Lakota Reflections from the Rosebud Reservation

By Christopher Wink | May 25, 2006 | Travel Reflection

I have proudly represented Temple University on service immersion trips before. I have had South Dakotan ground beneath my feet before, too. Moreover, I have been with Jason Riley in a rental car and with John Dimino on an airplane before. Still, it is easy to understand that some experiences, no matter the similarities, can never be fully replicated.

Our group of ten administrators and students flew into Rapid City, South Dakota in May 2006, destined to work on the Rosebud Reservation of the Lakota Nation. While nearing the airport from above, below me South Dakota appeared wrinkled and aged. As we further approached, her features took form: trees that survived passed generations of agricultural clearing and beef cattle that survived passed days of agricultural slaughter.

This region of Dakota’s limitless expansion is only interrupted by flurries of elevation change. Once on ground, the pavement of interstate 90 appeared to have tamed the land into a consumable table of gentle slopes and caressing ridges. All of which leads me to offer muddled explanations of the region’s geographical features: endless plains with small, yet punctuated elevation changes interjected regularly.

Our group was there to begin something, surely. Our time was an investigation into the trip’s possibilities. We were trying to find regimen, activity, and purpose for groups who would follow our path. We found it all, not surprisingly. These service immersion trips have the remarkable ability to lead me to places that can be captured in brief explanations of outstanding experiences: all powerful alone, hard to fathom when put together.

I sat in on a healing ceremony and grappled with appreciating prayer that was so foreign to my Judeo-Christian world. I was overcome with the contrasts of seeing light in sheer darkness and uniting in what should have been separation. The calls of tradition and the rituals I couldn’t fully understand pierced the crisp spring of White River.

I sat next to American Indians and foolishly attempted to play an instrument I met days before, while those seated around me treated it as a father, something they had always known, from which they learned, from which they defined their manhood. I banged a drum, while next to me Cy and Johnson touched their spirituality. While my fellow group members closed their eyes to find the beat or met eyes to find comfort, I was left staring at Harold Whitehorse, a Lakota medicine man whom I had befriended. I was so captivated by his mouth; when I watch someone’s mouth speak a language I don’t know, I hear words I don’t know, when I watched Harold’s mouth sing Lakota, I heard noises I didn’t know. It was a non-Western experience in the Western world.

I was in a sweat lodge, watching thoughts rise and fall in my mind while, as per custom for an Inipi ceremony, water was splashed on more than 40 near-molten hot stones, causing intense heat to overcome my ears before it trickled down my back. Afterwards, feeling as if I had been pushed to some threshold of mine, I waded into the Little White River and I sat staring at the distant hills, surrounded by group members and a worried-looking dog, aptly named Blackness.

Our week was to pilot future trips, so turbulence was expected, if not welcomed. Some speakers were longwinded, to describe politely. The cuisine wasn’t traditional Lakota, leaving me without any knowledge of what would be. Our days were long, but maybe not long enough, as I would have liked to see more ceremony, hear more stories and learn more culture. This is all said in stark amazement with the successes of this, an introductory trip.

Our leader, John Dimino, managed to supplement our Lakota learning with Dakota discovering, while he met and spoke and remembered in order to improve the experience. Our group saw the Wall Drugstore, a quirky commercial creation grown to attract consumerism in South Dakota desolation. We scaled a small outpost of the Badlands, an uncomfortable imposition of jagged rock that only appears steeper when one clings to their rough, brief and interrupted summits. We visited a nature preserve around Fort Niobrara, an excuse to snap photographs of elk and prairie dogs and buffalo in Nebraska. We pulled off the road and looked at South Dakota’s night sky, losing count of the stars and track of our hands.

It took weeks, as it often does, for me to exhale and review what I had done. The United States and Pennsylvania and Temple University have offered me so many outstanding opportunities. My eyes have been crowded with wonders and the Rosebud Reservation was another. If this trip was a beginning, how difficult it would be to describe the end.

Written after a service immersion trip with a group from Temple University to work with community groups on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation near White River, S.D.

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