Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Notes of Hope and Despair From Pine Ridge Youth
Life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is difficult and complex. South Dakota’s Shannon County is the second poorest county in the United States, and conditions are very harsh. The people struggle with unemployment, poor housing, disease, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, depression, and more. Yet Lakota people are amazingly resilient and spiritually powerful. Among the Lakota, there is a tremendous love for the land, a system of profound cultural ways, a sense of community that often supersedes the struggles, and a capacity for humor as medicine.
The stories of Lakota youth spring from their multilayered identities. They are both rooted in Native perspectives and ways, and regular kids navigating the present-day world. They might participate in traditional ceremonies, and they also surf the Internet. They may do beadwork or sing in Lakota, and, like all students today, they write. And their writing includes all components of their identities to create a unique and poignant tapestry.
This is a collection of writings by Lakota youth at the Red Cloud Indian School, fifth through eighth grades. The Creator blessed these young people with outstanding natural creativity brought forth amidst sometimes very difficult lives. I hope these sacred words will find even greater life in the minds, hearts, and spirits of all those who receive them. —Joseph M. Marshall III
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a remote landscape, and Lakota youth grow up in close connection with the primary elements of life: earth, water, air and fire. They have a profound mutual relationship with nature, which is understood and respected by the Lakota people as Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth. The Lakota love and cherish their homelands as deeply as they do their human grandmothers. —J.M.M.
“Ocean and Sky”
The sky is a copy of the ocean. Only it is upside down. The clouds are the waves that roll and toss about. The deep blue is the water, and all the birds are the fish in the ocean. The sky and the ocean are not different, really. They are quite the same, just in different places. Many people ponder about them both, looking for clues and answers.
—Megan White Face
The sun is yellow and bright.
The sun goes in circles just for the night.
The sun is the biggest, most yellow star in the universe.
The sun stays in one place while we have to spin, spin, and spin.
—Jessie Star Comes Out
“Center of the World”
I was looking into the sky at a mountain, thinking only time could destroy it. I climbed to the top. From there, I could see the ocean with waves gently washing over the shore. I could see the setting sun. In time, it would be dark. For now, it is light. I stand up there smelling the sweet brisk mountain air. When I stand here, I know I am in the center of the world.
The sky is my mom watching over me.
The water is my memories to be.
Nature is my home and family.
Unfortunately, many Lakota youth carry a lot of sadness. Poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation is severe. Unemployment is astronomically high, and life expectancy is extremely low. The winters are harsh, and housing is often of poor quality. Alcohol and drug use is widespread, as is violence. Red Cloud students endure these hard realities to varying degrees and sometimes feel total despair. It is noteworthy that beneath this bleak surface, the spirit of the Lakota people is indomitable, ever powerful. —J.M.M.
“Racism” Racism is a strong bullet through a
Racism is like a bank with lots of unkind words.
Racism is like a gun in a child’s hands
Loaded with all the words a devil would say.
—Julian Bear Runner
Tears fall from my face
As I walk the lonely grass
To a place unknown
What is laughter? Is it the moment between reality and insanity? Or is it the true way to express yourself from all the torture you
endured as a child when you look at your past and all you see are razor blades?
Lakota youth inherit a worldview and lifestyle centered in four core values: respect, generosity, wisdom and courage. Animals are highly regarded among the Lakota and are carefully observed for their gentle, instinctive teachings about living by the four central values. The Red Cloud students live in relationship with animals through prayer, singing, dancing, hunting, riding and hearing stories. Lakota youth have been educated about the time when their people lived in greater harmony with nature and when animals, particularly the buffalo, provided for most of their physical needs. Although they recognize that this idyllic relationship has been severely altered by contemporary society, Lakota youth greatly respect and honor the inhabitants of the land, sea and sky.—J.M.M.
A circle is connecting at all times. A circle has no ends. A circle is round. The world is a circle. Our life travels with a circle. A circle is strong. Strong enough to hold together a tribe.
—Raymond Ghost Bear
Through the hills and in the night,
I go straight to my final fight.
With my axe and bow in hand,
I ride across the forest land.
On my horse and in the moon,
I will see my battle soon.
As I look into the sky,
I sound my mighty battle cry.
Now the mighty battle starts,
I grow with courage in my heart.
As we attack the white man’s station,
I know I am Sioux Nation.
Family, Youth and Dreams
The Lakota phrase Mitakuye Oyasin—“we are all related”—is the cornerstone of Lakota philosophy. It teaches that all things—people, animals, plants, natural elements and objects—are intimately connected as relatives in the family of creation. There is a nearly universal understanding among the Red Cloud students that family is their highest priority and the purest expression of their identity. At the same time—and similar to most of their peers across the globe—the Red Cloud students regularly complain that adults do not listen to or understand their youthful perspective. —J.M.M.
“All My Relatives”
All of my relatives are like the wild prairies, different sizes that are old and new. We are like the stars, there are a great many of us. We are like the sea, we have many voices. We are like the skies, always changing from beautiful to ugly and mean. Some of us are like the trees, very old and wise. The rest of us are like the flowers, still young and learning.
“Still I’m Loved”
When I do something bad, still I’m loved.
When I’m crabby and mad, still I’m loved.
When I stomp around, still I’m loved.
When I beat people up, still I’m loved.
When I do drugs and throw trash around, still I’m loved.
When I die and move away, still I’m loved.
“Dreams of the Babies”
Young, sweet, innocent souls dreaming of how they came to be. Sleeping in their beds with the moon, stars, sun, and clouds hanging over their heads. Hate, jealousy, envy, racism, and sin revolving in the world, but they have no clue of it. They just know when to smile, cry, laugh, and play.
They know when others are asleep because everything gets quiet. They don’t hear any old, odd voices. They dream of all the things heaven wants them to. When they awaken with a cry, the angels are there to comfort them and make them smile and laugh.
Freedom is coming to school every day, knowing you’ll get an education to go on. Going on to another grade until you graduate college. Freedom is when you’re told you aren’t going to get off the rez, but believing you’re going to be the first Indian woman president, and maybe you’ll make a difference.
These excerpts are from Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School. Edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin, paintings by S. D. Nelson, foreword by Joseph Marshall III. Published by Abrams Bokos for Young Readers an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.