Making each Lakota (Sioux) child feel valued and special

St. Joseph's Indian School's 2012 chili cook-off winners!
Congratulations to this year's chili cook-off winners!

Cold weather has returned to our area and St. Joseph’s Indian School’s Human Resources organized our annual Chili Cook Off today. About 15 staff members made their best chili or soup and judges decided who gets bragging rights for the next year. It’s a fun, cold weather activity.  By the time I arrived in the skate room, the three award-winning crock-pots were empty. But there were plenty of other samples to treat for the taste buds. Our dining room prepared its own hearty chili, and Wisconsin Cheddar soup to make sure no one went away hungry. The crowd of staff who gathered lingered long to talk, eat and raise each others’ spirit.

In the evening, I was invited to the Afra Home (1st – 3rd grade girls). Ironically, what was on the menu? Chili dogs! But that was also balanced by fruits and vegetables. After supper, I listened to the children read for a while. A houseparent with 12 students to supervise may not have the ability to sit down with one or two students like that and the girls relished the individual attention. While we deal with a number of children, it’s our goal to make each feel valued and special.

Preperation at St. Joseph’s Indian School

In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate and kick off the beginning of our new strategic plan. Aaron is filming a video to give some visual images about our mission, vision and core values. Graduation is one of our highest values, and we gathered up the 8th graders who will be receiving their diplomas in just a few months. They got excited as they put on cap and gown and mugged for the camera. They dreamed about what will be the next goal they set their minds to.  A few of the American Indian students were here as tiny first graders when I first started here eight years ago.

The actual filming took only a couple of minutes. The set up, with lighting and equipment took much longer. And before the setup, Aaron had to have an idea of what he wanted to show and get everyone’s schedules arranged to be together at that particular time. It reminded me that so often in life, preparation time we put in beforehand really determines if something we do will be successful or not.

I stopped in for supper at the Crane Home (high school girls). It’s hard to find a night when most of the high school students are home at the same time, but Wednesday’s the local schools don’t schedule evening activities so the churches in the community can have religious education time. Still, I visited the young women in shifts as they came and went from other activities – basketball practice, play practice and tutoring appointments. A few of the students are preparing to celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation soon, and had scheduled interviews with Fr. Anthony. They ate in shifts, and I did get a little time with each of the students. The time with any individual was too brief. I just hope that being present and letting them know I’m interested in how school and life is going, builds a rapport for a time when they might want to talk or share more.

Do you walk in heaven?

We have finally gotten our expected winter snows and cold spell. The schools in town had a two-hour late start, but with all our Native American students right here on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus, we began as usual. While most of us grumble at the cold and endure, the kids who got new sleds for Christmas are very excited and were out in force on the slope leading down to the football field after school today.

When I stopped by Religion Class for the 1st grade, Basil asked me,

“Do you walk in heaven?”

I replied,

“Not yet, but hopefully one day.”

I’m never sure what kind of images go through the mind of a seven-year old. At least they’re not embarrassed to ask the questions that do come to mind, which is refreshing and prompts me to look more closely at my beliefs.

We had 12 of our 39 high school students make the first semester honor roll at Chamberlain High School. Many others came close and certainly improved their GPA from last year. Congratulations to the students who put in the study hours, and those staff who’ve worked so hard to point (and sometimes push) them in the right direction.

We’re starting to work on budgets, and one of the first tasks is to look ahead at all the building and maintenance issues that would be included in capital expenses. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we are able make changes on campus each year. We always do regular upgrades and maintenance, but every year need to discern what buildings and equipment have been fixed and repaired so often that they need either replacement or a total renovation. We start out with a big wish list, then have to prioritize and make some decisions based on the rest of our programs budgetary needs.

While we just started the new semester two weeks ago, we’re already working ahead and trying to firm up next year’s school calendar. What makes it tricky is that while our high school students attend the Chamberlain public school, we are never quite on the same schedule. We have more days of school, trying to give our students more time for mastery of their academic subjects. We don’t take off many federal holidays during the school year. Even during the breaks and vacations, we often have break homes to accommodate students who want or need to stay on campus. Luckily Karla is an able administrator able to keep up with those details and give us some solid drafts to consider.

