Mitakuye Oyasin: We are all Related

Name: Mary McGrath

Type of Project: Service-Learning and Community Service

Brief description of STEP Signature Project

For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation for a week-long service trip in support of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Traveling through an organization called Re-Member, my week had a mix of manual labor, such as trailer skirting and bed-building, and cultural immersion. Fellow volunteers and I were able to have direct contact with countless Native Americans, their unique culture, and the struggles they constantly face.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

My understanding of all three of these aspects, myself, my assumptions, and my view of the world, were drastically upended during my project. The week was, overall, a major opportunity to grow, learn, and appreciate. About myself, I was given a lesson of peace through the beautiful Native American way of life, which is generally slower than typical American culture. They are precise, thoughtful people. They take their time. When someone asks, “How are you?” they genuinely answer. They listen. They stand up for their beliefs, but always serenely. These are values that I want to bring to my life as I transition back to bustling Columbus. My assumptions and view of the world has become much more merciful and “big-picture.” I realized that much of the formal history I learned in grade school and high school is highly incomplete. The atrocities that Native American people have experienced for years at the hands of the government, soldiers, and settles are almost unspeakable. I feel like my time in South Dakota has equipped me with the tools to truly question, hold unwavering belief in morality, and continue to use education as a means of change.

What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

Among countless injustices that I learned about during my project, one of the most representative events was the Wounded Knee Massacre, which happened on December 29, 1890, just three miles from the service organization’s headquarters. At the battle site, which now contains a cemetery, mass grave, and unofficial memorial—all barely noticeable to a passing car—we listened to a descendant of Wounded Knee survivor recount the happenings of the genocide. American soldiers stormed into the area and murdered an estimated 300 unarmed Lakota men, women, and children. Mockery, rape, and mass burial—alive—played roles in the massacre. Soldiers chased the Native Americans for miles, all to “fix” this “Indian problem,” as the soldiers saw it. Over 20 Medals of Honor were issued to the soldiers for this mass destruction of weaponless people. As the speaker tearfully told us the gory details of his ancestors’ struggles, I felt myself getting angrier and angrier. Just one aspect of the inequalities put upon the Native Americans, the Wounded Knee Massacre and its description were a major source of my transformation during my project. As a college student and believer in education, I want to be an advocate for the beautiful Lakota way of life and for the people who are still recovering from their harsh exclusion of proper treatment.

The organization, Re-Member, which facilitated my volunteer week, holds “Artisan Night,” every Wednesday, where local Native Americans can come, sell their handmade crafts (for many, this is their only sources of income), and enjoy a meal with volunteers. I ended up talking to a middle-aged Native American named Dennis for much of the evening. From him, I was able to get firsthand experience of the Lakota culture, pride, and history. The first thing that struck me was his vast knowledge. He was able to recount the Lakota creation story, speak in fluent Lakota language, retell Wounded Knee Massacre details, and give reservation history. For me, this was a huge validation of my belief in and appreciation for the Native way of life. These people, children and adults alike, are tremendously in touch with their past. Despite the hardships they face, their values have endured thousands of years. They live out their beliefs. They are rich in traditions. Each person seems to know their race’s significance, and this is the essence of their impressive pride and dignity. My discussion with Dennis affected me in that it gave meaning behind my decision to volunteer on the reservation. It certainly contributed to my “big-picture,” wholesome view on life. Their values of peace, inclusion, gratitude, and respect for all living things has seeped into my own philosophy.

One last experience leading to my transformation was the general encounter of poverty that I witnessed on the reservation. Both via the drives that I took around the reservation, during which the lack of adequate housing was all-encompassing, and via the actual work days, during which I worked on one trailer home all day, the destitution was apparent. This kick-started my transformation of emotion, mercy, and appreciation (with a bit of guilt) for the home and situation in which I was raised. Many of the Native Americans have never left the reservation, and their circumstances can be described as none other than third-world. Pine Ridge has ranked within the top three poorest counties in America for several years. It is a food desert with little opportunities for employment, healthy eating, or non-corrupt leadership. From a perspective of sympathy and my duty as a citizen to help those in need, these people deserve more than they have. Combined with their rich cultural beauty and fortitude, the cause had a significant impact on me.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

This transformation is highly valuable for personal, academic, and professional reasons. Personally, I feel like I gained a new perspective on the human condition. I am more compassionate, open, and, for lack of a better word, wiser than I was beforehand. The Lakota people helped me to understand a bit of what is important in life, and how I can really attempt to make an impact on this world. The lessons I learned are certainly none that I could have absorbed in my Cincinnati or Columbus home. From an academic standpoint via my public health major, I was given firsthand experience to the health disparities about which I have been learning in my textbooks. Behavior change, public health programs, environmental health, and socioeconomic status—all of these concepts, among others, were relevant during my project. As I continue to learn about the complex world of public health, I know that I can draw upon my Pine Ridge experience as a real-life example of certain practices and their effects.

Regarding my professional goals of attending medical school and becoming a physician, I have gained a new lens. This lens will allow me to see patients in a light of acceptance, rather than judgment. As a worker in health care, it is imperative that I am aware of the conditions surrounding my patients, and of why they might be in a certain situation. I have gained moral clarity and cultural awareness through my project. I would absolutely love to come back to the reservation one day as a health worker. Clearly, the need is there, and I believe that this would provide both some degree of fulfillment to both me and the Lakota people. Dennis, the man I talked to on Artisan Night, planted the seed for this idea. Overall, my project has revitalized multiple aspects of my life, and I hope to maintain these key tenets for years to come. Mitakuye oyasin: we are all related.

Little girls danced at the Pow-Wow on our first night

The beautiful view as we drove through the reservation