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Learning about nature from the Lakota Sioux

By Jim Detjen
Fall 2009


On a warm, sunny July day we drove across the massive Lakota Sioux reservation in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. We passed dusty outcrops of boulders, cacti and sage and followed a winding pathway to a broken-down trailer. Four horses on top of a nearby hill eyed us curiously as we climbed out of our van and set to work.

With hammers, drills and power saws we spent the afternoon repairing the sides and flooring of a dilapidated trailer. Our job was to turn this rundown structure into a livable home for a single father and his three children. We removed rotting floorboards and moldy drywall. We cut panels of particleboard and insulation and attached them to beams. We pounded. We drilled. We worked up a sweat.

By dinnertime, we had transformed the decrepit trailer into a structure that would prevent fierce prairie winds from penetrating the inner rooms. Our amateur efforts hadn’t created a thing of beauty. But they had turned a broken-down trailer into a cozy home for a needy family. It was hard but satisfying work.

Our crew of 14 volunteers from the Edgewood United Church of Christ in East Lansing, Mich., had driven more than 850 miles to participate in this week-long service project. We were working with Re-Member, a nonprofit organization, to help build livable housing on the 3,467-square mile Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is bigger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

In many ways the living standards of the Lakota Sioux people at Pine Ridge are comparable to a third-world nation. The unemployment rate is 85 percent, the per-capita income is $4,000, and the average life expectancy is 48 years. Many of the reservation’s homes have no electricity, running water, telephones or functioning toilets. Often, 20 to 25 people are packed into a tiny home.

Not surprisingly, the health conditions on the reservation are very poor. The rate of diabetes and tuberculosis are eight times the national average. One in four infants are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Infant mortality is three times the national rate. The teen suicide rate is more than four times the national average.

Many volunteers come to Pine Ridge to learn about Native Americans and to work to improve conditions “on the rez.” But the goal of Re-Member is more ambitious. It seeks to build relationships and create a bridge to the Lakota Sioux world through “cultural immersion.”

Each morning before the work projects begin, Re-Member Executive Director Tom McCann leads a session known as “wisdom of the elders.” During these lectures McCann teaches about Lakota history and culture.

The differences between the cultures of the white and red men are fascinating and eye opening. One important difference is how the cultures view the natural world. Western cultures often believe that people are separate from the natural world and that nature should be subdued and even dominated. The Lakota worldview is completely different. “Mitakuye oyasin” is a common expression loosely meaning, “we are all related.”

The natural world is treated with great respect by most Native American communities. Their wisdom is gained by carefully observing how plants and animals interact with the natural world.

While at Pine Ridge I read a lot about the Lakota Sioux and other Native American cultures. Their views have remarkable relevance today as we seek to build an ecologically sound economy and a sustainable world.

Consider this prophecy from the Cree Indians:

“When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.”

I have worked to include in my classes Native American philosophies about the natural world. I’d like to see Michigan State University set up “study at home” classes in which students visit Native American communities, such as Pine Ridge, to learn about their history and culture.

The Knight Center for Environmental Journalism has also worked to include Native American perspectives in our workshops for both high school students and professional journalists. There is a lot we can learn by studying the wisdom of the people who have lived close to the land for many centuries.

“Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children,” says one Native American proverb.


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