Another successful donor luncheon

Mia, Zoey, Fr. Steve and friends at the California donor luncheon.
Everyone had a great time at St. Joseph's Indian School's donor luncheon.

We arrived back home this evening after a lovely weekend trip to Napa, California for donor appreciation luncheons. Mia (8th grade) and Zoey (7th) took their first airplane flight, which was just the beginning of exciting new experiences and wonderful people we met along the way.

We flew in and out of San Francisco. Once we landed, we made our way to the edge of the Pacific Ocean so Mia and Zoey could get their feet wet and see the majesty and vastness reaching forever into the horizon. The waves were tall, and sent spray high into the air as they crashed onto the rocky coast. At first the girls were reluctant to approach the waves. After I made a couple of dashes and Denise kicked off her shoes and waded into the foam at the edge, they got up the nerve to venture out. Once they did, giggling and fascinated, they didn’t want to leave.

We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, which is an awesome experience in itself and visited the Carmelite Sisters in San Rafael. They have been praying for our Lakota (Sioux) students for a long time and when they learned we would be in the area, invited us to stop for dinner and a visit. A life of prayer, hermitages and long periods of solitude is so different from what most of us experience, but testifies so strongly to each of us being able to deepen a real and sustaining personal relationship with God. The sisters showed great joy and hospitality as we sat down to a tasty meal in a dining room still vibrant and colorful with many Christmas decorations.

Our donors drove in from a wide circle, some as far as two hours away. A few have gotten the chance to visit South Dakota, but the vast majority only know us through the mail or internet, and were pleased to put some real people to the pictures they’ve seen. For me it’s also a great opportunity to say pilamaya thank you in a more personal way than through a letter. We ran into two donors who were totally surprised. One woman from Illinois was in the area for vacation and happened to be staying at the hotel. She was tickled to meet us. At the hotel reception desk, we found out that one of the workers there is also a St. Joseph’s Indian School donor. While we set up for the luncheon our two students went back to the front desk and presented her with a cloth St. Joseph tote bag and a powwow booklet as a way of saying thanks to her.

Everyone posing for a picture!
The kids had a great time sightseeing too!

After the luncheons on Saturday, we took a short drive through the area countryside. Even though the vines are not blooming right now, there is still such a beauty on the slopes and hills. The site our students, however, were most interested in, was the mall, where they got shop for souvenirs for family and some clothes for themselves.

Sunday evening we were back in San Francisco and stopped in at Fisherman’s Wharf, which is such a colorful, active place. Watching the girls delight in seeing Sea Lions was one of those priceless moments for me. We walked to Ghirardelli Square and of course sampled some chocolates. The line to the cable cars was quite long, so we just looked and took our picture by one of them. Kory was bold and did drive us up and down some of the famous hills of San Francisco as we wove our way back to the airport. Lots of good people and good memories.

God’s love during the Christmas season

I hope that all of you had a Merry Christmas and through the love of family and friends, felt the love of God as well.

After three days with no one other than Fr. Bernie and I around, campus is gradually coming back to life. Two break homes opened on Monday. About 15 high school students who are in sports are back, along with a few younger students who have a need to be here. Yesterday Laura, one of our custodians, made her usual 7:30 a.m. stop at the high school home to empty trash and accidentally set off the alarms! During the school year, students are already up and on their way to school by then. With the holiday schedule, they were all still sleeping, and when she opened the doors the horns and whistles started blaring. Our students got out of bed much quicker than normal – maybe something the houseparents can keep in mind for the future!

The week before and after Christmas brings different rhythms to St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus. Some days are frenzied, others so very quiet. Last week, our grade school youth were home for break, but our high school students stayed through Thursday. Stress levels were high as the students took exams and finished the final semester projects and papers. I could see the visible signs of relief on their faces as families came to campus to pick them up for vacation.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

My holiday temptation toward over-eating had several worthy opportunities. Our facilities department had their annual holiday luncheon on Tuesday. They can be proud of the quality and quantity of projects they can say they accomplished as they look back over the past year.

