Indian reservation bus tour

Indian reservation bus tour.
The group listens to our tour guide John, as he shares Native American history and cultural information!

Donors started arriving last evening to get their powwow information packets in preparation for our activity-packed event. Many have come from long distances out-of-state. For some, it is their first trip to South Dakota. Because our donors ask many questions and want to learn more about our area, we tried something new this year – a bus tour of the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Indian Reservations.

We had room for 50 guests, and interest was very high. We filled up right away and couldn’t take any more sight seers. John, a St. Joseph’s alumnus who grew up in Crow Creek, served as our tour guide. While on the road, he mixed historical and cultural background with corny humor to educate and entertain.

Our first stop was St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fort Thompson. We had coffee, juice and rolls, and a chance to ask questions of Sister Charles, who has worked with Native people for over 50 years, and Deacon Steve, a Lakota from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation who now ministers in the community.

Our next stop was a set of flags set against the magnificent view of the Missouri River at the Big Bend Dam. They surround a medicine wheel that commemorates the 38 Dakota warriors who were executed by hanging during the 1852 Minnesota Uprising. The surviving family members were sent to Fort Thompson, hundreds of miles from their home and many died during the ensuing harsh winter. A sad piece of history, but one that puts perspective on the trauma people are still working to overcome.

Reservation life has a complexity to it. In Lower Brule, folks commented on housing conditions, with many small houses obviously in need of repair. Yet, they also saw efforts at economic development. Able to use water from the Missouri to irrigate, the Lower Brule farm cooperative is one of the largest producers of popcorn in the country. A few years ago the tribe decided that instead of just wholesaling the popcorn to agribusiness, they would develop their own brand (Lakota Popcorn) and add some jobs to their local economy by packaging and marketing it themselves. We also saw a small arts and craft store where workers produced items made of elk and buffalo hide and other local materials.

Our lunch stop included a hearty and tender buffalo stew, which folks seemed to enjoy.

The last stop was the tribal council chamber, and folks commented on the beautiful architecture. The room is in the shape of a large tipi. Out the window overlooking the pasture, they could see the tribe’s buffalo herd grazing in the distance. What impressed me the most was the quality of questions our donors asked – about treaty rights and trust issues, self-determination and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The people who came our way proved very passionate about Native American issues.

A few people, myself included, nodded off for a few winks on the half hour ride back home. The tour got high marks, and we think it’s a keeper for our powwow schedule.

Who remembers standardized testing?

School was very quiet when I wandered over today. The reason – yearly standardized testing. In between, the students got breaks to engage in some fun projects. The art room had kids with watercolors and drawing pencils freelancing whatever they felt like drawing. In the Native American Studies classroom, the 8th graders were working on their graduation banner. The class of 2012 will feature a satin medicine wheel, and they were pinning the material in place before everyone, boys and girls alike, joined in to stitch the satin to the banner.

We’ve had great retention in the high school program this year – 38 of the 40 students who started the year are still with us. With some of our remodeling finishing up, we will be able to add another high school home in the fall, and increase our capacity for that age group to 50. Even so, we have more eighth grade applicants for the high school homes than we have beds. Several girls had to be put on the waiting list.

One of the 6th-8th grade homes made a proposal to keep the 8th grade girls where they are currently until another room opens up. A grandmother called me and was profoundly grateful that the granddaughter she is raising will be able to continue in the program.

I took some time with building projects today. I donned a hard hat and walked over to the Akta Lakota Museum to finalize a decision on the size of a wall.  Over the last couple of days we’ve gotten a couple of inches of wonderful, desperately needed, life-giving rain.  The down side was the moisture made the construction site a muddy mess. The souls of my shoes were two inches higher with mud when I walked back to the office. Also, we are in the process of purchasing the old grocery store downtown in order to expand our Thrift Store and give us much more storage space. We went over some plans and reports and took care of the needed paperwork.

After school, the track team members were on the football field running wind sprints. A couple of the shot putters lagged far behind the field. They rely on strength and not speed, though I tell them strong legs will help with both. The sun came out in the afternoon for a glorious 65 degree day, and soon the T-Ball and Softball fields were alive with activity and the friendly banter that characterizes a baseball game.

I was “Rolling by the River”

The Native American medicine wheel is a sacred symbol used by indigenous Plains tribes.
The Native American medicine wheel is a sacred symbol used by indigenous Plains tribes.

We took pictures of all the students and child services staff at St. Joseph’s Indian School in front of the school today. First we formed a medicine wheel, with staff wearing our blue jackets forming the frame and the students wearing t-shirts in the four traditional colors (yellow, red, black and white) to fill in the circle. The maintenance crew got out the bucket they use to work in the treetops or upper reaches of the building, and Emily our school photographer climbed aboard and snapped away. We also got a more conventional shot over by the bleachers. I enjoy looking back at old group photos and remembering the lives that touched mine, and I’m sure others will appreciate it now and many years down the road.

After school, I visited the Matthias Home (6th-8th grade girls). They are one of the homes living in transitional quarters while the former Matthias Home is undergoing renovations. Instead of two to a room, some of the rooms that are normally offices in the Sacred Hoop Center* now have four beds. We always hope that makes for more togetherness and not more drama. But the Matthias Home has a great spirit so far.

Some of the students were playing a dancing game on the Wii and asked me to hop in and try. About the only song I’d ever even heard of was Ike and Tina Turner’s Proud Mary, so with the Mighty Missouri in the background, I was indeed Rolling by the River and trying not to look too foolish. A good time was had by all.

I’ll be traveling for donor luncheons and some other meetings over the next week. Fr. Anthony said he’d give a couple of updates while I’m gone. I’m sure I’ll have a few adventures to tell about along the way.

An old all staff photograph of St. Joseph's Indian School.
An old all staff photograph of St. Joseph's Indian School.

*The Sacred Hoop Tiyospaye Center is a space for our Lakota (Sioux) students and their families to spend time together. Through the center, we provide short-term family visit accommodations, a variety of counseling services and an alumni program.