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

Posted on: May 24, 2023

Follow the Leader is a game for the young played worldwide in many variations with the common theme: imitating the lead brings goal attainment. When the leaders are cultural icons who went before you, the goal becomes the spiritual, physical and emotional growth that forms young people into tomorrow’s leaders.

On Thursday, May 18, the 15 seventh-grade students of St. Joseph’s Indian School prayed and smudged before embarking on the trip that has become a rite of passage. The journey prepares them to become leaders at school and in life. On Tuesday, May 23, they developed 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 24.

Salome Thunder reflected on the strength she drew from walking in her ancestors footsteps. “When I hiked, I was getting tired and didn’t want to keep going, but I took a break, drank some water and ate some food and felt the presence of our ancestors. This helped me to get up and down Black Elk Peak when I wanted to stop.”

Classmate Sevon Roubideaux spoke about the spiritual experience and advice gleaned from an elder. He said, “At Pesla, I felt empowered just knowing that you could pray to help yourself. Robert Rattling Chase told us that after men came to this sacred spot to pray, they would get answers.”

Angel Courdier sensed a tangible connection to those who went before. “I waited for an ancestor to speak and tell me where to place the [prayer] tie. This happened to me on Bear Butte, Matȟó Thípila and Black Elk Peak,” she said.

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).

Librarian Claire Nehring used her class period to read and lead discussion with students about 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!

The groups travel separately, six boys and nine girls. This split is in keeping with the traditional instruction in ways of maturing. On this sixteenth anniversary trip, the boys led prayers and songs at each sacred site they visited this year. The young women wore ribbon skirts, a sign of cultural identity. Each day concluded by gathering in a circle, where students reflected on the day’s experiences and their implications for their understanding of leadership.