Lakota sweat lodge scene for revelation

Denise Watt

Denise Watt

Have you ever had one of those experiences where, looking back, you know that you’ll never be the same?

I know many of you will answer “yes” to that somewhat dramatic question. Typically, I try to avoid drama of any type. But sometimes it confronts you. And sometimes life confronts you with an experience that you will never forget.

I recently had such an experience on a trip to western South Dakota. For my photojournalism class, I had the opportunity to travel to two of the nine Indian reservations in our state, the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations.

For those unfamiliar with South Dakota’s West River geography, the Rosebud reservation is located in the south central part of the state, with Pine Ridge in the southwestern corner. Both meet the Nebraska border. To get there, it takes about six hours of driving across what some would call desolate, others magnificent, miles of prairie.

It gives you time to think and relax. Believe it or not, no cell phone service whatsoever can be a good thing.

While civilization may seem sparse in that part of the world, I found the landscape rich with beauty from a people rich in culture. A cultural tradition that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, largely just as unchanged as the land that the Lakota people inhabit.

My fellow students and I went on the trip to interview and photograph American Indian veterans for the journalism department’s special project on diversity. While the experience of visiting with these veterans was amazing, what I found even more valuable about the trip was an immersion into a culture other than my own.

I grew up in South Dakota, and have lived here most of my life. I know that I have grown up with attitudes of prejudice that I am not proud of. However, on this trip, my ignorance confronted me in a way I didn’t expect.

On the last night of the trip, I had an opportunity to take part in a sweat, a traditional Lakota prayer ceremony. An intense service, the sweat takes place in a lodge. Temperatures reach sauna-like levels when water is poured on heated rocks in the lodge’s central pit. The sweat consisted of four rounds of prayers from participants. Lakota songs, spiritual manifestations, a deep sense of community and a feeling of being cleansed filled the darkness of the lodge. The experience was unforgettable.

It was in the midst of this, with sweat pouring out of my body, that I realized my ignorance. I had lived here all my life and never made an effort to understand the American Indian culture, or even just where they as a people are coming from.

Our gracious hosts had offered my classmates and I an intimate glimpse into their culture through their stories, songs and traditions. They didn’t have to, but they did. And I am changed because of it.

Denise Watt is a junior journalism major.