Saturday, March 21, 2009

Day Six: Good-bye

Finally it’s time for me to leave. Reluctantly I say good-bye to the group – I am traveling separately as I must get home directly to prepare for Sunday’s service, while they are taking a longer route back.

I’m sorry not to finish this journey with these students I’ve come to know and respect and love, whose service has inspired me and whose own vision for the world they want to live in and to make gives me hope.

And yet I am glad for some time alone, and welcome the chance to drive through this vast landscape one last time -- Paha Sapa (the Black Hills) to the west, the great grassland prairie to the north, the Badlands to the east.

I crest a ridge and stop to take some final pictures, but my camera promptly tells me I am out of battery power -- a clear sign that my time here, at least for now, is done.

I get in the car and continue on toward the airport in Rapid City. As I drive I look for the sign that tells me I’m leaving the Pine Ridge Reservation – it sounds silly but I want to say good-bye.

I see no such sign. (There was one marking the entrance to the Rez.)

Maybe I just missed it. Or maybe there isn’t one, and maybe that’s by design, a way of saying that all this land you see belongs to the Lakota. A way of telling all of us outsiders who visit here and then leave, This is our land.

The hills you see to the west? Those are our hills.

The prairie that stretches to the north? That’s our prairie.

The badlands to the east. Our lands.

The defunct gold mines you visit and the faux wild west saloons you find so irresistible? Those deface our sacred places.

Mount Rushmore? Do we really need to tell you?

That big motorcycle rally in Sturgis? That happens on our land, at the foot of Bear Butte, where we have gone to pray and seek visions every summer of every year since the time of Moses.

So as you leave, go into this country and remember these things. Remember that this is the homeland of the Lakota.

Washte’. (It is beautiful.)

Day Five: Sew, a Needle Pulling Thread (a tribute)

Today is our last day on the Rez. These students have opted to forgo the traditional collegiate rite of spring -- a week of drunken, naked “debauchalism” in Key West or Cancun -- to come here, the poorest county in the United States.

And now they don’t want to leave.

We spend the day at Floyd and Natalie’s place, feeding their horses, tending the site of Uncle Floyd’s sweat lodge, stacking tipi poles.

We are glad to be here today, staying close to what has become our new home; and to be doing these things, giving something back to our hosts who have given us so much of their time, their love, their wisdom.

Finally it’s time for our last supper – a delicious pork and hominy soup, with fry bread on the side. Auntie Mary Ann has joined us for dinner. Originally the plan was to go back to her house the day after we helped build her new privacy fence, and she would teach us about star quilts.

But we did not make it back that day, so now she has come to us. In the intervening time, she has pre-made a pillowcase in the star quilt style for every single member of our group (17 of us), and brought with her two bags of batting. All that’s left for us to do is stuff the pillow cases and sew the final seam closed.

(For the record, I stuff and sew mine closed without incident, thus avoiding what I reckon is the best chance I had all week of landing in the Emergency Room.)

When it dawns on the students what she has done, I can see they are moved and humbled by this sweet lady’s generosity.

But the giving doesn’t stop there. As the evening winds down, and with it our time on Rez, Uncle Floyd brings out his drums – one for himself and one for his delightful, spirited son, Maza – and proceeds to lead his family in singing prayers of thanks and blessing for our group.

The songs are all in Lakota, but he invites us to sing anyway. Hey, hey, hey, we chant at first, joining in more fully as repeated choruses become more familiar, choruses peppered with words we have learned this week – Wakan tanka (Sacred Spirit), Tunkashila (Grandfather), chanunpa (pipe).

For the last two songs, Uncle Floyd asks us to stand and dance to the rhythm of the drums. We rise and join effortlessly in this ancient ritual, for the drums beat with the rhythm of our hearts, pounding out our joy, our reverence, our gratitude.

When the last song is sung and the last prayer is prayed, Natalie disappears briefly and returns with gifts – tee-shirts for the students, tee-shirts and medicine wheel necklaces for the leaders of the trip.

And then Floyd holds up a beautiful beaded prayer wheel necklace. It is adorned with nine tipis, which represent the nine separate districts that comprise the Pine Ridge Reservation.

He then asks me to come forward and presents it to me. Pray for us, he instructs me, for the people of the reservation. And when you do, wear this necklace and remember us here.

I am moved beyond words. I want to maintain my composure, to respond with the dignity and strength that characterize this warrior-based culture. But in truth I struggle to hold back my tears.

Wopila, Uncle. (Thank you.) I will.

