a grade school. Clearly, there was money, but also, clearly, a real deficiency to provide sufficient education. Reflecting to try and understand the questions posed by the nearly universal poverty and our experiences at the school was some of the most meaningful and challenging time spent.
But we did more than just tutor; for me the impacting time was that we spent in the community each evening. We would make a dinner and provide it to the community, and get to share in each person’s story, even if just for a few moments. We concluded our litany of meals with a pizza party in Hedog for all of the children. By just being present, sharing our time and ability fully, actively, and consciously,
we helped to make the day just a little better for those who came, and, in the process, learned a whole lot more about ourselves.
As we were there, we also participated in some cultural immersion, notably a sweat lodge ceremony. The ceremony starts with making prayer flags, small, bright colored pieces of fabric which encase a small piece of tobacco, symbolizing the prayers your wish to offer in the ceremony.
At the ceremony grounds, we enter the low-slung lodge, a dome made of hides and blankets ,sharing the ubiquitous prayer and affirmation matake oyasin (tr. all my relatives, or roughly, ‘all things holy’) with the medicine man. Hanging from the carefully curved willow are our prayed flags, which stand in start, colorful contrast to the drab grey of the lodge’s covering. Rocks, heated in a sacred fire, are brought into the lodge on a shovel and then manipulated into place using an antler, and the lodge is sealed from outside light; the only light remaining is a ethereal orange glow from the searing rocks and occasional flashes of light as tobacco is spread across them. Traditional chants, given life by a few voices, echo through the lodge, rhythmic and identifiable — familiar, even. At the end of each round, water is poured across the rocks, taking the heat and amplifying it with steam. Following three rounds of this, each person shared their intentions, and then a pipe of peace. When I exited, it was to a setting sun and rolling clouds. Deep from the recess of my mind, I muttered ee cummings’s “now the ears of my ears awake,and now the eyes of my eyes are opened”, a phrase I had long forgotten but seemed to perfectly fit the moment. However the moment be described, it was a moment of temporal kairos — a moment of divinity, a moment of true life, and something that I will forever cherish.
The experience was one of my first truly formative ones in Cortina; it lead me to even more formative experiences at my service site, with my companion, in Pilsen, Il and at the School of the Americas protest.
Borrowing the idea from Nate, this was written to:
Ben Sollee, The Prettiest Tree on the Mountain, How to See the Sun Rise and A Few Honest Words
Yo Yo Ma, Yo Yo Ma Plays Morricone, Gabriel’s Oboe
Seth Lakeman, Lady of the Sea
Mercedes Sosa, Solo le Pido a Dios