Cultural Trip Forms Students for Future Leadership Role in the Footsteps of Their Ancestors

Posted on: May 25, 2022

On a fair-weather Tuesday in May, the 18 seventh-grade students of St. Joseph’s Indian School prayed and smudged before embarking on the trip that has become a spiritual and cultural rite of passage. The journey prepares them to become leaders at school and in life.

Months of preparation included learning about the cultural, spiritual and historical significance of their Lakota ancestors’ sacred sites on the trip: Matȟó Pahá (Bear Butte),  Phešlá (Bald Area), Heȟáka Sapa He (Black Elk Peak), Tȟašúŋke Witkó Memorial (Crazy Horse), Matȟó Thípila (Bear’s Lodge), Wašúŋ Wičhóniya Wakȟáŋ (Wind Cave), Pheži Slá Okíčhize Owáŋka. (Battle of  Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn), Čhaŋkpé Ópi (Wounded Knee).

Students also read Joseph Marshall III’s classic, “In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse,” a fictional story of a Lakota boy and his grandfather who made a similar trip with a similar purpose. In the book, Grandpa Nyles tells his grandson the trip is about “Places where Crazy Horse and our ancestors walked. We occupied the same space they did, saw the same kind of plants, heard the same kind of birds. The only thing separating us is time.” That sums it up!

Coincidentally, Marshall was taping a podcast at the school the day before students departed on the trip. He made time to visit with them and share his experiences of growing up. The result was a spontaneous book signing of each student’s copy of “In the Footsteps” that brightened eyes and warmed hearts.

In their travels, the boy’s group shared a moving experience on top of Matȟó Pahá. As they reached the summit, what had been a pleasant ascent became shrouded in fog. “Suddenly, we couldn’t see ten feet in front of us, and then we were pelted with sleet and snow,” said chaperone Trond Peterson, health and wellness coach at the school.

Ben Rhodd of the Rosebud Tribal Historic Preservation Office explained their butte-top experience:

The cloud coming to envelop the children and yourselves was a blessing by Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. The old ones said that when you see a cloud surrounding the top of a mountain, or it comes and covers you as you ascend, it is cleansing you for the day as the spirits/angels are praying within and preparing you to speak your petition/prayer. The sleet wants to help everyone understand that travails are in life, that sometimes your doing isn’t going to be easy and that there may be some adversity.

Rhodd met the students at Phešlá and told them how it was there that Crazy Horse learned to be a warrior by observing the lizard, mole and dragonfly.

Seventh-grader Memphis Joseph recalled that his grandmother always wanted him to make it to the top of Matȟó Pahá. Before she passed, she told him it was spiritual to her. “I told myself I wouldn’t make it,” he said. “But I kept pushing myself, and I did.” Classmate Jerome High Elk agreed that Matȟó Pahá was the best part of the trip.

The groups travel separately, ten boys and eight girls. This split is in keeping with the traditional instruction in ways of maturing. On this fifteenth anniversary trip, the boys led prayers and songs at each sacred site they visited this year. Each day concluded by gathering in a circle, where students reflected on the day’s experiences and their implications for their understanding of leadership.

On Tuesday, May 24, they gathered in a large conference room on campus to develop Google Slides about their experience. These presentations are how they shared their learning with younger students and stepped into their leadership roles at presentations on May 25.