It is all I can say.

Interlude: Grandfather Johnson

Today I met my grandfather. His name is Johnson Holy Rock, but we call him Grandfather out of respect. And, frankly, out of affection. Three of my own grandparents were gone before I was born, and the last, the one grandfather I knew, died when I was 11.

But today I met the man I would chose to be my grandfather if I had a choice in the matter.

Somewhere north of 90 years old, Grandfather Johnson lives alone in a trailer a few miles east of Pine Ridge. He has a view from his front porch that land developers would kill for – vast, almost oceanic prairie, giving way in the far distance to the beautiful pine breaks to the south that mark the border of what we call Nebraska.

Grandfather’s situation troubles Natalie. He is among the oldest and most respected elders on the Rez, a living repository of Lakota culture, history, memories, accomplishments, activism, failures and triumphs.

In terms of his status among the people on the Rez he should by rights live in a palace. He is as respected and venerated as royalty. But instead he lives in a dilapidated 14’ single-wide. The ceiling in one bedroom has just collapsed in a jumble of vinyl panels and dusty insulation, and the whole place smells of mold.

This dichotomy – a highly respected elder living in a moldy trailer – is just one of a thousand contradictions on the Rez. But it is an injustice, a violation of the Lakota way. And Natalie intends to do something about it.

So she brings us out and puts us to work cleaning a riotous jumble of tumbleweeds, spare tires, spent car batteries and broken appliances that surround his property. But first we greet Grandfather, and tell him a little bit about who we are, where we’re from and why we’ve come.

Oooo, he says each time, in a way that is somehow very sincere and absolutely adorable. By now we all want him for our grandfather, which is the point of the Lakota way. He is our grandfather.

While we work, Uncle Floyd arrives. There is an important treaty meeting next Tuesday, and no one knows more about the treaties than Grandfather Johnson. So Floyd has come to consult with him.

Grandfather is fluent in English but he prefers to think and ponder in Lakota. As I listen to these two men, two pillars of their “tiospaye” (their tribal family), I feel like I’ve fallen through a crack in time. They could be talking about where to site the summer encampment, or where the buffalo are, or whether to mount a horse-raiding party on the Cheyenne.

I say to Tessa, one of the students, that when I hear Lakota spoken like this, it feels like I’ve gone back in time 200 years.

But you haven’t! she replies.

And I think, That’s it! That’s exactly right, the heart of what Lloyd and Natalie have given their life to – connecting the Lakota’s vibrant past with their desolate present, that they might someday flourish once again.

We finish our work, and take a group shot with this sweet man, one of the wise elders that can help restore his people. A man we’ve all come to love.

The next day Natalie tells us she talked to Grandfather about finding a better place for him to live, perhaps one of the newer government homes that properly belong to people exactly like him.

He avers, noting that he is now very old and maintaining that those nice houses should go to people who need them more. A young family just starting out would be his recommendation.

To the last he is Grandfather to his tiospaye -- the extended family he holds in his heart.

And he has become Grandfather to me, to all of us.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Days three and four: What have you learned?

Tonight, after a long day fixing buffalo fence, our host, Uncle Floyd, asked each member of our group what we had learned during our time so far here on Pine Ridge.

We all felt the same way, I think – it’s hard to pick just one thing. But for me, the most surprising thing I’ve learned is that I have been wrong about the Rez all these years.

I grew up here in western South Dakota and have visited the Rez many times, starting when my grade school basketball team traveled here to play, and to have our legs run off by the Indian teams.

Starting way back then, I have always thought of Pine Ridge as a place of desolation, hopelessly broken, where animosity toward white people was permanent and deep – a thought that was born, I suspect, when an Indian kid spit on me on one of those early trips to play here.

But it turns out I’m just wrong about all that. Mind you, there’s plenty of desolation and animosity here, make no mistake. But I have learned in the last two days that joy lives here, too, and that it has faces, and names: Alex White Plume and Henry Red Cloud, for starters.

Alex and Henry both left Pine Ridge in search of something – including themselves, I think it’s fair to say. Or maybe they just wanted to leave the desolation behind and to escape the alcoholism and the poverty and the brokenness before that unholy trinity locked them in its fatal grip.

Like all young Lakota, Alex and Henry had grown up speaking English (step one in the colonization process, as they will tell you), so they learned to navigate the white man’s world well enough. They acquired marketable skills and, with them, some measure of prosperity.

Henry spent his years off the Rez traveling coast to coast, a skilled steel worker who helped build some of the biggest buildings in America.

