Guest Blogger: Claire

Lakota girls posing for a picture.
The girls had a great time on their trip!

Hello again!  Only a few short weeks ago, I was writing about the upcoming Cultural Trip with the incoming eighth-grade girls.  I was very excited, because we had been planning for months, and I was eager to get on the road!

As the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.  The morning we left, we experienced a change in staff, kids, itinerary and vehicles.  Yikes!  We repacked our gear, reprinted our route, piled onto the mini-bus and headed out for a week of winging it.  This turned out to be a blessing.

Uncertainty is a great prioritizer.  Instead of focusing on where we were going to be and when, we shifted more towards how we were going to be and why.  Our first evening together, we did not do anything on our itinerary.  The world did not come to an end.

Instead of hurrying to get somewhere, we stopped to celebrate Cassidy’s birthday at the Golden Corral.  As luck would have it, Fr. Steve was able to join us.  Of course, we waited until he left the table to practice a Pinger Home birthday tradition: whipped cream in the face.  What, who, us?

We got to our campsite early, and spent the evening making prayer ties/prayer flags.  April guided the girls through the process, explaining the use of sage and tobacco and the connections between colors and directions.  Since Fr. Steve wasn’t able to join is for this, the girls decided they would each make him a prayer flag, that way he would have prayers for climbing Bear Butte too.  Praying together in this way built a sense of belonging, both to each other and to something bigger.  This was a very positive way to start of our journey together, talking about hopes and dreams, prayers and intentions.

Two girls and Fr. Steve at the top of Bear Butte.
“We made it to the top!”

Letting go of expectations and just being in the moment was an ongoing theme for the week.  The morning we met Fr. Steve at Bear Butte, it was so foggy that we actually drove past the mountain without seeing it.  The trails were wet and visibility was low, and we weren’t sure if we should attempt the climb in these conditions.

We just decided to carry our prayer ties and hike for however long we needed to.  Some of the girls got as far as the third switchback and had enough.  A few more kept on for quite a ways longer and then headed back as well.  Some girls just kept going.  A little further.  And then a little further.   Finally, we just committed to making it to the top.   There wasn’t much to see in the fog—no scenic overlooks, no way to trace the path ahead or behind.  What seemed disappointing at first turned out to be a gift. The fog actually made it easier to stay in the moment.  Having to focus on each step along the way meant not being distracted by what was “way over there.”   Not “having to” make it to the summit made it easier to enjoy the process of getting there.

We had similar experiences the following day at Mato Tipila, more commonly known as Devil’s Tower. The girls said “Let’s walk the long trail!”  (Is this ever a good idea?)   But it was sunny and bright, and it seemed like a lovely day to take the long road.  So off we went, pausing every so often to pose for pictures, pick sage or sniff the trees. (The pine trees smell like cinnamon rolls.  I kid you not.)

Hiking group at Devil's Tower.
We had a beautiful day at Devil’s Tower.

After about two hours, I admit I started to get a bit nervous.  It was hot, we hadn’t seen any other hikers for quite some time, and it seemed like we were not anywhere close to being done.  Ellie and I had just crested ANOTHER long hill, when a soft breeze picked up.  Ellie looked at me and said, “I think Grandfather is looking out for us.”  A minute later, two hikers passed us going in the opposite direction and assured us cheerfully that we were “almost there.”  Bless you, Ellie.

Sometimes setbacks opened up into opportunities: our dinner plans with friends of April’s fell through.  Instead, we were invited to an inipi  – sweat lodge.  Three girls who were nervous about trying something new decided to take a leap of faith and take part in the ceremony.

Other times, opportunities for learning and sharing arose spontaneously. While out walking, several of the girls started to ask about Lakota/Dakota names for the animals.  They shared phrases that they had learned from their grandmothers, or asked April, “How do you say….”

While touring United Tribes Technical College, one girl said,

“I hadn’t even thought about college before, but I can really see myself going here.”

Although we had times of being prayerful and serious, we rarely missed an opportunity to get silly—lip-syncing at passing traffic on the bus, setting marshmallows on fire, falling down on the trails, incessantly shouting “Inkpaduta!!”  Inkpaduta is the name of one of the quarries at Pipestone National Monument.  It really caught on.

I asked the girls what their favorite moments on the trip were.  Several responses involved someone falling on their behinds while hiking – they are eighth graders, after all. Other girls mentioned that they liked having a chance to participate in ceremony (inipi, prayer ties, sacred pipe).  Others liked seeing new places, especially Devil’s Tower.

For me, I needed the reminder that it was ok to let go and trust.  I could have faith that God would guide April and I, and that everything would work out the way it needed to.  I also needed to be reminded that we weren’t going this alone, that we had support from staff, family, friends and donors.  I’m already planning on going again next year … knock on wood!

Guest blogger: Claire

Today is the day!  After months of preparation, it is finally time to leave for the cultural trip with the 7th graders.  The boys and girls travel in separate groups, visiting significant cultural, spiritual and historical sites of the Lakota people.  I will be traveling with the girls, and we will be making a large loop through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota.

The purpose of this trip is to introduce the students to places that are important to their Native American culture.  More than just reading about things in a book, they can experience the power of these places up close.   An important component of this trip is daily journaling, so they can record their feelings and impressions for later.  If there comes a time in their lives when they need spiritual strength, they will know some of the places and traditions that can sustain them.  And it’s not all just “serious stuff.”  We get to do goofy camping stuff too, like cook out, tell ghost stories and chuck rocks into the crick.  This is an amazing group of kids, and it is great to spend time with them.

Dan looks like george Custer!
We think Dan might resemble George Custer a bit!

My companions on this journey will be April, a counselor here and a Dakota elder, and Dan, a houseparent and forensic anthropologist.  We will be accompanying 6 teenage girls on a 7 day, thousand mile quasi-camping trip.  In a mini-bus.  For those of you already moaning in sympathy, it is ok. We are professionals.  We can handle this.  We will be mostly cabin camping, which removes the logistical nightmare of pitching tents in the dark, or in a flood plain, or other such creepy things, while still being close to the great outdoors.  (Let the boys sleep under the stars or pitch tents on the prairie, or whatever.)  We will be doing a lot of hiking.  Did I mention I used to be a Girl Scout?  That means I can use a compass.  Of course Dan has GPS on his phone, so that’s a moot point.

The trip covers a lot of territory, but I will share some of the highlights.  On Saturday we will be climbing Bear Butte in the Black Hills.  This is very sacred site for many Native American tribes, and is a place where people may go for a hanbleceyavision quest.  April will teach the girls how to make prayer ties for the climb, and will carry a canupe – sacred pipe for a ceremony at the summit.  Fr. Steve will be joining us for this part of the trip, and will celebrate Mass with us when we get back to town.

We will visit another sacred site, Devil’s Tower, on our way to see the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Dan has done some analysis of artifacts from this site, and has lots of “really cool stuff” to share. (Normally, if Dan has “cool stuff” to share, you better not be eating, but this will probably be an exception.)  Other sites along the way are: Painted Canyons of North Dakota, On-a-Slant Village, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Pipestone National Monument.

This is a big undertaking, and an incredible opportunity for these kids. All you campers out there know what I mean.   I am so grateful to have the support of donors and benefactors so that we can make this happen. I am also thankful for all the prayers from friends and supporters for our safe travels.  Pilamaya!  Doksa!


A group of Native American girls on the top of Bear Butte!
Here’s a picture of last year’s group on the top of Bear Butte!