It was night time when a rental van with California license plates parked outside of Pine Ridge Recreation Center on Oct. 12, 2018.
Augustana Pastor Paul Rohde got out of the van, happy to arrive after a five-hour drive that took him and three Augustana students from Sioux Falls to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota.
The group had a full weekend planned in dedication to the community that received them.
Rohde has been leading service trips to Pine Ridge for almost two decades with the Augustana chapel staff, though a staff shortage last year caused a short hiatus. This year he rekindled the journey alongside junior Morgan Rothschadl, junior Logan Hattervig and sophomore Autumn Hilton.
Saturday morning was chilly. The broad plains were gloomy and dark clouds loomed over the bare trees. Before 8 a.m. the group gathered for breakfast and a quick introduction to the reservation.
The center’s director, Rev. Karen Ressel, known by all as “Pastor Kay,” sat down and briefed the group on Native-American history and culture. Handshakes, Ressel said, are soft and eye contact is avoided.
“Handshakes here are not about power,” she said.
Ressel informed the group about the reservation’s current condition and listed ways to engage with it. Students had to focus on listening, she said.
“Forget the troubleshooting mindset,” she said.
The group’s activities ranged from painting Basil Brave Heart’s, a Korean War veteran, house to seeing Kevin Poor Bear, who spent time on Augustana’s campus and studied under art professor Carl Grupp when he was younger, paint a self-portrait in less than half an hour while he telling his life story.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to an estimated 40,000 members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, more than 90 percent of whom live below the poverty line.
“The Rez,” as it is colloquially known, is one of the poorest counties in the country.
Ressel said that as the reservation fights back against issues like unemployment and suicide, the community struggles to keep its culture alive.
It had snowed all night Saturday. A fine blanket muffled the already quiet land.
Down one of the roads connecting Pine Ridge to other towns around the reservation, a bright mural shone against the snow.
A U.S. Army flag flew high above the ground, marking the entrance to Basil and Charlotte Brave Heart’s house.
Basil received the group in his living room filled with plants and pictures. They shuffled in, shivering from the cold.
Once they sat down, he spoke of Lakota spirituality, his childhood, his grandparents, language and mysticism.
Brave Heart’s long white hair framed his face as his steady voice roared in the quiet as he recalled the times he was punished for speaking Lakota at school.
“It hurt here,” he said, touching this mouth. “But it hurt more here.” He pointed to his heart.
The night before, the students and Rohde sat in a circle at the retreat center after watching a documentary on Manifest Destiny.
There, they took turns talking as a talking stick shifted from hand to hand, and they pondered over history and the reality of the present.
The snow had stopped by Sunday night, but the cold remained.
Kevin Poor Bear arrived at the center at 7:30 p.m. As a teenager, Poor Bear studied under Carl Grupp, the university’s art professor emeritus.
Now he sat in front of the students with a big sketchbook and an array of pastels. A vivid image—the legendary white buffalo calf woman—took form on the blank page. Once he finished his story and his art, Poor Bear left, leaving the students to ponder what he said.
During the last talking circle before heading back to Sioux Falls the next morning, Rohde listened carefully to what the students said and made his sermon out of their words.
“We thank you, lord, for bringing us here,” Rohde said. “We came to serve, but we were being the ones served.”
Outside, the wind howled.
The sky was clear, and the crescent moon shone over the land, as it had been doing since the beginning of time.
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