But Henry is also a fifth-generation descendant of Chief Red Cloud, the last Lakota war chief. He discovered in his sojourn off the Rez that money and success did not feed his soul. And so in time he returned home to his land, his culture, his people.

He now runs Lakota Solar Enterprises, a small industrial operation located just west of Pine Ridge on a plot of land his grandfather acquired in the Indian Settlement Act. He welcomed us to his property and showed us around his land and his facility with an infectious, open-hearted zeal.

Henry’s vision is to bring renewable energy to the Rez and to use modern technology – solar panels and wind turbines – to help his people connect with the old way of living close to the earth and in harmony with the rhythms of the land and the seasons. And in so doing, he hopes to give the Lakota a certain measure of economic freedom.

But Henry’s plans don’t stop there. He’s also working to introduce organic gardening techniques, so that people here can eat home grown tomatoes and fresh sweet corn instead of building their meals around spam and processed cheese purchased with food stamps.

But Henry’s grandest vision is centered on buffalo restoration, bringing back the big animals on whose powerful humps Lakota culture rested.

Alex White Plume shares Henry’s vision of bringing the buffalo back. Alex is a kind of benevolent tornado on two legs. He’s an activist – he is the former president of the Oglala Sioux tribe and was involved in the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973, where his wife was shot five times, and lived.

He retired at 45 from a career as an administrator in the Badlands National Park to return to his family land and to live in the old ways – a life based on living close to the land in the Lakota tradition; a spiritual life, in other words.

Not to say Alex is a saint. He smokes almost continuously and tells bawdy jokes. But he works hard to wrest a living from his ranch land, and he laughs easily and often.

Today he graciously invited us to visit him on his property. As a formal tribal chief, he is a highly respected elder. Indeed, he led the tribal council meeting we attended just two days ago – and was the one who told the joke about Custer and blond women.

As we arrived on his property in our rental van, he pulled up beside us in his pickup and proceed to lead us way back off the main road. So far back that my primitive fears of Indian people were briefly activated, and I wondered, is he taking us back to where no one can hear us scream?

Instead he hopped out of his truck and proceeded to give us the tools and freedom to do things we’d never done before. (When was the last time you repaired a buffalo fence?) We hauled heavy cedar fence posts that he had cut himself on his own property, and sunk those into deep holes he showed us how to dig with the ease of an expert.

It turns out this was urgent work. Alex has one of the biggest herds on the Rez. But buffalo are big, wild, plains animals and they do not submit easily to captivity. The bulls grab the barbed wire with their great horns and twist it until they are free.

Some 28 head had just escaped, in fact -- perhaps two or three years’ worth of income for Alex, maybe even more than that. He didn’t tell us how much was at stake in this process. He simply let a group of greenhorn students repair the fence that would keep his buffalo -- his livelihood -- close to home.

He filled the time as we worked with stories about the soil, about the grasses, about buffalo and forgiveness, about Mt. Rushmore and about how each of the presidents depicted there treated native people (in short, not good).

He laughed a lot and smoked some more and he made us feel, made me feel – the one who worried if he was taking us to a place where no one could hear us scream – like we belonged there on his vast, open land.

And I was reminded of the other thing I have learned, that Pine Ridge is also a place of forgiveness and healing. I suspect those are the root of the joy you see in people like Alex and Henry.

On Tuesday night we got a first hand glimpse of what makes forgiveness and healing at this level possible. (By “this level” I mean the kind of forgiveness that follows things like forcing people like Alex and Henry to live on reservations.)

Uncle Floyd had arranged for us to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony – one of the seven sacred ceremonies in Lakota culture -- a very high honor indeed.

For years the U.S. government outlawed the sweat lodge, along with the Sundance, the vision quest and all the ceremonies that comprise Lakota “religious” practice. (I say “religious” because the Lakota don’t have a word for that in their language – all of life is a spiritual practice for them).

Those restrictions remained in place for nearly 100 years and, astoundingly, were only eased under Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Since then, more and more Lakota have reclaimed this ceremony as a way of dealing with the pain and trauma they have experienced as a conquered people, and as a way to strengthen and equip themselves for the challenges we all face as human beings.

They enter that lodge as though they are entering their mother’s womb, and there in that sharp cleansing heat they sweat out the toxins of hatred and resentment, and all the negative emotions that build up in the course of a life. And when they leave the lodge, they crawl out on hands and knees, as though leaving the womb, for this experience of being cleansed and renewed is, for them, like being born again.

