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I have been traveling since I was two weeks old. Denver is where I was born, but almost immediately after my adoption, my parents brought me to my home of 17 years, Rhode Island. I have had the fortune and privilege of having parents who love to travel, and grew up with spring vacations in places like redwood forests or the Everglades. Summers found me exploring the Rio Grande and the Seine while sharpening my linguistic skills. Whether camping in the Sierra Nevadas or extracting stories from the Sioux people of South Dakota, I always discovered something about myself as well. The most significant of these discoveries came on my church’s annual mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which is located in two of the country’s poorest counties. I was skeptical and nervous, and my youth pastor confirmed that the trip would likely unnerve us. I wasn’t sure whether I would actually be interested or learn anything – but I soon discovered how incredibly mistaken I was.
Venturing into the penurious Native American reservation was different than any experience I have had in my life. Pine Ridge may appear to be desolate; however, the convergence of tribal artists, writers, and musicians share stories that have immense spiritual meaning. To the tribal people of South Dakota, mainly the Lakota from the Sioux tribe, every day is beautiful because it is a gift from the Creator. From them I learned that when we live in a relationship with nature, we inherently know that the change of seasons and change of weather is necessary for our continuation and that of the planet. The hardships that arise are important for our growth and prosperity. So many people are affected by the illusions of Western culture, which in turn leads to discord among individuals and nations. Our society is based upon perfectionism, judgment, and the deception of power. Many have come to believe that it is in our control to change the course of nature. The Lakota-Sioux reminded me that we may get caught up in the busyness of everyday life, but we should never forget that we did not create this life that we are living. It is a gift from the Creator.
While in South Dakota I was introduced personally to many spiritual leaders and political activists, but also heard stories of many others. Frank Fools Crow was one of the most inspirational people I heard about. He was thought of as a Chief, a Spiritual Leader and a healer. His consistent guidance from Wakan-Tanka (the Creator) was evident in how he led his tribe with great devotion: “Remember and think about the closeness of Wakan-Tanka. If they believe in this wisdom, it will give then endless strength and hope.” Having great powers of healing, he was a humble and dedicated man of simplicity and love. He told me powerful stories of how he helped to negotiate the 68 day-long insurrection at Wounded Knee and truly showed me how important it is to be humble. He taught that that is a gift of prayer, ceremony, and willingness to serve.
Although the Mission Trip was a time for my youth group to learn about each other, we also did volunteer work. Each day we made bunk beds from scratch and then installed them into reservation homes. One of the nights the organization with were working with had a dinner for people of the tribe in the area. I served food to members of the tribe, sat and ate with them, prayed with them and sang with them. That night we learned about each other as well as our inner self.
Once the day came for us to leave, my pastor asked us to write a response to the following question in our journals: “What has been the most beautiful experience of the week in nature or in relationship?” I thought long and hard about this, not knowing which of the many to choose. I had witnessed a breathtaking lightning storm, had come in contact with the most spiritual, honest, and respectable people that I had ever met – all of these seemed beautiful. I now look back at a journal I wrote, the pictures I took, as well as the memories I carry; I now know which was the most beautiful experience. This is clear to me because the thought of it still makes my blood rush and heart beat faster. The most beautiful experience to me was standing at the mass grave memorial at the site of the Massacre of Wounded Knee, feeling the crisp June breeze and looking over the lush grassy plains.
While I took many things away from this trip, I grew the most spiritually. Never before had I been so in tune with my perceptions and stereotypes. Watching movies and reading books does not give a semi-accurate depiction of the hardships of the Native American people. From visiting battle sites, mass graves and memorials I learned more than any text book could ever teach me. Acquiring knowledge about their beliefs on God, the Earth and life itself has expanded my willingness to diversify and showed me that I want to discover a greater meaning to my spirituality. The trip inspired me to become more involved in my church, as I have become a youth group leader, choir member, and Sunday School teacher.
I am sure that my life of traveling will continue in the years to come. Through my experience in South Dakota I learned to be even more open to the new people and cultures around me, and I am excited to travel with ideas of service, learning, and spiritual growth in mind.
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