As I stepped on the plane in Baltimore, I had no idea what my week would entail. I had made generalizations about what projects would be filling each day, but I had no idea the impact that each activity would have on my life.
I was part of a group of eight students and two advisers from CCBC who headed out to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for spring break. From the moment we arrived on the reservation, I knew that this spring break would be very different from any other. We became a part of a bigger mission that has been making a difference in Pine Ridge for over 15 years. The organization is called Re-Member and it is an outreach to the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We assimilated with two other school groups to form a larger team for the week. Everyday we were split into groups, and worked in the reservation to complete different projects.
The first project I participated in was building a deck for the front of a trailer. The family was using cinder blocks as steps from their doorway, and it was dangerous. Throughout the process of building, I learned how to use a power drill, and power saw. It was thrilling using such powerful instruments for the first time, especially since my new skills were essential to the completion of the project. While I was diligently working, I was able to mingle with the other students who were from Iowa and Washington D.C. It was inspiring and enjoyable being around so many others who had such a heart and willingness for service. Our crew for the day only had fifteen people, and we were able to finish the new deck within an hour and a half. We felt accomplished when we admired our completed deck (seen below):
Because we finished so quickly, our group was able to go back to the Re-Member headquarters and have a tasty lunch. We also made time for a surprise dance party in the kitchen to the famous song, “My Girl”. The energy from the dance party revved us up for an afternoon of organizing. Our crew spent the rest of the day performing some “heavy-lifting” between two trailers in order to make room for more lumber supplies. Once the new lumber load arrived, we loaded the wood with an assembly line of people. Although the supplies were extremely heavy, no one quit. This determination was displayed throughout the week.
My second project of the week was quite unique because I was given the opportunity to go to the Porcupine Indian School on the reservation. I knew that this project would be extremely important because of the suicide rate on the reservation. The teen suicide rate is four times the national rate, and the average age that children commit suicide is at the age of ten.
As I was walking into the school, I knew it was my responsibility to shed light onto these kids. However, the children surprised me because they already had genuine hope within themselves. They were talkative and spunky, and I was in awe of their brilliance. The kindergarten students were not only learning the English language, but they were learning their native Lakota language, too. However, there was an underlying urgency for each child to get noticed. They were competing for my attention, and yearning for affection. They wanted to know my name, hug me, play with my hair and sit with me at lunch. I felt so admired by these loving children. All I wanted to do was express to them how special they all were. I didn’t want to leave without each one of them knowing that they were cared about. I wanted them to know that they had a wonderful future ahead of them.
I was feeling like my goal wasn’t a possibility, until one little girl came up to me and asked me, “Have you forgotten me yet?” and “Do you remember me?”. This particular little girl not only talked to me all day long, but dragged me to sit with her at lunch. I basically was with her the entire day, and her question caught me off guard. I replied, “of course I remember you!”. She then smiled at me fondly and said, “I know your name is Jennifer…and I’m never, ever going to forget you”. My heart melted in that very moment, and I knew for at least one child I had made a difference. This day was one of the best days of my life and because of my experiences at the Porcupine School, I want to commit to helping the native children on the reservation. They are the future of the Lakota nation and they are sacred beings. My first step to helping is to write to that one very special little girl to remind her that she has not been forgotten even though I’m thousands of miles away. The picture below is the team who was able to go to the Porcupine School:
My third and final project of the week was building bunk bed parts. This day was tedious and very different from the rest of the work days. As a crew, we weren’t able to see the direct impact our work was having on the natives. However, seeing the native children the day before gave me the fortitude needed for this project.
Many children on the reservation sleep on the floor every night and have never had a restful night of sleep in their lives. We were assisting Re-Member by making the parts that they would then assemble into bunk beds throughout the reservation. I had the exciting job of painting for the morning, and sanding in the afternoon. The day was filled with conversation among the crew, and I was able to learn many things about the people I was working beside. It made our project meaningful as we bonded over painting a ladder for a bunk bed. Overall, we made enough parts for ten bunk beds, and it was wonderful knowing that each bunk bed would be going to a deserving home. This is two of us painting the bottom of a bunk bed:
Although I only shared three projects, there were several other parts to this trip. Every night we had the pleasure of listening to native speakers and we even got to hear some of them sing. I felt so honored that they considered us part of their family, and passionately told us of their trials and tribulations. They opened our eyes and showed us history through their point of view. It was overwhelming learning about the hardships they faced when the Europeans came into their native land. They have clung to their faith in the great spirit and are strong people.
After hearing the true stories of the Wounded Knee Massacre and the Indian boarding schools, I want to help make their culture thrive. It’s chilling to know that our European ancestors treated the natives like savages and had no remorse for the killings they performed. They stripped the natives of their culture and forced them to become more like them.
We were able to visit the actual site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the feeling of being in that location was unreal. It was a real event that happened, and nothing was done to stop it. When I was able to walk through the Wounded Knee cemetery, my heart was filled with so much sorrow. I saw all of the names of those who were killed during the Massacre, as well as other natives who have died at such a young age. This was a pivotal moment for me during my week at Pine Ridge because it made me work harder and strive to learn more.
As a group, we were submersed into the beauty of the native land and the Lakota culture. We were given a special pass to experience something so delicate and sacred. The whole week was emotionally and physically grueling as we were challenged to reach our full capacity in life. I was ignorant of what happened in this nation in the past, and I was embarassed that I didn’t even know that Indian reservations existed before being selected for this trip. I left the reservation with an obligation to spread the knowledge I have gained of the Lakota people, and to make a difference in this nation for the natives. The Lakota people put their faith in us, and we made a promise to them when they spoke to us with such honesty and passion.
At home in Baltimore, I feel like I’m in a different world. I have cell phone service, internet and an abundance of food. These were all things that I lived without for one week, and it helped me to be present in every moment. I wouldn’t trade my spring break for anything in the world. I grew as a person, and as a woman. My memories will last a lifetime, and won’t be forgotten because I’m going to incorporate them into my every day life. I will remember the Lakota nation and hope to revisit my new friends often.
The most important Lakota phrase
“WE ARE ALL RELATED“
If you are interested in learning more about the Lakota nation and Re-Member’s efforts in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation visit www.re-member.org