On a fair-weather Tuesday in May, the 18 seventh-grade students of St. Joseph’s Indian School prayed and smudged before embarking on the trip that has become a spiritual and cultural rite of passage. The journey prepares them to become leaders at school and in life.
Months of preparation included learning about the cultural, spiritual and historical significance of their Lakota ancestors’ sacred sites on the trip: Matȟó Pahá (Bear Butte), Phešlá (Bald Area), Heȟáka Sapa He (Black Elk Peak), Tȟašúŋke Witkó Memorial (Crazy Horse), Matȟó Thípila (Bear’s Lodge or Devils Tower), Wašúŋ Wičhóniya Wakȟáŋ (Wind Cave), Pheži Slá Okíčhize Owáŋka, (Battle of Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn), Čhaŋkpé Ópi (Wounded Knee).
Students also read Joseph Marshall III’s classic, “In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse,” a fictional story of a Lakota boy and his grandfather who made a similar trip with a similar purpose. In the book, Grandpa Nyles tells his grandson the trip is about “places where Crazy Horse and our ancestors walked. We occupied the same space they did, saw the same kind of plants, heard the same kind of birds. The only thing separating us is time.”
Coincidentally, Marshall was taping a podcast at the school the day before students departed on the trip. He made time to visit with them and share his experiences of growing up. The result was a spontaneous book signing of each student’s copy of “In the Footsteps” that brightened eyes and warmed hearts.
In their travels, the boy’s group shared a moving experience on top of Matȟó Pahá. As they reached the summit, what had been a pleasant ascent became shrouded in fog.
“Suddenly, we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us, and then we were pelted with sleet and snow,” said chaperone Trond, health and wellness coach at the school.
Ben Rhodd of the Rosebud Tribal Historic Preservation Office explained their butte-top experience:
The cloud coming to envelop the children and yourselves was a blessing by Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. The old ones said that when you see a cloud surrounding the top of a mountain, or it comes and covers you as you ascend, it is cleansing you for the day as the spirits/angels are praying within and preparing you to speak your petition/prayer. The sleet wants to help everyone understand that travails are in life, that sometimes your doing isn’t going to be easy and that there may be some adversity.
Rhodd met the students at Phešlá and told them how it was there that Crazy Horse learned to be a warrior by observing the lizard, mole and dragonfly.
St. Joseph’s seventh-grader Memphis recalled that his grandmother always wanted him to make it to the top of Matȟó Pahá. Before she passed, she told him it was spiritual to her.
“I told myself I wouldn’t make it,” he said. “But I kept pushing myself, and I did.”
The groups from St. Joseph’s Indian School traveled separately, 10 boys and eight girls. This split is in keeping with the traditional instruction in ways of maturing. On this 15th anniversary trip, the boys led prayers and songs at each sacred site they visited this year. Each day concluded by gathering in a circle, where students reflected on the day’s experiences and their implications for their understanding of leadership.
To learn more about the Lakota culture, please visit www.stjo.org/culture.