I had the chance to speak with a friend on the Pine Ridge Reservation recently. We spoke of many things, but what really stayed with me was his concern for the youth living on the reservation. The teen suicide rate on the reservation has been three times as high as the rest of the United States. Depression and substance abuse are also at elevated rates. But our talk was not about statistics – rather he spoke of real people coping with tragedy and seeking to ease their suffering and provide hope for the next generation.
I asked him what he thought made life so difficult for young people on the reservation. The first thing he said was loneliness. Loneliness that comes from physical distance, but also from losing connection with family.
It can feel like there is no one who cares, no one who will listen, no one who can help. Without support, young people can be vulnerable, prone to extreme and intensely felt emotions. Other factors are involved such as substance abuse, family disfunction, a lack of youth activities and opportunities and a lack of professional resources, counselors, psychiatrists, etc.
He felt strongly that the loss of Lakota culture contributes in many ways to the depression and isolation. Young people are flooded with images from television and music from the dominant culture. This imagery provides a fantasy of a more exciting, more materialistic lifestyle which is in sharp contrast to the reality of their lives. These images glamorize values and behaviors that are at odds with what their elders try to teach them. It can be hard to feel good about your cultural identity when the hard realities of your existence are measured against a fantasy. While at the same time they feel drawn to the fantasy culture, they don’t see anyone that looks like them living the fantasy life. It can be hard to have hope for a happy future when the gulf between fantasy and reality is so vast. Young people can feel they’ve been drawn to a place where they wonder why they are here.
By reconnecting Lakota young people with their culture he hopes to open their eyes to the strength and wisdom of their people, to restore pride and hope for a better future. The first step on this path is making connections. He explained to me that in traditional Lakota culture there are no orphans. There is always someone there for you. The community is an extended family. Each child can have many aunties and uncles. He commits himself to be in connection with the young people.
Another important step is to teach the young people about their culture. They have developed a very special and powerful method for presenting their culture through a camp experience. The camp combines fun outdoor activities like swimming and horseback riding with teachings, ceremonies and experiences that explain their culture.
The Lakota people developed a very advanced understanding of astronomy and geography. Through oral tradition they have passed on the understanding of the movement of the stars and their relationship to geographic locations within the Black Hills where they have lived for hundreds of years. The place described in their creation story and other sacred sites are visited by the campers. They are able to walk where their ancestors and cultural heroes walked. To be in the places where the miracles of their religion occurred. This has the profound effect on them that many Christians report when they go to the holy land or Muslims when they make the pilgrimage to Mecca. And in the evenings while they are at these sacred sites they hear the stories that have been passed on for many generations as they look at the stars that their ancestors observed. This experience helps them absorb the deeper meanings of the stories, their connection to the Creator and the strength available to them through their culture.
Another important benefit of the camp is the relationships that are built as they share this journey. If you were lucky enough to have a good camp experience, or to share a challenging journey with a group, you can understand the bonds of friendship and trust that can be established from peer to peer and between campers and leaders. There is something magic that happens when we work as part of a group to get through a challenge. We can discover that best part that is in each of us. These bonds can be a lifeline when times are tough back at home.
Of course it costs money to provide this life changing experience. Sixteen campers were able to go on this journey last Summer at a cost of $350 per camper. We at Follow the Buffalo, Inc. would like to help expand this opportunity. Would you help us by sponsoring a camper for $350? Or how about one day of camp for $50? Of course your gift of any size will be greatly appreciated and will help with this important project.
Thank you, Wopila,