The development office had their Christmas pot-luck on Thursday. The fall pot-luck features a lot more fresh vegetables from the garden, while this spread was filled with dishes that you need to eat in moderation, but I don’t always have the will power not to fill your plate.

While the campus is quieter without children around for a few days, many of our staff are still hard at work. We have thank-you’s to send to the many generous donors we heard from during Christmas. With the homes empty for a few days, it’s a good chance for the fix up projects that are too noisy or messy to otherwise do.

On the partial list for facilities this week:

  • Painting several rooms in the school
  • Removal of old storage tank in boiler room
  • Tile and freezer floor work in the Dining Hall
  • Changing many – many – many air filters around campus
  • Spray for Bed Bugs

Also on the list is snow removal – but we haven’t had much of the white stuff yet. The mild weather has allowed us to focus on other projects, especially the Stevens & Matthias Home remodeling.

The milder weather has also let the outside construction contractor to make good progress on the Iya Tokeya InajinThey Stood Here in the Beginning – Alumni building. This week and last they have put up support columns and attached the aluminum studs. The frame of a building  going up is one of the most noticeable and dramatic parts of any project.

Last week, three members of our committee took a drive to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to make some decisions about concrete castings to be used for the exterior. A four-hour round trip for a half hour meeting seems like a lot, but in South Dakota we get used to the mileage. What we don’t have too often is traffic. My brother, who lives in Chicago, can get stuck in traffic that long going but a fraction of the distance. With the good company of Tom (facilities) and Dixie (museum director) our conversation made the miles fly quickly by.

On Christmas Eve, I traveled north to the parish in Stephan, on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation. When we don’t have campus masses, I enjoy returning to the area parishes I used to serve. Christmas is a wonderful time in small towns to see the extended clans and I caught up with many people who have moved away, but came home for the holidays.

Because of a larger than expected crowd, we completely ran out of hosts and I had to break the last few I had into tiny fragments. But I suppose even a little bit of Christ can do a lot for people who believe.

I hope Christmas services strengthened people’s faith and experience of God’s love.

On Christmas Day, I did the cooking and invited all our area SCJ parish priests to relax at our community house after a long weekend of Masses.

This week, I have very few meetings. The end of the year gives me a chance to clear the desk and dispatch with the 15 and 20 minute projects I pushed aside in the pre-holiday rush and also have time for some of the long-range planning that we’re in the midst of.



Another lovely tradition

Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel hosted the Chamberlain Area Churches Choir as they graced the space by singing an uplifting Christmas Cantata. This is the third year the community has gathered for the event, which gets better attended each year as word spreads. The singing and Christmas story “The Love of God” certainly helped lift my spirits and place me more deeply in the Christmas spirit. Afterwards fellowship and Christmas goodies were shared in our skateroom. My only regret was that our Native American youth weren’t around to be able to share in such a lovely tradition.


Loom beadwork of our Native American youth

Native American loom beading.
Native American loom beading.

Every year, I get to teach an area of Lakota (Sioux) culture that is close to my hands and heart-loom beading.

The 7th grade class has begun the task of learning what it takes to make those beautifully created drops for regalia, barrettes, hair ties, name plates, bracelets and whatever other ideas the kids come up with in their minds and hearts.

We begin with looking at some old and new pieces of beadwork so that the kids can see examples of what they can make.  Some of these items are decades old and some are as new as last year. I also encourage our Native American youth to take a deeper look at any piece of beadwork they come in contact with in their world.

My objectives are many.  I want the kids to connect culture to their hearts, of course; but also to see the difference between designs from tribe to tribe.  Our Lakota (Sioux) designs are very geometric and math is a big part of loom beading.  Counting, centering, dividing, designing, measuring and creating are all a part of this project.  I also encourage understanding the colors and what they may mean to different tribes, individuals and cultures.  The final product is very rewarding for me and the students.  The loom pieces are given as gifts, worn or used for themselves and some are sold to staff for a little extra spending money.  This is also a part of the objectives.  This is an art our culture has done for generations and it can be a money-making venture for someone who is motivated and educated to embrace that challenge and talent.

