"Opened my eyes to the real spirit among the people..."
At the Singing Horse Trading Post / Photo by Frank Deak
Journeys are interesting; we go with an assumed expectation of what we will encounter based on a montage of various news articles and previous experiences of those who have gone before us. However, like an artist at their canvas, one cannot rightly assume what the finished product will look like, how it will speak to the heart of others until the canvas has received the final brush stroke. This was my experience as I traveled with my brother, Frank Deak, to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation located in the prairies of South Dakota.
In preparation for an immersion trip into a culture vastly different from mine, I read everything I could get my hands on. Sadly, all the information I gathered focused on the horrific socio-economic conditions of the reservation. From a distance, the reservation seemed to be a land plagued with hopelessness and despair, a land that the rest of the world had forgotten and with each piece I read, I become more anxious over what I might encounter. Would the differences between Lakota and myself be as vast as the miles and miles of prairie between here and there or would we find that in the end we are no different from each other. The answers would be apparent the last day of my trip on a ridge I will always hold sacred in my heart.
Badlands / Photo by Frank Deak
Living in the Adirondacks, one cannot help feel the extreme difference in the terrain as we drove through the Badlands to Pine Ridge. Desolation, distance, lack of green vegetation and warnings of rattlesnakes heightened my realization that I was out of my element. Remnants of abandoned buildings and sod homes from earlier life on the prairie depicted the determination of the pioneer spirit to survive harsh and isolated living conditions.
Old house on the prairie / Photo by Frank Deak
One road yielded into another road, miles and miles separated each town on the reservation until we finally arrived at the Singing Horse Trading Post, our home base for the duration of the trip. It is difficult to articulate the hospitality and welcoming ambiance of the Trading Post owned and managed by Rosie Freier. Walking into the Trading Post, I instantly felt welcome and at home. Standing about 5 feet tall, Rosie can brand livestock, balance the books, build a fence, ride a horse with the toughest of native elders, to name only of few of her amazing talents. What Rosie lacks in stature she makes up for in her will, vitality, spirit, and love for the native people and their culture.
In front of Rosie's store / Photo courtesy Singinghorse.net
What makes the Singing Horse so unique to Pine Ridge is not the handmade native jewelry and art on display for visitors to purchase; it is the community of elders and their willingness to share not only their struggles, but also their joys, and generational history of the tribe. The Native American culture is an oral culture more so than written and therefore they take great pride in speaking of the Great Elders of the past. The heart of the trading post begins around a picnic table located in the store, which acts as a nucleus for gathered community and friendship, shared stories, coffee, and whatever Rosie happened to cook that day. Generosity is large and begins with the “Free box” where clothing donations are there for the taking. I began to realize that the world was doing Pine Ridge a disservice when it paints it through the lens one of darkness and gloom, for around this table I heard life, hope, joy, and celebration. It is difficult to capture in its entirety the heart and soul of the reservation. I am convinced that all the data and statistics in the world cannot replace being received as a guest and living within a culture. It would not take long for my brother and I to discover the many gems and beacons of light tucked away throughout this vast prairie belonging to the Lakota people.
At the Indian Action Garage / Photo by Frank Deak
My trip to the reservation opened my eyes to the real spirit among the people living there, a spirit that holds firmly to living as a strong, resourceful and sovereign nation. One such revelation became apparent after coming into contact with Jeri Baker, who is the director of One Spirit. One Spirit is an organization dedicated to helping the people of the reservation remain sovereign and self-sufficient. Instead of enabling a sense of powerlessness, One Spirit provides a place to start for programs such as The Allen Youth Center and the Pine Ridge Food Program. One Spirit listens to what the greatest needs are for the people and using their resources, they provide a way to meet those needs. The beauty of One Spirit and what makes this organization unique, is their goal of eventually handing over the program to the natives.
