90,000 Miles to Me

15,126 Miles • A Powwow of Consequence


You’ve probably heard the observation by Robert Ingersoll that, “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” People are part of nature, too. As a case in point, my being socially awkward leads to poor social encounters, which leads to anxiety that social encounters will go poorly, which makes them go poorly, which leads to anxiety that…and the cycle propagates. This anxiety is neither a punishment nor reward, simply a consequence, and it built up slowly over time, so that by the time I was consciously aware of it, it was already a deeply entrenched pattern. 

Not that I wasn’t able to have some good social encounters, and I did, but like that situation where you get a performance review and your boss tells you twenty things you do well and one, shall we call it, “opportunity for improvement” and all you can think about is that “opportunity for improvement,” I so often focused on the times things didn’t go as well as I wanted. Which gradually lead to high social anxiety, peaking in my mid twenties and again in my early thirties to levels that let me know in no uncertain terms that something had to change.

The good news is, though, that my anxiety is not an integral part of who I am. It is a parasite, feeding off of my fears and angers and hurts. But if I can heal those fears and angers and hurts, the anxiety cannot survive. I’ve been doing that healing work for the last few years, which led to setting out on my Grand Adventure of self discovery and healing, and the time I have spent on the road has led to even more healing and discoveries about myself, and that, too, is a cycle that can snowball, this time in a good way. It has been difficult, but it is starting to pay off. Two or three months ago, the following story would not have been possible. 

As I left behind the beautiful Loess hills of Iowa and entered South Dakota, I stayed the night at the city park campground in the town of Vermillion. The city offers campers two nights of free camping—thank you—complete with showers—thank you—and I was enjoying the cool breeze with my side door open as another camper came up and asked about the my mosquito screen. 

This isn’t particularly unusual, and normally I would have responded politely to her questions and then shut down the conversation as soon as possible, yet she was saying some interesting things, and we got into a conversation. After a while, I invited her into my home, and she actually appreciated that this was a big deal. Though she did a lot more of the talking, she also listened attentively to what I had to say, so I felt like I could open up a little, and she engaged with interest instead of pat responses or platitudes. 

I kept checking in with myself internally, noticing that the part of me that is driven by anxiety kept sort of offering to take over, like “I’m here, do you want me to do my normal thing? I can put an end to this for you.” Except that I didn’t feel like I needed to respond that way, and was actually wanting to stay in this conversation. 

That is a huge deal for me. We ended up talking the rest of the afternoon and evening, and much of the next day, too, discussing a wide range of subjects and enjoying spending time with someone with common interests.

That itself is worth an entire article as a statement of personal progress, but the actual reason I am relating it is that it led to an even bigger development. A quantum leap development.

My new friend lives on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota, and she invited me to their powwow which was coming up, the weekend after Archeology Days—she also knew about this event, and confirmed it was well worth a visit. 

Again, my normal reaction to just about any invitation would be to make up some excuse, or say I’ll think about it, or we’ll see, and not show up. This time I said I’d think about it, and actually meant it. The reservation is near the Black Hills where I was planning on camping anyway, so it would hardly be out of my way and I could spend the whole drive there debating/anguishing—I mean, thinking about it. 

After Archeology Days was such a success, being able to chat with Jack and his wife the entire two days (having a specific goal, like something to learn, helps) and being stoked with a budding new skill to practice, and also because I was biding my time for, well, for my big event, more on that later, I was open to new possibilities, and so tentatively felt like I might actually be able to try out this attending-someone-else’s-event-thing.

So I took the southern route through South Dakota farmland and after two days arrived in Batesland, a town of about three blocks long that contains a gas station, some dispersed houses, and…that’s about it.

