Mimicking the movement of the birds circling above Wisdom Circle on October 4, students and staff at St. Joseph’s Indian School did the same below on the dewy morning grass.
At the center of the circle stood Fr. Greg Schill, St. Joseph’s Chaplain. He announced the purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment.
After leading the group in prayer, Fr. Greg performed an animal blessing to some of the four-legged who grace St. Joseph’s campus every day. It was a way to recognize, “all animals should be treated with kindness and the dignity they deserve.”
The first blessing was for the horses. The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes represented at St. Joseph’s regard animals on a deep level. In particular, they revere the šúŋkawakȟán — horse — for its grace, bravery and ability to assist in healing from trauma, anxiety, and mental and emotional distress.
This was part of the reason why St. Joseph’s launched an Equine Therapy program in 2018. Ever since, the horses have been taking on any trauma, grief or pain for students and helping them release it. To shower the horses with gratitude, Fr. Greg patted drops of Holy Water on their foreheads, before turning his attention to the dogs.
The šúŋka — dog — has long played an important role in Native American society and culture. Before the arrival of the horses to the Great Plains, Native Americans relied heavily on dogs for a variety of tasks. Although the relationship has morphed over time, the connection remains strong, and Fr. Greg again trickled drops of Holy Water on the dogs to bless them.
Tia Fontenot, a houseparents at St. Joseph’s, brought her dog, Andy, to the blessing. She said blessing Andy — the small but spunky Yorkshire Terrier — and the other animals was a perfect way to show how much they are considered family at St. Joseph’s.
“Animals play such an integral role on campus. Whether in the homes, at the school or in counseling sessions, they are a part — big or small — in everything we do and provide support to all of our students,” said Fontenot.
Fontenot recalled a memory when Andy sat outside a girl’s room on campus, even though he’s usually right under her feet.
“When he does this, we know it’s because he’s picking up on something going on inside the person behind the door. In those circumstances, almost every time it’s because there’s a girl who needs extra support from feeling homesickness, nerves or anything else. He gives to the students by helping them cope.”
Fontenot is right. Whether the animal is a part of HAPI Homes or the Equine Therapy program at St. Joseph’s, they all do one thing the same without fail: they continually give back.
Providing the animals with a blessing on the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi was a special way to give back to them in return.
Learn more about how animals are making a difference at St. Joseph’s Indian School by visiting www.stjo.org.