St. Joseph’s Indian School recently hosted students Marie and Luci, and their chaperone Blandine from
Chateauxroux, France. Cultural exchanges like this are exciting, since it gives our Lakota (Sioux) students a chance to see a world that is different from their own. Since I speak a little French, I accompanied our visitors on several occasions. Though they needed very little help with translation, some of our customs seemed unusual to them.
In Native American Studies class, Blandine shared a book about the Berry region of France, and the students listened with interest. They had questions about holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving –which the French don’t celebrate. (No trick or treats? No pumpkin pie? Say what?) Our students wanted to know how long French school days were, and what French people liked to eat, and whether there were buffalo in France. In Art class they got to try the French craft of scoubidou (braiding plastic thread into lanyards).
In turn, it was fun to show off some of the finer examples of Lakota culture that are incorporated into our curriculum—the reading of the Our Father in Lakota every morning, and the singing of the Lakota Flag Song. Our French visitors got to see some regalia and watch some dancing. I was proud of our students when they demonstrated traditional greetings and phrases in Lakota.
Then our visitors wanted to see the Indian Reservations where many of our students live. This was a bit uncomfortable at times. On one hand, it was important for them to see where the kids come from and why they need to be at St. Joseph’s Indian School. On the other hand, I felt protective and a little bit defensive.
Driving past some of the burned-out houses was awkward. When I looked through the eyes of our visitors, I saw homes in disrepair, gang graffiti, trash and scary Halloween decorations (which didn’t really help matters any).
Many students resent a blighted picture being painted of their homes, and I can understand this. I wanted to explain that this may be where people live but is certainly not all of who they are. I wanted to bridge the gap between the beautiful cultural lessons of the classroom and the ugly landscape of the Rez, but I couldn’t. There was too much history here, and too much despair. My pitiful French wasn’t up to the task of expressing it. I was grateful for the compassion on the eyes of our guests.
Some parts of the reservations are quite beautiful, with sweeping views of the hills and river valley. We visited Big Bend, a place where the river makes a tight loop, leaving a spit of land only a few miles across. There we toured an earth lodge – a reproduction of a typical Mandan home – like those that would have been found on this site a few centuries ago. Then we hiked up the hills to a high point where we could see for miles around.
Maybe the best part of having visitors was the gift of being able to stop and see the work of St. Joseph’s with fresh eyes.
I saw the contrast between the plight on the reservations and the calming structure of our homes and school. I saw the strong, positive connections between staff and students. Since our visitors were also benefactors, I was also keenly aware of what sacrifices they made in order to be able to provide these good things to our students.
At their school in France, students gave up one meal during Lent and ate only rice. The money they saved they sent to St. Joseph’s Indian School as a gift.
I want to thank them, and all our benefactors, for making our school possible.