I didn’t have an address to go to, and was feeling anxious about that, but it soon proved a moot point. There was an open field across from the gas station that was easily identifiable as the only possible option for the powwow grounds. There was a white, wooden circular frame structure covered with pine boughs, a few cars off to the side and some people starting to gather. It was mid afternoon on Friday, and though there was a man with a microphone making a variety of announcements, so it seemed to be technically in progress, it was off to a slow start. My friend said that the Grand Entrance would be at seven, so it was still early.

She also told me that if I just sat in the circle and didn’t approach anyone, that they would leave me alone, and she was right. I couldn’t find my friend, so felt alone and very out of place, not sure if it was really okay that I was there, yet no one said anything about my being there, either, but it was obvious I didn’t belong. Less because of my white skin; more because I was so ill at ease. I barely exchanged two words with anyone the whole day and night, and was fine with that except for the nagging feeling that I wasn’t supposed to be fine with it, and that I should get out and talk to someone. But I’m trying to accept myself and my needs and not force myself into pretending to be someone I’m not. If that means being socially withdrawn and shy for a while as I get comfortable in a new environment, I can live with that.

As night approached, more people turned up, and some people changed into their traditional regalia for the dancing, and eventually, nowhere close to seven o’clock, they finally started the Grand Entrance. Which is a ceremonial start to the evening festivities, a sort of parade into and around the circle led by veterans carrying flags, followed by the people who were being honored that night, representative from the various families, and those who were dressed in regalia to dance.

The evening held lots of drumming and singing and dancing, interspersed with a few other ceremonies honoring a family or individual. Joining us were also a lot of mosquitoes.

Three drumming groups took turns drumming and singing each of the songs. I happened to be near one of the groups, and so got a good view and really enjoyed watching them. This recording was from my favorite group, the Sons of the Oglala Drummers.

There was dance after dance, some for women, some men, some kids, some adults, some mixed, some for competition and some for fun, and a couple “intertribal” which meant that anyone could join in from any demographic, native or not. Most of the dancers wore some traditional regalia, some were completely decked out, while others were just in jeans and t-shirts and having a great time dancing with the rest. 

One of the “inter-tribal” dances for all. The young woman on the left in light green displayed some fancy footwork and I watched her extensively. The little boy on the right in the red shirt and striped pants, along with his twin sister, were amazing dancers for their age. Their sense of rhythm and coordination were far beyond their three years, and they will be champion dancers in time, like their great-grandfather, Sonny, whose face shone with pride at his legacy.

The dancing went on late into the night, and by 11:30 I was too tired and turned in. My friend told me I could camp there for free, and I saw a few tents and a motorhome or two, so I assumed that was okay and went to bed to the sound of drumming. I had given up just a little too soon; they finished half an hour later.

Basically, the three days held a variety of small ceremonies throughout the course of the day, with lots of informal socializing, then at night the Grand Entrance signaled the dancing and celebration part of the festivities, till around midnight. The daytime ceremonies were less dramatic, but no less important. These honored elders, graduates, families or individuals for contributions to the community, naming ceremonies as young people became full adults in the tribe, the wiping of tears to remember a lost loved one, and more. On Sunday afternoon there were also horse races, which were exciting to watch.

Saturday morning a man struck up a conversation with me, and like my friend from the campground, he also was able to engage deeply. I had now had two good experiences with this in a short time, and so felt able to leave my guard down and really talk with him instead of putting up some persona of what I thought he might want to hear, or what I expected would be “acceptable,” “normal,” or even “impressive.” Yes, I have enough accomplishments—a legacy of my insecurities—that I can pull off the later, especially when well phrased. But I didn’t try that this time. It felt a bit uncomfortable to be so openly myself, but uncomfortable in a good way, like a new pair of shoes that needs to be broken in, and that openness on my part was reciprocated with genuine engagement on his part.

After a while he sent over his friend who opened with “Yeah, he thought he smelled metaphysics on you [me].” I guess I should take that as a compliment. It turned out this man was a Johnnie like me—we both attended St. John’s College—and though his time there was two to three decades before mine, the curriculum hasn’t changed more than a book or two. We talked about Plato’s Republic and the Divided Line and the difficulty of trisecting an angle. This is chit chat among Johnnies.