From here, the students create or find a design they draw out on graph paper.  Next is learning to string the loom appropriately and accurately. I tell the students that the hardest part is threading their needle and putting the first row of beads on their loom (which were made by our very own maintenance department elves in the workshop here on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus).  From here, the possibilities are endless.  It is an art you love or don’t.  Many of our students love it.

Today, I am waiting for a response from Fr. Steve who is attending the Lakota Nation Invitation conference in our beautiful Paha Sapa/Black Hills.  I submitted two pieces of loom beadwork from our school and I am hoping for a ribbon to hang by their stocking upon returning from Christmas Break.

Wanikiye taampetu!=Jesus’s birthday/Christmas

LaRayne, Native American Studies Teacher 1st -8th  grades

Here's a beautiful piece from one of our students!
Here's a beautiful piece from one of our students!

Christmas plans

During break time, Carla in the Development Office organized a fun social – sharing popcorn and a good book we’ve recently enjoyed. We were invited to bring along the book to pass along to others after we’d wet their appetite with a preview. I haven’t done a book report nearly as recently as most of our Native American youth, but I do enjoy reading. While we only had a few reports this first time around, it was a worthy effort and enlightening to hear about the different worlds of imagination and fact that others enjoy.

An expectant mother called asking if we had any more “baby bundles”. I wasn’t sure exactly what that was, so I checked with Mary Jane. Since she works with our alumni, she is also a good resource to help out people with such needs. One church from out-of-state has been sending us some nice handmade afghans, and this woman’s cousin received one of those, with some Pampers and baby food wrapped inside. We actually do have a few more to give out, so maybe we’ve started a trend.

I visited Pinger Home (6th-8th grade girls) for supper. I asked the girls at my table if they had any Christmas plans. One 6th grader told me she was excited because her mom was coming home.

“Where has she been?”

I wondered if she was away for work or school.  The answer that came back was sobering.

“In prison.”

That is a sad reality for a good number of our students. I can only hope what led her to that point won’t be repeated and she can once again be supportive of her children.

On my way across campus, I noticed a larger number of cars at the Rec Center than normal, and I checked in on the activity.  The high school girls had a basketball game at the Armory in town, and the high school boys needed a place to practice. We have about 8 of our students on the teams, and the coach brought the crew over here to use our gym. I watched the coach at work for a while. He took his time and while teaching the offensive set, helped the players to think and learn, which is what good coaches do. Someone who rants and raves is more likely to make players afraid of making mistakes instead of constantly getting better by thinking through what they’ve done, and learning from mistakes.


Parade of Lights

We are just returning from our Thanksgiving break here at St. Joseph’s Indian School.  I hope everyone enjoyed their break and spending the holiday with their friends and family.  Last week, here at St. Joseph’s, a few of our staff were preparing a float to enter into the Chamberlain Parade of Lights festivities.  With the theme being, “12 Days of Christmas” our float entry was the first day of Christmas.  Does anyone remember what was asked on the first day of Christmas?

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me…. A partridge in a pear tree.

St. Joseph's Indian School's float, "A partridge in a pear tree".
St. Joseph's Indian School's float, "A partridge in a pear tree".

There was a parade committee that gathered to put their heads together to come up with the wonderful idea for the float.  However, our facilities grounds supervisor, Foster, was what I would call the leader of the group.  Foster put in a lot of time working and building the float for the parade, along with many other facilities staff to help create his masterpiece.  The float looked wonderful all lit up, with the famous Partridge Family song “I Think I Love You” being played as they drove it down the main street of Chamberlain, South Dakota.

Some of the Native American youth here at St. Joseph’s Indian School that stayed on campus in our break home also got to help out and participate in the parade.  There were some students that got to ride on the float and some of them walked alongside and handed out dreamcatchers to all the spectators.  Can you imagine what fun it was for these children to participate in something like this?  They were able to help out and be a part of something with their “St. Joseph’s Family”.  Great fun was had by all!

‘Tis the holiday season, so we just want to wish everyone a Happy Holidays!!

– St. Joseph’s Indian School Facilities Department