*This post was originally posted on Grace’s personal blog: Not All Who Wander Are Lost: badikg.blogspot.com
On the Road to Wounded Knee
Right before my 15th birthday, I spent a week at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Anytime I wrote about that place, I described the landscape as tragically beautiful. Brown rolling hills set against a wide, expansive sky. Ponderosa pines dotting the landscape. The Badlands at the north end of the reservation with its unearthly, extraterrestrial rock formations. The Nebraskan plains to the south. An ever-persistent wind. It is place most people don't go to or through. Yet, it captured my heart almost-15-year-old heart at the time.
I had the opportunity to return four years later with a different group of folks doing different kind of work. Fortunately, I reconnected with a family I had met years before. This time we arrived in late winter. Snow and mud covered the land. I felt the same weightiness of the environment, the shroud of history, so many unspoken stories.
Now in 2018, I returned once again. Yet again with a different group of people doing different kind of work. Like the first time I travelled to Pine Ridge, my uncle, Jon, led the trip. This group consisted of 7 adults committed to the work and vision of a new organization, Wolakota Youth Programs. While Jon has taking youth out to the rez for 17 years, Wolakota is in its infancy. The mission of Wolakota is to build relationship with the youth on the reservation. Pine Ridge has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the country. It is not a religious organization. There are not quantifiable measures like the number of bunk beds built or homes sided. Rather the focus is on relationship.
Relationship--a universal need. I have to say that I went into this trip somewhat dubious. I love my uncle and the work he does, however, he is still a white man taking a bunch of other white people onto the reservation. No matter how long he'd been doing it, you don't forget this fact. By day three, I changed my skepticism into belief. Working at Wounded Knee School, only miles away from the actual site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, in one of the poorest districts in one of the poorest counties in the U.S., we were welcomed with open arms. Kids flocked to those of us who had been before. These kids didn't see us as white people, but as friends coming to play and be with.
Saturday morning we spent at the park outside Pinky's store. Some of us went to the basketball court across the road. Some of us hung out by the playground. The kids chased us, teased us, sang with us, and played and played. After introducing myself to a little girl named Janie, she immediately gave me a big hug. The kids asked us excitedly about when we would be back. The name "Wolakota" means "big friend" in Lakota. It was given to Jon by the kids at Wounded Knee after he asked them what they understand about the visits to the school. Wolakota will return as often as we can.
Twelve years ago when I first came to Pine Ridge, I was an angsty teenager, full of doubt and anxiety about myself. It was a transformative experience in that I realized how much bigger the world was outside of my own problems. Certainly that week gave me a lot of warm fuzzy feelings and when I would go on to write about it in essays, I certainly would say that I got out of it more than what I gave. But it also set me on a path. Relationship remains at the heart of all that I do. It is what I believe will change the world.
As I reflect on this country's history, that told and untold, the popular narratives and hidden ones, I come back to this idea of disconnection. We did not try to learn or build relationship with the peoples already on this land. And no matter who you are, if you live in the U.S., you live on stolen land. As I reflect on our current events and turmoil, I return to this notion of disconnection. How we have not taken the time to listen to one another and build relationship. Because of fear, of insecurity, of greed, we insulate ourselves, too afraid of what might happen if we break ourselves wide open.
Somewhere on the road to Wounded Knee, relationships are transforming lives. Somewhere on the road, healing begins, friendships flourish, the great circle repairs.
Grace is excited to a be member the Wolakota Youth Programs board! She resides in Portland, Oregon although her roots are in Ohio. She currently works for a housing non-profit working with individuals and families experiencing housing instability. You can follow her blog at: badikg.blogspot.com