After a while, a couple of their friends came over, then a couple more, and over the course of the day they introduced me around to several others. I ended up getting to know a dozen or so people that weekend. Some were natives, like the man who first talked to me, and though most of that particular group who scooped me up were non-natives, they had deep ties to the tribe and to the families.

There were very few non-natives there this weekend. Maybe twenty max. This wasn’t a powwow for gawkers, it wasn’t commercialized, and it wasn’t big. A few spectators did show up Saturday and Sunday nights to watch the dancing for the first couple of hours—none stayed late—but at their highpoint they were still a distinct minority. 

This was a traditional powwow, a gathering of families. The tribe gets together once a year in full, those that still live on the reservation and many of those who have moved away, to socialize and catch up and honor elders and graduates and loved ones who have passed, and of course to dance.

One of the elders, Sonny, a champion dancer, gets ready for Saturday night’s celebrations.

This is exactly what I wanted. What I was hoping for. I’ve lived in New Mexico long enough that I’ve had a couple opportunities to attend powwows, but never felt comfortable going. Part of that was my social stuff, but a lot of it was because I wanted conflicting things and didn’t know how to reconcile them. 

I don’t care for commercializing cultures, any cultures, whether that is paying to participate in a Native American Sundance, German-esque Oktoberfests that are just overpriced carnivals with beer, the degrading of Christmas from a religious celebration to a shopping ritual, etc. I didn’t want to go to a powwow that was just a bunch of stalls selling pseudo-native-made wares and themed kitch collectables.

And yet, the thought of going to a traditional powwow felt like an intrusion, like I would be the outsider “playing native” in some sort of cultural appropriation or disrespectful way that I didn’t by any means intend.

But this time I had a personal invitation from someone who belonged, and that tentatively made it feel okay. After being welcomed so warmly by more people there, I felt, not like I belonged, I didn’t, and that’s okay, but accepted. That I was acceptable. Not some curated version of me, because, for once, I didn’t go that route.

The man with the microphone—this is how I thought of him all weekend, though it was actually two or three men, all elders, who took turns keeping up a running commentary all day and night—made a number of interesting observations that got me thinking. One was that “We all have the same feelings. We all look different and act different and have different backgrounds, but we have the same emotions and that is what makes us all the same people.”

He also joked that we should “just sit there quietly and feed the mosquitoes.” Despite our best efforts, we complied, vastly outnumbered by a superior force. I got sooo many mosquito bites that weekend.

I had many new experiences at the Wakpamni Wachipi. Wachipi (rhymes with tipi) is the proper name for powwow in Lakota, though even most of the Lakota there also said powwow. I ate my first piece of fry bread, danced at the intertribal dances on Saturday night, met some amazing people and, I hope, made some new friends.

The food was interesting. There were a few traditional foods, like fry bread and some sort of sweet berry drink that was a traditional recipe, but a lot was the kind of foods you might get at any potluck. Mashed potatoes and gravy, fried chicken, beef stew, pasta salad, hot dogs for the kids, that sort of thing. What interested me was how much there was.

A few families each year commit to provide food for all who come, and they save up all year to do so. The servers fill plates for people, and they heap food on food so that the styrofoam plates almost can’t bear their burden. Yet it is all eaten eagerly and I watched many go back for seconds.

I held back at first because I wasn’t sure of the procedure. It didn’t look like they were charging, but maybe a donation was expected? No, it is free for all who come. It is an honor for the families to be able to serve. But the huge portions they dished out still surprised me and I asked a few people and got the same answers. The leaders want to ensure that, for these three days at least, the people get enough to eat. That the children get a taste of what it is like to get enough to eat.

