Students immersed in Lakota culture

Tamora Rosenbaum

Nine SDSU students traveled to Pine Ridge Indian reservation for a five-day cultural immersion program to develop a better understanding of a story that is seldom told. For five days from Aug. 6-10, the students lived in teepees, spoke Lakota, experienced a sweat lodge ceremony and learned about Oglala-Lakota religious views and cultural history.

Dean Timothy Nichols of SDSU’s Honors College and Craig Howe, director of the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies, organized the trip together with the intent of arming a group of students with a deeper understanding of Oglala-Lakota culture. Dr. Nichols said it “helped prepare them to assist with the common read.”

Jack Thompson, senior history major and American Indian studies minor from Buffalo, said the trip demonstrated to him just how little he, and most Americans, really know about Native American cultures.

“We were exposed to a completely different way of thinking about Pine Ridge, South Dakota and the world,” he said.

For Kate Kondratuk, a sophomore pre-med student from Brookings, each activity and conversation she experienced on the trip was valuable. She enjoyed getting a taste of Oglala-Lakota culture through learning fundamental Lakota phrases.

The students greeted one another and the program directors each morning in Lakota. This introduced her to the Lakota way of thinking of everyone as a relative — she addressed her fellow students as ‘cousin’ and the trip organizers as ‘uncle.’

Thompson also took notice of the Lakota focus on connection and relationships, not just with people but with the natural world as well.

“Mitakuye Oyasin means ‘all my relations’ and it stands for everything in creation, from the deer you hunt for sustenance to the tree you cut down for sweat lodge poles,” he said. “They acknowledge and thank every living thing for its affect on their lives.”

Kondratuk and Thompson both feel that they were exposed to a side of the community that lives on Pine Ridge that doesn’t receive enough attention.

“We went there to see the best parts of Oglala-Lakota culture, that people don’t see or understand because they aren’t told about it,” Thompson said. “When we learn about American history in school, we aren’t told their side.”

Another part of the students’ educational experience was learning more about that little-known perspective of American history. The students learned about past treaties and conflicts as well as current legislation concerning Native Americans.

“Tribal people are often thought of as an ethnic group, a minority. They’re not, though, they’re something completely different,” Thompson said. “There’s something missed when we think of them as a minority; they are a domestic dependent nation.”

The students were given another tangible historical lesson when they were taken to the border between tribal land and private land. There, they were shown how the private land owners bordering the reservation had set their fence about twenty feet inside the actual border which was clearly marked by an allotment stake.

“It was a first-hand example of an American citizen encroaching on Native American land,” Kondratuk said. “There are implications even today of what’s happened in the past.”

The trip wrapped up with a full-day visit to the Black Hills to see some of the sacred sites they had learned about, including Sylvan Lake and Wind Cave.

“The most powerful experience for me was hiking around Sylvan Lake. It brought a whole new meaning to hiking in the Hills, around an area that is sacred to them. A lot of the stories that we learned about took place there,” Kondratuk said. “Everything kind of came together there and brought me back to a present-day perspective and made me think about how history affects them right now.”

Another point that was driven home for the students participating in the cultural immersion was that all 565 tribes on reservations in America are unique.

“We went to specifically an Oglala-Lakota tribe. All of the different tribes and nations have unique cultures. So the experience we had doesn’t match up exactly with the Spokane, Wash., reservation in Alexie’s book,” Kondratuk said.

Thompson encourages everyone to participate in the several events included in the common read. He hopes that they will help open people’s eyes to the existence of tribal people if nothing else.

“[The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian] is a good book, but there’s a real history that’s behind the book. And it’s a history that makes society uncomfortable,” Thompson said.

Kondratuk urges common read participants to approach the experience with an open mind.

“I went into this knowing I knew nothing about Native American culture and even with that mindset I was shocked at how little I actually do know,” Kondratuk said.

Kondratuk, Thompson and the seven other students who were part of the Pine Ridge cultural immersion will be involved in the common read and related events. They will be able to use their shared experience to shed some light on the more positive parts of the Oglala-Lakota Native American culture closer to home while also discussing the more difficult subjects in Alexie’s book.

A detailed calendar of events for the Common Read can be found at