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Pine Ridge, 2015

David Curtis

Oct 26, 2015

I love nothing better than when it feels like Life and Art are converging without contrivance. And I love it when I am so involved in the present that afterward I can remember (or seem to) every single thing that I saw or experienced.

My trip this past summer to Lakota Sioux country has stayed with me in this way. Below are a few images and a short essay I wrote about being along for the ride.

The Lakota Sioux have a two-word prayer that has become well known in modern times, "Mitakuye Oyasin". It translates to "All My Relations". At its most basic, it can be said to describe the way the Sioux see themselves in the world, in the cosmos even -- as one part of a greater whole that is all interconnected. And not just connected, but related...Feeling a kinship to the soil, water, trees, sky, animals, insects even. It can be said also that the prayer helps us understand that we are not greater than nor less than others, and that we are brothers and sisters in both good times and bad times, happiness and suffering. 

I was somewhat familiar with some of the historical spiritual concepts of the Lakota Sioux before going to South Dakota with my uncle John Niceley this past June, and I wondered if it would be possible for that kind of outlook to survive in the current scenario of reservation life. What I found during our stay there confirmed to me that the prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin, is alive and well, thriving in the hearts of a people caught inside a cauldron of historical trauma, modern contradictions, and very real daily struggle.  

Staggering statistics tell a story of the Pine Ridge Reservation today: an unemployment rate of over 80%, drop-out rates of over 70%, a youth attempted suicide rate estimated at 7-10 times greater than the national average...Meanwhile History paints a glorious picture of their past, of the Oglala Lakota becoming one of the greatest warrior tribes of all time after adopting the horse into their culture. What I witnessed existing between these two extremes was kids, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, adopted family members too, that care about NOT becoming a statistic, and deeply care about connecting to the parts of their history and culture that still mean so much to them. This was clear from day one at the small arena in Porcupine, where we stayed on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The extended family of the fine folks who let us use the arena and grounds were horse people who were obviously happy to play a strong role in the community in general. They had invited many of the young boys who showed up with lots of energy and curiosity to John's Colt Starting Clinics. 

Some might say I am biased because he is my uncle, but I truly feel that John has a gift not only for working with horses, but with any person, kid or adult, who makes themselves vulnerable enough to get in that ring with him and an "unbroken" horse. Watching him work with two equally apprehensive creatures like that it appears at times he can almost make himself invisible, which is actually not accurate -- his energy is powerfully direct and purposeful the entire time. It's a sort of precision that is so natural he makes handling a young colt that has hardly been touched by a human hand look easy and nearly effortless.  

Watching him explain his philosophy of Natural Horsemanship, what it means on a basic level from day one in starting a colt, I was struck by how nothing he said or did came from a "male ego" place. He would explain to the young boys in particular how the young horses, even one who had acquired the nickname "Killer", was simply scared. The horse was acting out and putting the human in danger because he didn't understand what the human wanted from him.

"We have different languages" he would say. "How can we expect the horse to just be born knowing what we want him to do?" He explained that we can build a much safer and successful experience working with a horse when we try to use a language the horse understands. This kind of relationship is based on mutual respect, and has no place for aggression, violence, or cruelty of any kind.  

Of all the young boys who got in the ring, and I noted that every one of these had been brought by someone other than their own parents, each had their own "victory" in that they got to experience a sort of harmony with a young horse they had previously viewed as wild or dangerous or unapproachable. I think it was also important that these victories were witnessed by some of their peers and family members. The kids that didn't get in the ring watched intently the entire time. Some of the older boys and many of the adults who attended came to us with support and enthusiasm and promised to try and get more youth involved if we are able to come again next year.

After several days of the clinics we traveled to Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where the annual Crazy Horse Ride begins. The night before the commencement, we ran into a small group of boys who had come to the clinics. We let two of the boys ride horses we had brought. One boy in particular, Josh, ended up being a kind of success story with a horse that had been very troubled previously. The first day John convinced him to keep the saddle on him, but for the rest of the ride he rode him with only a blanket, as did many of his fellow riders.  

For me personally, being part of the actual Crazy Horse Ride was a tremendous experience. It is hard to describe the mixture of excitement, honor and apprehension I felt as we all started off together after the initial ceremony took place, on the site at Ft. Robinson where the warrior Crazy Horse was murdered. I was forced to face many fears during that ride. Fears of being a good enough horse rider, fears of being able to have the stamina and strength to endure it, fears of being out of place and unwelcome among a people who had every historical prerogative toharbor animosity toward me, simply for being a white American.   

But this is where Mitakuye Oyasin, the All My Relations prayer, comes in again. The second night of the ride we ended at a wide open space, just vast, open land for as far as you could see. This was our camp spot, and where the third day of the ride, "Break Day", would take place. The riders scattered out and we all made camp under the famous western "big sky". We made fires and cooked food and visited with each other. We heard stories from young Lakota buckaroos, talked with Lakota elders, and had lots and lots of fun with the handful of young boys we had first gotten to know at the clinics. Those boys were running around roping each other and carrying on until the wee hours of the morning and back up at it early the next day. One of my favorite memories is of that night, when we shared some dinner and snacks with the boys by the fire, and they asked if I wanted to learn some of their words. One would say, "Do you know the word for hawk in Lakota?"  

And of course I would answer, no. 

"Red Tail Hawk is Cheta Luta". 

And I would repeat, "Cheta Luta".  

"Do you know the word for horse in Lakota?"

"No I don't, please tell me."

"Sunka Wakan."

And I would try my best to say it as they said it, praying to remember.  

-- Jennifer Niceley