It basically comes down to a combination of poverty and lack of available food. This is one of the poorest counties in, not just South Dakota, but in the nation. In 2016 it ranked as one of the poorest counties in the USA, with a per capita income of $9,286 as compared to $29,829 for the United States, and a median household income of $26,364 as compared to $55,322 for the United States.1 And it is a food desert. A particularly dry one.

The term food desert refers to places that are more than a reasonable distance from a grocery store, where people often lack transportation to get to the stores, food selection is limited and fresh produce is scarce. In the last year, I’ve traveled through areas where the grocery stores are small and there is not much choice and the produce department is pathetic. But this is something entirely new. The only food sold in this town is at the gas station convenience store. In the nearest towns, 20 miles one way and 30 miles the other way, there are more gas station convenience stores, a few fast food joints, a couple run-down looking restaurants, and two mini marts. Those are the only places to buy food.

A food desert is defined as somewhere more than ten miles from a grocery store in rural areas, or one mile in urban areas. The nearest proper grocery store from here is about 60 miles away.

Which means that when the people can get to the store, they stock up, which means they’re not getting much that’s fresh. And the extreme poverty level means they’re buying the cheapest, most processed food available. They simply don’t have a choice. The high rates of diabetes here is not a product of overeating, but, along with other factors, of eating food with little to no nutritional value. There is a difference between a full stomach and actually being fed.

But even a full stomach is far too rare here. The extreme poverty means that many families simply cannot buy enough food, and many children here may not get more than one meal a day.

If I hadn’t had a reason to stay here, I would have simply driven right through, if I had come this way at all. I would have noticed the barren landscape and maybe been surprised at the distances between gas stations. If I had been low on supplies, I would have been keeping an eye out for grocery stores and probably been a little frustrated that I couldn’t find any. I’d have been more impatient and irritated if it were late and I were tired. But I’d have plenty of gas in the van and it would have taken me no more than a few hours to keep going to get back to “civilization.”

I wouldn’t have really thought about the day to day lives of the people here. If I had, I’d have assumed, like in so many rural farming communities, that they drive to town regularly to get what they need. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that these people were, in very practical ways, stuck here. And, being entirely honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t have consciously registered that this isn’t farmland. There are no farms here. Or ranches. There are scattered houses and a lot of bad land. In fact, part of the reservation abuts the Badlands National Park.

The distance from food shocked me enough that I felt the need to understand how that was possible. How these people live, and, with my naïve, white, middle-class values, I at first phrased it in my head as, how they could let this go on? Why don’t they fix it? As with most things, it isn’t that simple.

I asked enough questions to get a much more visceral sense of how the current struggles came to be this way than what is usually presented in documentaries and museums, which is usually couched in the guise of a history lesson. Something that happened back in the 1800s, which feels like a really long time ago. But these are real people today, and there is a lot that’s happened that I’ve not seen presented or talked about much.

I’m not going to go into many details, mostly because I am only beginning to understand it myself, and I don’t want to accidentally propagate more lies and half truths. What I am sure of is this: 

I was already somewhat familiar with the the history of Carlisle Indian Industrial School—such an unassuming name—which operated from 1879 to 1918.

In short, the US government required, coerced, and forcibly took Native children from their families and shipped them off to Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, where the express purpose was to “Kill the Indian to save the man.” Their names were changed upon arrival, they were not allowed to speak their own languages, even with each other, to practice their religion, wear their own clothes, or do anything “Indian.” Punishments for violations were often cruel, and those that survived—the school’s graveyard register is longer than its graduation roster2—were changed forever. They learned English, learned to read and write, and lost a great deal of their identity, culture, language, traditions, and knowledge of how to live on the land. 

Some went home as adults, but were too different to really belong, and some stayed in the mainstream culture they had been taught to imitate, but were discriminated against and didn’t really belong their, either. 

Students gathered in front of Carlisle School. Photo in the Public Domain.