The leader of this particular sweat, Ben, was just finishing the fourth day of a four-day mourning ceremony centered on the loss one year ago of his new-born twin sons.

This could not have been a more important or sacred occasion for him. And yet he gladly welcomed us – again, a group of strangers and outsiders -- into his lodge, and told us, quite sincerely I think, that he was glad we were there to share with him in this, the last day of his grieving ceremony.

What do you do with generosity like that? It’s like someone hands you their heart and says, Here, I don’t know you, but you are a human being. You are my brother, you are my sister, and I can’t be myself without you, and you cannot be yourself without me. Let us walk this sacred journey of life together.

So there we sat in the blinding darkness of that sweat lodge, the hiss of the water hitting the “grandfathers” (the rocks that had been heated until they literally glowed), the sharp sweet smell of sage filling our nostrils and our lungs with ancient medicine, the steam and the heat gathering, the drums pounding and the singers singing prayer songs to Tunkashila (Grandfather).

And I thought about what I have learned -- about joy and forgiveness and healing and generosity. And I breathed into that hot, cleansing steam my own prayer of thanks.

Now you’d think that would be enough for a couple of days’ time. But no. Apparently I had one other lesson to learn.

Just before leaving for the sweat lodge, we returned to the retreat center where we are staying to grab towels and shorts. Two brothers were sitting outside. One of them was very drunk – actually, I think he was high from huffing hair spray – but in any case he was so altered he could not stand up.

Indeed, he had fallen and hit his head on the corner of a metal picnic table, opening up an ugly, gaping wound just above his eye.

Our Uncle Floyd had told us just the day before a story about how, when we give a dollar away, it’s no longer ours to worry about how it is used. It’s only ours to give it away. And then he went on to tell about how one time he stopped his car to give a homeless man a dollar. His young son asked him to turn around and go back so that he, the son, could help the man too. And in the minute or so it took to turn the car around, the man had disappeared. Floyd said he realized in that moment that this man was a Christ-figure, sent by the Sacred Spirit to test him. And he had passed.

Even with that story still fresh in my mind, I could not bring myself to give this man a dollar, for it was clear to me he would use it to buy Wild Turkey or hairspray and so continue hurting himself. As I saw the situation, what he really needed was not my money but stitches and food. But he would accept neither.

I thus left him there hungry and bleeding, so that I could go off and pray in a sweat lodge. And I thought of the parable from my own tradition of the Good Samaritan, of how the two religious figures in the story each pass by the wounded traveler lying there in the ditch, hurt and bleeding, so that they could attend or lead some important religious ceremony.

And I realized how much I still have to learn about being a minister – about joy and forgiveness, and healing and compassion.

Which is to say I realized how much I still have to learn abou being a human being.

Mitakwe Oyasin. (All my relations.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day Two: Be the change.

Wakan tanka. The words are sung loud and high, almost in falsetto. They are the opening words in the prayer song Uncle Floyd sings for us at the end of a long, wonderful day.

It’s hard to know how old they are, these words. Mostly because no one knows for sure how long the Lakota have lived on this “island” (as they call North America) as a distinct people with a distinct language. It’s safe to say they’re older than the words of Jesus.

They’re typically translated “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery." But “wakan” means holy or sacred. So “Sacred Spirit” is also implied. When sung in the Lakota manner they carry an almost tangible power, like the energy that hums under a big electrical line.

Wakan tanka, Floyd sings, in a voice that evokes the spirit of Crazy Horse and raises the hair on my the back of my neck. And after that I am lost in the dense haze of the Lakota language, and in the pleasant remembrance of a great day.

My wife and I are approaching our second anniversary. She wrote me an email yesterday to say that with my being away, she’s had the chance to reflect on our time together as a couple. She’s coming to understand what it means to be a partner with someone, and to build a life together. “I mean build almost literally,” she wrote, “like putting up something strong, and using our muscles and our brains and our hearts to build a life.”

It has taken me some time to understand this concept, too, for joining your life in partnership with someone you love is surely one of life’s deepest mysteries.

What Robyn didn’t know as she was writing those words is that, while touching my heart, she was also providing the perfect metaphor for describing the day we had here on Pine Ridge.

Floyd’s “sister” Mary Ann (technically, she’s his first cousin, but in the Lakota way he invariably described her as his sister) lives alone in a modest home in Pine Ridge itself, the town I mean. Her neighbor is an alcoholic and a drug addict.

