By Adrianna Daly, Staff Writer
Over spring break, Warren Wilson teamed up with Conscious Alliance (a nonprofit organization focused on feeding the hungry through organized food) to serve the people of Pine Ridge Ogala Lakota Indian Reservation. The trip focused on alleviating hunger and helping with specific tasks facilitated by community partner’s Floyd and Natalie Hand, residents and activists on Pine Ridge Reservation. In addition to this focus, the trip was enacted to create cross-cultural awareness and deepen the friendship between Warren Wilson College and the Lakota community. Students actively prepared themselves intellectually and emotionally for the service trip by participating in workshops on Lakota culture, white privilege, historical context, active listening, sympathy vs. empathy, and many other subjects.
For Margaret Easter, these workshops opened her eyes to to the concept of perspective: “You try to go in with a open heart and realize that your experience as a privileged white person will affect your view whether you realize it or not… that is something I realize now more than I did before and something I try to remember.” Margaret also said that hearing the history of the Lakota from the perspective of the Lakota was a transformational part of her experience: “A lot of the community members would speak to the fact that the US government is still going back on their promises to the Lakota people… They wanted us to understand what was going on with the culture we were working with.” These conversations provided students with knowledge of the continued injustices that the Lakota people face today and gave many students admiration and awe for the beauty and richness of Lakota culture and tradition.
“While Pine Ridge is a physically impoverished culture, it is spiritually rich,” said Julia Lehr, third year Wilson student. Julia actively spoke about the frustration Natalie Hand, our Lakota community partner, feels towards journalists who focus merely on the economic infrastructure of Pine Ridge and ignore the spiritual richness that the Lakota culture is alive with. “She [Hand] feels very frustrated when the spiritual ceremonies are in magazines… because it is ‘showman-y,’ meaning it is for show and not for yourself. If we participate in spiritual practices while [at Pine Ridge] it is for our understanding and our spiritual growth, and it is not to gossip or boast or blog about; it is only for ourselves and our experience.” Hand calls this exposure “poverty porn,” because it bombards ignorant outsiders with a conception that Pine Ridge is only an impoverished community in constant struggle. As a result, the beauty that exists in the culture, land, and community is not acknowledged.
“I want to talk about the poverty because that is what everybody wants to know [about], and while we were there to help in what ways we could, I didn’t feel that our community partners were poor, they weren’t lacking anything that I have, they had much more wisdom than… anyone else I have met before and things like ‘listening with your heart’ and enjoying laughter and honoring elders were all beautiful things that we learned [at Pine Ridge] and are things that I miss coming back,” said Margaret Easter.
“When I go to Pine Ridge, I feel relieved. I feel more spiritually accepted, I can pray and not feel uncomfortable,” said Julia Lehr.
“One of my favorite memories is hearing the stories”, said Margaret, “everything has a story behind it.” Another point that came up during the Pine Ridge trip is the difference between being invited to help out a community and to embark on service based on perceived needs of a community without input from that community’s members.
“The trip exists because Wilson has been invited by residents of Pine Ridge who are committed to helping the community grow. If we were not invited, we would not be there,” says Belle Pilar-Fleming, fourth year Wilson student and second time attendee on the trip.
Julia Lehr spoke openly about why having permission to serve is essential: “As outsiders not living in that community, you can’t really decide what they need, you have to hear the voice of the community partners…Instead of going in with our preconceived notions about what needs to be fixed, we see our involvement as a way to support the Lakota [community]…we really are just there to listen and participate in building relationships.” The program was written by Justin Levy, who is a Warren Wilson alumni and is now the executive director of Conscious Alliance.
Many students who attended this trip felt that a huge effect of the trip was a spiritual, cultural, and historical awareness of the Lakota people. Some of the skills many students take away from the experience are to pray, to sit in silence, to enter quietly, and to respect elders by offering them food first. “After you go to Pine Ridge, you feel like a piece of metal is placed in your heart, and when you leave, like a magnet, you are pulled back,” said Belle Pilar-Fleming.
Warren Wilson continues communication and connection with the community partners of Pine Ridge, and another trip is planned for next spring with the Cultural Psychology class. Wilson students interested in participating should contact Kathryn Burleson.