Carlisle is only one school, though more than 10,000 students passed through its doors, but shortly after its founding it became a model for more than 100 other Native American boarding schools throughout the country. Together, they raised the majority of Native American children from the late 1800s until surprisingly recently, into the 1970s and 1980s. A few are still open today, though they are no longer trying to wipe out Native cultures. The legacy of these boarding schools is highly complex, and the students who attended report both victimization and agency, cultural loss and cultural persistence.

What I didn’t know, had no idea, was that the US government not only trained the children not to use their languages, that it was in fact illegal even on the reservations until very recently. The government made it illegal to speak any Native American language until 1990, and even to practice their religions until 1978! In direct violation of the US Constitution, they forbade freedom of religion. 

This weekend I heard a number of comments, some couched in humor, some not, about the “res” being a P.O.W. camp. Today that is a grim comparison, but in the early days, it was fact. The Lakota (I’m not going to generalize here, I don’t know about every tribe) took up arms and fought the invading European American’s attempts to push them off their ancestral territory, as anyone would do to defend their home. Some battles they won, some they lost, but in the end they surrendered and were herded onto land that is now their reservation and forcibly detained there for many years. Prisoners of the war that they lost. 

The land they were allotted was basically the leftover area that the new settlers didn’t want. It wasn’t good enough for farming and wasn’t big enough for hunting, so they had no way to support themselves. The army provided them with enough food rations to survive, and a great deal of alcohol. Fermented beverages were new to them, and had a disproportionately strong effect on their systems, which had not had the millennia to adapt to processing it as had Western cultures. 

To top it off, I was under the naïve impression that the Native tribes actually own the reservation lands. They don’t. Not entirely. They were, and still are, federally owned. “Held in trust by the United States for various Indian tribes and individuals.” And many tribes lost large portions of it early on because of a concept they had never before encountered: taxes. They were supposed to pay taxes on the reservation lands (with what money, I don’t know), and when they didn’t, some of it was forfeit to the government. They also sold some of it to White settlers in those early days before they understood what that would mean, and various US government policy changes throughout the decades further cropped their allotted land.

I don’t know if the people in government making these decisions were trying to ruin them, if they were simply incompetent, or if they were well-intentioned people making what seemed like reasonable decisions at the time that just ended badly. The reality is probably a mix of all three. 

But it doesn’t take any great skills of prophecy to foresee that if you put a group of people on land that can’t sustain them, take away any form of livelihood, and then make them dependent on you for everything they need, that the situation is not going to turn out well. 

Today, the struggles on the reservations with drugs and alcohol are well known. What else is there to expect from a people kicked down and deprived of everything they are? The Pine Ridge Reservation, where I visited, is a dry res. They themselves recognize what it is doing to them and made alcohol illegal anywhere and everywhere on their land, not just for minors or in certain places. That has helped a lot, but the struggle is far from over. 

They are often accused of being a welfare generation. It is true, many of them are. But their dependency is a direct consequence of government policies over the last hundred plus years, and even today, there is little way out even for those who want it. There are very few jobs on the res and very few businesses, barely more in the surrounding towns, which are few and far between, and the Natives are often discriminated against for the few jobs that are available. 

Many young men pick up what day jobs they can find, but even when they do get an offer, it may be 60 to 100 miles away and many times they don’t have the gas money or other transportation to get to it. There is work that needs to be done on the res, but the families that need the work done are often no better off, and sometimes the workers get paid only in food. 

Staying on the res therefore usually means staying unemployed, staying on welfare, staying frustrated. Leaving means leaving their family, their support system, and built-in childcare. Or leaving their children. These are no win options.

So, the army was keeping the Lakota on the res, and though it is sort of their land, it is also under federal jurisdiction. The government made their language and religious practices illegal, many of the children were shipped off to boarding schools, and the adults who stayed behind were randomly stopped and searched on the res for any traditional regalia they might have with them. 

