Reflections from Pine Ridge – A Life Changing Journey

Stories from CYL students and staff as they reflect on their service trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest areas in the United States, is home to the native Oglala Lakota people. This land has been fought over for decades and there is still mistrust and hate on the land towards non-natives from historical events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand) and the Wounded Knee Massacre and historical figures like Sitting Bull and Chief Red Cloud. While our U.S. History books share one side of the story, a leader must learn all sides of the story – which is why the annual CYL trip to the Reservation is so important for youth today.

It seems relevant to share this quote from American photojournalist of the Pine Ridge people. “Anyone can stick around for a while, but it’s what they do in that time, and who they meet, that makes a difference.” Here are two reflections about the recent Colorado Young Leaders trip to Pine Ridge and the impact it made on the students and staff who made the journey.

Student Reflection – Avery’s Story
Before arriving at Pine Ridge, I had reservations about the trip and was unsure of what to really expect. The experience that then ensued was nothing short of life-changing. It was an odd paradox of leaving our “reality” and then entering a world of surprising authenticity. Through talking with the natives, I formed connections and gained endless perspective. We shared several meals with the natives and had the opportunity to dance, albeit rather poorly, at a powwow, on our very first night on the Reservation.

Our group had the privilege of going on the Crazy Horse Ride, and we were the first group of youth on a Tipi Raisers trip to be able to do so. (The Tipi Raisers are a community of Native Lakota and non-Natives who believe that the wisdom, culture, and traditions of the Lakota People can inform and benefit the Modern World while the Modern World can empower and support the Lakota People in creating more prosperous and humane living conditions on the reservations.) It was exhilarating and quite humbling to ride amongst these native people for a whole day.

One of our service projects included working on a home for the Belt family, a long-standing friend of The Tipi Raisers and CYL partnership. The Belt family have 3 children (15, 9, and 4); together they share a trailer until their home can be rebuilt – which takes manpower and supplies. The Belt children love spending time with CYL youth, and the love and stories shared by the Belt family show our youth the value of being “rich on the inside.” Other projects included: wood gathering to help rebuild and expand an Inipi (traditional Lakota sweat lodge); groundskeeping work at the Wounded Knee cemetery and massacre site; and completing yard work to help give back to the hosts of the bunkhouse our CYL group stayed in.

The group was able to partake in Inipi a sacred part of Lakota culture. (Inipi is a purification rite and is necessary to help the vision quest seeker enter a state of humility and undergo a kind of spiritual rebirth. Prayers offered there draw on all the powers of the universe — Earth, Water, Fire and Air.)

Finally, we started to break down the years of misunderstanding between natives and non-natives. Our 16 youth were able to talk with some Lakota youth about the difficulties of living on the Reservation. Their stories made our CYL youth aware of the hardships of life on the Reservation, and to the stigmas and racism that is still very much in effect today between native Lakota people and non-natives living off the Reservation. We know we can’t change the world overnight but it starts with a step and a conversation. The conversation would not have happened without the deep bond formed between our CYL youth.

Some aspects of the trip were hard to process, but the support and love within our group were phenomenal. And while some of the work we did was exhausting, the hardest part of the trip was leaving Pine Ridge.

Staff Reflection – Lauren’s Story
Each day is lived in absolute purpose; the kind of purpose we want our CYL youth to find each and every day throughout their time in CYL, and beyond. We wake up early and spend an entire day outdoors, help cook and clean for all our Lakota guests who join us for dinner and stay up into the wee hours of the night becoming immediate, close-knit friends.

The bond CYL youth form with each other and Lakota natives during the short 5-day trip is always astounding. The connections formed on Pine Ridge are deeper and grounding. The kind of relationships we all strive for in our daily lives if we choose to slow down to really listen, to pay attention to the small things, and to feel strong enough to share your true feelings without judgment.

Youth always have a hard time coming home from the Reservation and back to “reality” because the experiences on the trip are hard to describe in words and they learn a bit about what truly matters.

It’s the quality of friendships, not the number of followers on social media. It’s a day full of purpose and potential, not a day of scrolling through feeds of perfect angles and staged experiences. Life moves quickly and if we choose to slow down, we can appreciate all that it has to offer us.