One such program, birthed by One Spirit, is the Allen Youth Center in the small town of Allen. Waylon Gaddie, the director of the center has a vision of the center as being a totem of sovereignty and strength, a place where the native children learn to regain pride in who they are and taught the traditions of the Lakota people. The center empowers the children academically and relationally to be all they can be, or as Waylon says, “Proud Warriors, holding their heads high.” Allen Center provides the children with educational support along by teaching them to stretch their minds through activities such as how to bake a pie and learning the native language to riding a horse and participating in a pow-wow. Respect for elders and dignity for the culture they represent are the foundational threads for everything that happens in the center. The center provides a place for the children to begin, a place of rebirth, healing, and hope of who they are.
Logo of the Allen Youth Center
Driving southwest from Allen, we found ourselves driving off road on a rutted and ill kept road -in search of Bamm Brewer. Surrounded by prairie, alpacas, dogs, and buffalo, Bamm has a vision to establish self-reliance to the natives by providing them with a local buffalo-processing center. Unlike the mass produced food and consumer driven mentality of America, the native Indians have a heart of gratitude for what the buffalo provides to their families, demonstrated by sacred rituals carried out prior to the hunt. Without question, Bamm has a love and respect for the buffalo that goes beyond their being a means of providing food. Bamm provides food storage while working with One Spirit to provide monthly boxes of food to people in need. Volunteering to deliver food boxes on the reservation is not for the weak of heart. Because of the distance between houses, poor off-road conditions, and weather conditions, volunteering to deliver food boxes is not a simple task. Survival for families living off the main road, who have little or no access to a car depend on this food mission.
I found it interesting that despite the miles and miles of prairie and distance between neighbors on the reservation there is a connection that draws everyone together when there is a need. The connection between households via a local radio station facilitates the distribution of important information to the tribe such as a death, or a delivery of donated goods.
Horses / Photo by Lisa Knouff
When I first arrived at the Singing Horse Trading Post, Rosie had suggested that I make it a point to go to the top of the ridge behind the building; she said it was a beautiful view that I would not be able to see from the house. I had forgotten to bring my boots and with all the rattlesnake warnings, I had been a little reluctant to hike through the grass with walking shoes. Quite frankly, I was hoping she had forgotten her suggestion.
The last day of my trip Rosie asked if I had ever made the trek up and I said I had not. Rosie said she would get some high boots on and take me up to the ridge. When I pointed out that I did not have boots, Rosie explained that she would walk ahead of me and scare anything away that might try to bite me. I thought of how we often avoid trying anything new or going to foreign places because we are afraid. Had I not followed Rosie and chosen to stay in that place of fear I would have missed the breathtaking view she spoke to me about.
As we walked Rosie pointed out the tiniest wildflowers, yucca plants, and cactus, she said that when you look from a distance it all looks like brown hills and dirt, it is not until you walk in the prairie that you see the hidden beauty. I felt something sacred was talking directly to my soul. Rosie was spot on. It is not until we have the courage to walk with people who are different than ourselves that we begin to see all the beauty there is to experience together. I trusted enough to follow and she cared enough to lead, and together I experienced the hidden treasure of this new vantage point.
Because of all the negativ media surrounding Pine Ridge, I was a little nervous before the trip, but after living among Native Americans I realize what we see is what we choose to see. Yes, Pine Ridge has many challenges, yet, there are other places which are equally broken. I discovered a culture who refuses to give in to all that tries to break them. The Lakota Sioux are proud of where they came from, and have a passion to rebuild what they have lost. The director of the youth center referred to the center as a totem of hope and sovereignty, a symbol of rediscovering who they are. For me personally, the Native culture further deepened my belief that as long as hope prevails, there will always be a place to begin again. The trip to South Dakota was yet another gentle reminder that we are not all so different, and we have the capacity to make a positive difference in each other’s lives if, as Rosie said, we look close enough to see the flowers. I carry home with me a pocketful of blessings.
I gained a new sense of quiet, peace, grace, and balance while living with the people of Pine Ridge that I will forever hold dear to my heart.