A few children were successfully hidden from the government and taught the traditional ways. These grew up and became the medicine men and chiefs of the tribes, and their grandchildren are the chiefs today. It is these families who are the families I stumbled onto when I came to this powwow. These people are the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of Black Elk and Fools Crow, great leaders of their people and peacemakers who worked tirelessly for understanding and harmony between their people and the US.

I hadn’t heard their names before this weekend, but I already have a growing respect for these men. Frank Fools Crow worked with the US government for decades to bring an end to such discriminatory laws against language and religion.

Memorial to Frank Fools Crow at Bear Butte in SD

Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the boarding schools in many ways fueled efforts for political and individual self-determination in the 20th century, both by creating reasons for political activism and with former students using the system they assimilated into to their advantage.

As I’ve been trying to process all this, what I keep coming back to is Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Say that three times fast. Or once. (The V at the beginning makes an F sound.) It means coming to terms with the past. It is a German concept that came out of trying to make sense of and deal with their own history of the NAZI era. The Germans are a proud people, and have much to be proud of, but 12 years of their history—it was only 12 years that the NAZI Party was in power—has colored everything about their culture, traditions, and the way the world has looked at them, ever since.

Some of that is entirely justified, some of it is stereotyping. I’m not interested in getting into a debate here about who is to blame for what. And that’s just the point. Vergangenheitsbewältigung isn’t about blame, pointing fingers, or accusing. It is about understanding what happened and why and dealing with the consequences, some bad, some good, all irreversible.

Understanding why things happened is necessary, because even after after the people who did it have passed away, we still have to deal with the effects of what they did. And, just as importantly, with the cultural values and thought patterns that led to their actions, many of which are still with us.

Not long after WWII ended, the German people had to deal with the shame of what they did or members of their families did or their friends did. It wasn’t everyone. Many Germans never belonged to or had any sympathy with the Party, but it effected everyone’s lives, participant or not. To their credit, Germany faced some very uncomfortable truths and hard realities head-on (for the most part), and dealt with their past to the point that every schoolchild today is sick of hearing about it, visiting memorials, and listening to the stories, long before they graduate public education.

They wanted to not only understand what happened and why, but to make sure that it could never happen again. That requires understanding, but it needs more than that. It means weeding out the very thought patterns that made such atrocities possible. I refer here to both the Holocaust and the war itsef: being willing to plunge a continent, later an entire world, into war.

What it came down to for the Germans was the devaluing of others. Being able to think that I am better than you therefore I have a right to tell you how to live. Sound familiar? “Kill the Indian to save the man”? And that other famous philosophy of Westward Expansion, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” For the Germans, the solution was to write the value the individual into the most fundamental document governing the nation. Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. The dignity of the person is inviolable. Article 1, sentence 1, of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany.

All laws and policies that have been passed since look back to this most sacred of commandments, and back it up by protecting the individual and human dignity, not perfectly, but more thoroughly than I’ve seen anywhere else.

As a case in point, the recent wave of intensified privacy policies you’ve probably seen and gotten emails about from all the websites you use, and the cookie use disclaimers that have started popping up on many so websites in the last few months, are a result of Germany spearheading data protection laws in the EU, giving its citizens unprecedented control over how organizations use their personal data. Again, protect the individual first. So that big companies, governments, political parties, etc. cannot do too much harm.

These emails and popups may be a bit annoying, but they represent the fact that you have the right to ask and require any of those websites to delete your personal data, and that they have to comply. So if someone posts an embarrassing or inflammatory picture of you on Facebook or Google or wherever, you now have the right to get those companies to take it down even if whoever posted it won’t. At least, you have that right if you are a citizen of the European Union.

Back to this continent. The people are no longer with us who instituted the laws and policies that so dramatically changed Native ways of life in such a radically short time, but their consequences are. Not all of those changes were bad, and I’d bet that few Natives nowadays would want to “return to the blanket,” as it was called at Carlisle, meaning returning to a completely pre-European-contact way of life. The ones I have talked to like TV and indoor plumbing and modern health care as much as anyone.

