St. Joseph’s Indian School’s spelling bee

Fr. Steve and the kids participating in the Spelling Bee.
The Spelling Bee was challenging, but a lot of fun for everyone!

Our school gym was filled with our Native American students competing in the annual Spelling Bee. We have two sections of each grade, so earlier competition produced the three best spellers in each class. Fr. Anthony and I were the official word readers, and alternated between the grades. Spelling Bees tend to throw in some obscure and complicated words, some of which I had no clue what they meant or how to pronounce them. I was glad that Scripps sends along a definition and pronunciation guide. A few of the grades were quickly decided, but some went back and forth for many rounds. I felt sorry for the kids who knew how to spell the words but froze up in front of the crowd. A few of the younger students got a case of the giggles, which made it hard for them to concentrate. We cheered everyone on, win or lose. The winners now advance to the regional competition at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

I wandered around St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus this morning checking out our building projects. Workers placed the 65 foot wooden beam on top of the Akta Lakota Museum expansion. Our own facilities crew is making steady progress on the Stevens and Matthias Home remodeling. One home is ready for the ceramic tiles to be laid in the bathroom and kitchen area. Even our heavy equipment garage is getting an upgrade – finally insulated after all these years. It will make it much easier to get the snow plow and tractor fired up on frigid mornings when they are most needed.

The Hogebach Home (high school girls) eat in shifts because everyone gets home from school, practice and work at different times. The houseparents filled me in on their comings and goings. As the students came home, I had a few moments to ask how each one was doing. Some of the students share readily and talk about many things. Others keep more to themselves. I try to engage them in topics I think they might want to share, listen attentively when they do speak and patiently accept the quiet when they don’t feel like saying much.

Students demonstrating our core values

Our morning prayer service to begin Catholic Schools Week was an opportunity for us to introduce our new strategic plan campus wide. Aaron, in our marketing department, filmed different events on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus, and created an effective visual of staff and students demonstrating our core values in everyday life – Faith, Collaboration, Integrity, Stewardship, Respect and Excellence. I’m proud to be a part of St. Joseph’s Indian School, and viewing the video with all our staff and students made me even more proud of what we are working on together as a community.

Before introducing the new vision and plan, I thanked everyone for the work they’ve done over the past four years to bring much of our current plan to fruition. The work we do now will lay a stronger foundation for future generations of students and staff, so that they can build on what we do today, and take St. Joseph’s forward in creative and exciting new ways.

All of St. Joseph's Indian School's youth durning Catholic Schools Week.
All the students smiling big during Catholic Schools Week.

After the staff went back to work, the students remained behind so we could take a school picture with everyone on the bleachers. Emily, our photographer, is good with the kids, and after everyone is well-behaved and she gets the pictures she needs, she lets everyone get a little wild for a fun snapshot, which the students love.

We had 5th and 6th grade basketball games after school against Crow Creek, which is the Indian reservation where perhaps 20% of our students are from.  There were families in the stands rooting for kids on both sides of the ball. After the games, I was slated to visit Cyr Home (4th-5th grade boys) for supper. One of the students, Ben, invited his family to stay for supper, so the ranks were swelled by six more guests. Paula, the houseparent who was cooking, found out just a few minutes beforehand. She has learned to be very accommodating and flexible. She took out a container of leftovers, opened up a couple more cans of fruit, and served smaller portions, but it stretched around to satisfy everyone at the table and the family had a nice visit.

Some of our students see their families regularly. For others, it doesn’t happen all that often. But we try our best to make families welcome whenever they are able to stay.

A part of St. Joseph’s Indian School

I spent most of the day working on finances and budgets, not too exciting but necessary to keep things running well. Thankfully we have such good and dedicated people in the Development Office that think ahead. Much of our discussion right now is planning for a future where postage costs are going to be higher and services probably curtailed. Since anyone reading this blog is already internet friendly, we really see this as a continued opportunity. While online giving grows every year, many of our donors are still more comfortable with standard mail, so a gradual transition will take some time. Instead of taking months to design, print and mail a newsletter, we can have a photo and article posted online the next day. It can save us both time and money and get interactive updates out in a timely way.

We want folks to feel a part of what happens on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus, even at a distance.

In the evening I talked with Daylon and Erica, high school students chosen to speak at our donor luncheons in Miami on March 21 and April 1. They were both incredibly excited and look forward to meeting and thanking our donors in that area, and sharing some of their experiences at St. Joseph.

I also stopped in the Carola Home (HS boys) to visit the walking wounded from the ski trip. I think their egos were bruised as much as muscles, but they are eager to try again!

78 years young today

The kids playing outside in the winter snow.
The kids at St. Joseph's Indian School love to play in the snow.