I don’t know the full story behind this, only that there are two houses on her neighbor’s lot, and one of them, the one immediately adjacent to Mary Ann's place, burned down, leaving a charred, ugly ruin standing just outside Mary Ann's main door.

So per Robert Frost’s theory that good fences make good neighbors, our job was to build a good fence, a visual barrier between Mary’s pleasant home and the dilapidated handwork of her alcoholic neighbor.

We cleared the site of brambles and dead tree branches. We pushed down the tallest of the burned out walls. With the site clear, the fence went up one post at a time, one panel at a time. We used our muscles to dig the post holes and to break the rock that lay buried there, and to lift the pre-made panels in place. We used our eyes to site the line of the fence -- is it straight, is it plumb, is it true? We then tamped the earth down hard around the post holes and sank screws to anchor the panels to the posts.

No one of us could have built this fence alone. We needed each other. And when we finished building the fence, we varnished it. It wasn't perfect, but it was still beautiful.

But Wilson students being Wilson students, they didn’t stop there. The fence went up sort of blindingly fast. I think Natalie imagined it would take us the whole day to clear the site and build the fence itself. But with so much muscle power and enthusiasm, so much sheer energy at work on the project, it was clear we would finish in just a matter of a couple of hours.

So the students used their minds and their hearts to imagine other possibilities for blessing Mary Ann, and for beautifying her property still more.

Connor imagined painting the small wooden retaining wall that ran the length of the sidewalk leading to her door. Another student (I don't remember who) drove with Gavin (of Conscious Alliance) to the hardware store to buy sandpaper, varnish, paint and a phalanx of brushes. And a movement was born.

Mary Ann’s friend Ted, also of Pine Ridge, supervised us. And teased us. “Your brush is upside down,” he said to a number of startled painters who quizzically examined their brushes, until they saw the big grin on Ted's face and realized they’d been had.

I thought, Those brushes aren’t upside down, cause they’re not even brushes. Beauty and color are flowing out of them with every stroke, like so many magic wands.

But even that was wrong, The color and the beauty and the change we effected were not the result of magic, of course, but of hard, honest work; of people joining together, using their muscles and their brains and their hearts to put up something strong and lasting.

Mary Ann was overjoyed with the whole process, and slightly overwhelmed. She wanted to do this work all on her own but the job was obviously too big for her. So she told us that she had prayed for this day, for someone to come and help her and that when we arrived she couldn’t believe it. It’s finally here, she thought! Tunkasila (or Grandfather, another Lakota way of addressing the Divine One) has sent these people to me!

When we left some seven hours later, Mary Ann hugged Justin’s neck and wouldn’t let him go.

We then took our leave, got showers and had dinner together at Natalie and Floyd's. As I finally sat there at the end of the day, listening to Floyd (and Natalie) sing that prayer, I realized I had learned my own lesson this day.

I’m embarrassed to say that after four years as the chaplain at Warren Wilson, this is my first service trip. I am watching and learning for myself that when you turn Warren Wilson students loose in the world, you’d better be prepared to see that world change for the better, and far more so than even you thought was possible.

The poverty and desperation on Pine Ridge run deep. Obviously you can’t change all that in a day. You can only change it one brush stroke at a time, one hammer blow, one shovel full of dirt at a time.

You change it one house at a time, one life at a time.

And maybe the life that’s changed, maybe that’s your life.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Day One: The Frontline

The first thing you notice when you approach the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the sky. It’s so big it feels like it should curve at the far edge, like the way the earth itself curves from space. But there is no edge, just an infinity of blue, God's own protective dome of sky, covering the only layer of life in the known universe.

And then, of course, you see the poverty. It’s what visitors like me always see first. And it’s impossible not to see it. The dilapidated trailers, the streams of trash strewn along the side of the road, an army of black plastic bags caught and dying on the fences, blown to tatters by the relentless wind, the endless line of shuttered store fronts in the dusty little reservation towns.

Pine Ridge is a place of desolation and hardship. Even the Indians will tell you that. (And for the record, that’s how the local people describe themselves. Indians. Or Lakota.)

But it is also a place of astounding beauty. Physical beauty, spiritual beauty, a place where pine breaks (for which Pine Ridge is named) ribbon through the stark prairie like huge prayer flags, and ordinary people engage in acts of compassion and sacrifice every day.

We have come here on a service trip, and serve we shall. We are a group from Warren Wilson College, ten students, four staff leaders (including me, the chaplain of the college) and three members of Conscious Alliance, a food-distribution agency based in Boulder, CO, with whom we are partnering in this venture.