But they also want to be able to maintain their traditions, speak their languages, practice their religion, have a say in what happens to their ancestral lands, and be able to live and work free of discrimination, while still maintaining their cultural identity. As do German Americans, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and African Americans (who are in many ways facing similar struggles). They want to be Lakota Americans, and that not be a contradiction. They don’t want to have to make a choice between who they are and who they are.

They are facing some real problems on the reservations. They’re not blind to that. They know the problems and deal with them every day. And they don’t need some outside agency or people, no matter how well-intentioned, to swoop in and make everything better. That has been tried over and over and history is clear that the results are always unintended harm.

They can help themselves, but they need support. They need well-intentioned outsiders to support them in facing the tremendous hurdles that they have. Both financial support as well as legal representation in protecting their rights, skills and manpower when and where they decide it will be helpful, and time. Time to see these efforts through instead of complaints that they’re not there yet.

These problems took several generations to get to this point and will take a few more to achieve a new equilibrium that everyone can live with. From what I’ve seen these few days, I am entirely confident that it can happen.

They have already achieved remarkable progress in having their religion recognized, their language is being taught again to children, their legal rights are increasingly being upheld in courts, alcoholism is on the decline, and more and more young people are finishing their education and supporting themselves and their children. There is still a long ways to go, but they did all this not with, but despite, help. Imagine what they could do if everyone worked together toward a common goal, letting them lead in the ways that work best for their people. It can be done. These are a strong and proud people, and they have much to be proud of.

Back to the powwow. So much happened this weekend, on so many different levels, that it has been a lot for me to process, and I, too, needed time for that. Still need time for that. Here’s another thing that I’ve been gnawing on.

At one level, the ceremonies this weekend seemed kind of low-key, in that they didn’t have the grand, everyone-drop-everything-we’re-doing-this-now quality that I am used to with ceremonies or award presentations. They simply went on in the circle and many people participated or paid attention and still other things continued going on at the same time and no one seemed to mind. And yet it was clear that those others were not being disrespectful and that the ceremonies were very meaningful to those who participated and to the community at large. They just didn’t have the everyone-look-at-me feel that I have come to associate with what it means to pay someone honor, and it took me a while to adjust my expectations and judgments to tune in to what was actually going on.

And yet, these people were very serious about honor. It is an honor for the families who served food to be able to do so. It is an honor to be able to give gifts to their guests. It is an honor to bring a cake for their graduate or elder or in memory of a loved one and to serve it to all who come. I am used to gifts being a social custom or an outpouring or generosity or even an obligation, but this felt different. They were less showy about it, and did not expect showy thanks.

But gifts are to be reciprocated. They didn’t ask, didn’t hint or anything. But when I gave back, helped with my labor—all I had to give—it was well received. I did not feel an obligation, but felt it was the right thing to do, and enjoyed being able to help, even if it was equally as low-key, serving hot dogs and hamburgers and snow cones and cleaning up afterwards. I made a lot of snow cones that hot Sunday afternoon.

The showiness isn’t what’s important. What is done is important. This is one of my many lessons and something I need to take more to heart. (If I already had, I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all.) The honor of an act is in doing the action, not in anyone seeing me do the action. In my better moments I live this out.

The powwow was only three days, yet it brought up so many questions and feelings inside me that I stayed two more days to get to know some of the people I met there and see and learn a little more about their home and how they live.

One conversation stood out. I was asking one gentleman about the dichotomy between the seemingly low-key atmosphere and how so many people are investing a great deal of time and effort and money into this weekend. By way of answer, he described to me how everything we do, how this world we live in, has levels of meaning.

There is the mundane, that’s paying bills and picking the kids up and grocery shopping and the necessary minutiae of day to day life. But when the mundane is elevated, those same things become sacred, and most of us experience moments of this at different points in our lives. This is when we tap in to a higher meaning. But when the mundane is degraded, those same things becomes the profane. And above all of that, a very few of us may touch the divine.

