Last Monday and Tuesday we held our Opiciye Okizi (Healing Camp) for students who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Our Lakota
students were paired up with an adult—either a relative or a staff person—to accompany them throughout their time in camp. It was a time for using storytelling, ceremony and art to process feelings of loss. We took a holistic approach, addressing the spiritual, physical and emotional aspects of grieving. Family members were an important part of camp, and on-campus housing was provided for relatives who were coming from long distances to participate.
Several themes emerged as the camp progressed. One theme was that of heartstrings—the invisible and yet unbreakable connections between us and the people we love. As a group we made the world’s first known human dreamcatcher. We stood in a circle as Clare read the story of how the spirit Iktomi brought the dreamcatcher to the people. All the while, LaRayne wove a web among the members of the group connecting each person to everyone else because – Mitakuye Oyasin —we are all related. Later, we strung all our prayers for our loved ones together by making prayer ties out of red cloth and sage. These were tied together and hung outside in the branches of a pine tree.
Stories like these were important because they reminded us of who we are, where we came from and where we are going. Another traditional story about the origins of the Milky Way reminded us that we are not alone, and that those we love are always with us. Our Christian stories reminded us that death is not the end, and that we are going to be reunited with our loved ones in God’s embrace.
One underlying theme was the task of accepting things as they are. Nobody cries the same way, and there is no wrong way to grieve. Each person felt their loss in his or her own way and had a unique way of expressing that—laughter, tears, drawing, avoidance, writing, numbing out. As a group, we had to adjust to what worked or didn’t work for each person, and to treat each person’s process with respect. Sometimes that meant letting go of expectations about what an activity would look like, or how a group interaction would take shape.
We ended the day with the Wiping of the Tears, a Lakota ceremony for the end of the mourning period. A Dakota elder said a prayer and sang a song, while helpers offered each participant sage water and a ceremonial combing of the hair and wiping of tears. The ceremony provided a sense of closure to our camp, while reinforcing the sense of support and connection in the group.
I want to thank the people who made this camp possible—the family members and staff who gave of their time and of themselves to our students, the dying mother who requested this for her children back when camp started in 2003, the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center staff who were very gracious with the use of their space, and the many benefactors who support the work at St. Joseph’s Indian School. Wopila tanka, many thanks.