We got an icy drizzle on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus today that turned the sidewalks into skating rinks for a while. Staff and students alike had to be very careful. We got word that the Carola Home (high school boys) took their annual skiing trip to the Black Hills yesterday. There were a couple harsh wipe outs, it’s a good thing our boys are tough. After mass the younger students on campus flocked to our hills by the football field, which give a fun ride, but nothing compared to the slopes in the beautiful Black Hills.

Fr. Bernie turned 78 years young today, so we took him out to dinner for his birthday. With the roads still worrisome (and maybe with some folks staying home for football playoffs) the normally hopping Al’s Oasis, which can seat hundreds, had just eleven patrons dining when we arrived. D’Kera, one of our high school students was waitressing, and had only two tables in the two hours she had been on duty. Having safely arrived, we sat down to a nice feast and good conversation to celebrate the many years of faithful service Fr. Bernie has given.

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.

Native American student Christmas celebration

All of our Lakota youngsters had a great time!
All of our Lakota youngsters had a great time!

As our Native American students return from Christmas break, St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus begins to come alive again!  It’s great to see the smiling faces and to visit with students about their holidays and break.

The students returned on Monday anticipating the Student Christmas Celebration, which was held on Sunday.  As houseparents wrapped the gifts and placed them under the tree, students began to guess what might be inside.  The weekend was full of fun activities, such as Friday night movies, rec center gatherings and walks to downtown Chamberlain.  Yes, South Dakota’s unseasonably warm temps allowed homes to take walks, play at parks, and shoot hoops outside!

Students scurried to prepare for Sunday’s Mass, especially the fifth graders as they had a special role acting out the Christmas Epiphany.  They came dressed as angels, shepherds, wise men and the blessed holy family – so full of excitement and energy!  The Lady of our Sioux Chapel was full that Sunday as many additional staff was in attendance to celebrate with the students.  Fr. Steve and Fr. Anthony said a beautiful mass as the students gazed.  Students were a little quicker to process out, looking forward to lunch at their home, games and the opening of gifts!

As I floated in and out of different homes, it was obvious that the ‘Christmas Spirit’ was present …  I thought about how blessed we are to be part of the St. Joseph’s Indian School mission and the many gifts that are present in our daily lives because of this.  While the gifts were wrapped and under the tree that day, we must not take for granted the many gifts that are present throughout the year because of your support…   Pilamayathank you!

PS – Watch a short video of the St. Joseph’s Indian School’s youngsters opening presents and saying, “pilamaya – thank you” here!

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.



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!

A visit with my oncologists

Checking in, checking up, checking out!

I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and today is a day to do laundry and repack my bags for the next trip. We’re going to Pittsburgh for donor appreciation luncheons and I’m sure I’ll have a few good stories to tell after our return.

Last night, I returned from the Mayo Clinic after follow-up tests and visits with my oncologists. Thanks be to God, my cancer is still in remission, and I won’t have to return for another checkup for in six months.

Thank you for your prayers and support.

Overall, I’ve generally been feeling good. Still, I had a touch of anxiety heading for the check ups because I didn’t feel ill when they discovered the cancer in the first place. As I drove into Rochester, instead of sickly feelings, my memories of people who visited me in the hospital and at Hope Lodge, places we ate and conversations we had. I recalled fellow patients who offered their support. As I walked through the halls for my appointments, I remembered the initial visits, not knowing my way around, not knowing quite what to expect. Through the grace of God I’ve come a long way.

Like many of us who hit middle age, the doctor did notice rising levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and told me to take it easy on the holiday sweets and treats. He said I need to adjust my eating habits, (and take to heart the healthy school lunch challenge that St. Joseph’s Indian School earned!) and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and keep sugars and saturated fats to a minimum. He also said, the nerves in my leg have probably healed about as much as they’re going to. I’ll have to give up on fast breaks and stick to a set shot. But all in all, he was very happy with the progress I’ve made.

I enjoyed the gracious hospitality at St. John’s parish, which is literally across the street from the Mayo Clinic. Fr. Jerry and Fr. John have made it a home-away-from-home when I go for check-ups. At the 12:10 mass, I ran into a couple of St. Joseph’s donors who assured me of their continued prayers and a woman who herself was visiting the clinic for cancer treatments. We promised to keep each other in our prayers. My own brush with this illness has made me more aware of others struggling with health issues. I continue to hear from many people each day, requesting prayers and I am very mindful of all those in need of healing.

The drive is long, about 350 miles each way. But after the good news, I traveled back on eagles wings, with spirits soaring.

Back on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus, I noticed that three boys, in one family, have been checked out for an extended period of time, and asked if they were going to withdraw. Their home is two hours distant and their grandmother has been critically ill. They’ve gone back home to be of support to her. But they’ve done well at St. Joseph’s and definitely want to stay. They hope to be able to return after Christmas break. In the meantime, our teachers have been sending work home where an aunt is home schooling them for these weeks.

I thought that was a creative and compassionate solution that lets them be with family at such an important time.