Time spent in normal life:
Sacred     ——
Mundane ——————
Profane   ——
How it’s supposed to work:
Divine      ——————
Sacred     ————
Mundane ——

Maybe some of why this resonated with me so profoundly is that I have been trying to seek out the boundaries between these different levels myself. Levels is probably not the right term, it is just the best description I can manage for the moment. What makes something, an action, a thought, an experience, mundane or sacred? Where do these blur and what differentiates them?

An act might be the same act, cleaning up trash, for example, or donating money, going grocery shopping, smelling a flower, having sex, and for one person or in one moment or in one way, it is sacred, and for another person, even the same person at another moment, it is merely mundane, trivial, a social obligation or an item to check off the to-do list. Even prayer can become nothing but routine, while routine prayer can be spiritually elevating.

And all of these have their counterparts in the profane when unchecked and done to satisfy the self or passions rather than to reach out and connect.

I don’t have these answers. These are simply questions I’ve been wrestling with. Yet they are important questions. Among the most important questions. Their answers are gradually changing my life. Not long ago I would not have been able to come here, would not have been open to the conversations that made it possible, would not have even left my house to get out on the road and seek. I am astounded by the revelations and healing that has taken place in my own soul, yet this is just the beginning of the journey.

Through earnest seeking and being willing to face old hurts and hard truths, grace has come into my life. This is not bragging, rather it is admitting my deep brokenness. Nor is the grace mine, I am merely the grateful recipient. That too, is a consequence. Being open to God allows Him to work in me. I get to choose.

And I make that choice not in some grand statement of lofty intentions, but quietly, moment by moment, in what I choose to engage with and what I choose to turn away from.

I never did find my friend from the campground. Toward the end of the weekend I met her family who told me that her business in Vermillion was taking longer than expected, but in a way it was good for me that she didn’t come. If she had, I’d have clung to her like a security blanket and not met any of the many remarkable people I had nor engaged so deeply with truths that I needed to confront. Yet if I hadn’t met her, I wouldn’t have come at all, so I am grateful she entered my life.


Note 1: The income data I found from both government and aggregate sources was not entirely consistent, differing in years reported, whether the entire county or individual towns in the county were used, whether figures were estimated and from what sources, and how data was presented. (Here’s a quick primer on the difference between per capita and median household income.) The figures I used were the most recent US Census Bureau data for the whole Oglala Lakota County. What is consistent among all reports is that areas occupied by the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and neighboring Rosebud Indian Reservation not only are described by economists as “persistent poverty” areas, but always rank among the absolute poorest areas of the US.

Note 2: While this statement is true, it doesn’t tell the whole story. The school graveyard holds 189 students, though the actual number of dead was much higher because most of the bodies were sent home to their families, and many students were sent home whose death was imminent. Those buried at the school mainly succumbed to infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis. I was unable to find a total number of dead, though one estimate suggests around 500 dying at the school or shortly after being sent home. The school officially graduated 158 students from 1879-1918, though the majority of students were discharged, alive, for a number of reasons, the most common being “time expired,” “poor health,” and “ran away.” A peruse through the register of discharged pupils is fascinating.


3 thoughts on “15,126 Miles • A Powwow of Consequence

  1. Wow, Martha. Incredibly insightful and well-presented. Thank you for sharing and raising awareness of this situation. Until your blog, I had never heard of a “food desert” and never considered that any like it could exist in our country. I so appreciate your how considerate you are in your exploration and analysis.

  2. hi, again i can see in your writing that you are slowly opening up to the world and others…it is wonderful to see. as you experiance more of life and allow yourself to be more comfortable in the presence of others, you may become more open to experiance a fuller life than what you have so far. And I can see where you have expressed the joy of being alone in some instances. all is good. I keep you in my prayers…love, georgetta

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