Today is Sunday. On this, our first morning, we helped unload roughly two tons of food -- a mountain of pasta, applesauce, baked beans, roast nuts, oatmeal, dried cherries, salsa -- from a 21 foot rental truck and into a storage shed on the property of Floyd and Natalie Hand.

The Hands are our hosts. Floyd is a “spiritual interpreter” for the Lakota, and both he and Natalie have made it their life’s work to help ease hunger on “the Rez” and to serve the Lakota people in every way they can, which includes inviting groups like us to come, to bring in and distribute truckloads of food and in return to learn about Lakota culture.

The food we distribute is only meant for emergencies. But there are always emergencies on the Rez. This is the poorest county in the United States. There are almost no jobs here. Money to buy food and pay heating bills is scarce. In the winter, the temperature can get to 40 below and it hovered down around zero just last week. When 30,000 people live this far out from basic services, surviving this close to the edge, every day is a kind of emergency.

In addition to serving as chaplain to the college, I’m also the pastor of the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church. At the very time “my” congregation was in the midst of the 11:00 worship service, I was hauling pasta sauce and pinto beans from the back of a truck. I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to serve my congregation for a vault full of rubies, and I love preaching nearly every Sunday, doing what I can to feed my own flock.

But I have to say that it felt good to put legs on – or my back in to – what I believe. Knowing that the boxes of food we packed today will help keep at bay the wolf of hunger that stalks this country was deeply satisfying, and felt like its own kind of sermon.

We took a break from sorting and sacking all that food to attend a tribal council meeting. We could not have done this without Floyd. As a respected tribal elder, his invitation gained us entry into this sacred space. So this was a rare opportunity for a group of “wasichus” (the Lakota word for “white people” – one member of our group, Deborah, is originally from Kenya -- but otherwise we are all white Americans) to see how tribal governance works first-hand.

At issue today was how to respond to a rapidly developing corporate plan to mine uranium – the new gold – just outside the boundaries of the reservation. The mining efforts will not only deface the land itself (a profound sacrilege to the Lakota) but they are also likely to pollute, and render toxic, much of the groundwater in the area.

The conversation was impassioned, and often in Lakota. It was peppered with references to the wasichu and to Lakota sovereignty, and animated by references to the manifold sins visited on the tribe by the U.S. government and by the church -- the perceived instrument of government oppression. There was a joke about Custer and the blond students in the room, and another one about styrofoam communion wafers. We laughed a little uneasily.

It was an honor to attend this meeting, for this is the front line in the Lakota’s ongoing effort to reclaim their homelands.

But it was also hard to attend this meeting, for it quickly became for me the frontline in my ongoing effort not to feel devastated by everything that’s happened to the Lakota in the name of so many things that are dear to me – America, God, the church.

While we were sitting and listening to the discussion, an old Lakota lady – 88 to be exact – approached me and one of the students I was sitting with. “Why are you here? What do you want to know?”

Her old eyes gleamed with a kind of intensity that initially made me think she was angry. Here we are, discussing our future as a tribe and even now, after everything you've done to us, you white people still can’t stay away – you insist on coming here and breaking into our circle.

But I soon realized her questions were genuine. She wanted to know why we had traveled so far to come to the Rez. I said we wanted to learn more about Lakota culture and history. But what I felt was this: Grandmother, what I want, what perhaps we all want, is to atone for our sins, to somehow, in our own small way, promote healing between your people and mine.

We chatted a while longer, and then before she left us she said simply and sincerely, Thank you for coming. We’re glad you’re here.

You’re welcome, Grandmother. It’s an honor for us to be here.

We then served lunch to the circle of elders. Once they were all served we sat down, a little to the side, and ate, too -- Indian fry bread, fried chicken, pulled chicken, beef soup, tripe soup, potato salad, baked beans and a chokecherry soup for dessert that was so good it made you weak in the knees.

After lunch we returned to the Hands’ home and property for a little bit of Sunday fun. We rode horses – Floyd and Natalie’s daughter is a gifted rider, even racing at summer pow wows – and played basketball.

And I wished life was always this hard, this good, this simple – that hunger could be cured with some hard, heavy work; that historical divides could be bridged with some honest questions, some fried chicken, and the breaking of Indian fry bread; and that people who look like the children of white gold miners and buffalo hunters could ride horses and play hoops with the children of Indians, until everyone is so tired all that is left to do is to go to bed and dream dreams of peace on earth.