That’s a Wrap

PR Friday 1The 2017 Lakota Art Camp wrapped-up last Friday with students adding the finishing touches to their parfleches (bags), icapsintes (quirts), modeling clay projects, tee shirts, painted turtles, a colorful buffalo sketch and their The White Buffalo Calf Woman graphic novels. Although there were some minor casualties (mainly limited to broken or detached limbs of various clay animals), no major tragedies developed and the imaginatively fashioned crafts were transferred from the Little Wound School’s art room to the adjacent hallway where they were proudly displayed.

Many of the students were joined by their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and grandparents who enjoyed seeing the fruits of the childrens’ labors on display before sharing in another delicious lunch featuring “Indian” tacos/wraps made with fry-bread prepared by Suzanne and her sisters.

PR Friday 2

Beautiful as the art projects may have been, and scrumptuous as the fry bread tacos definitely were, the highlight of the day was the debut of ROYGBIV Comes to Kyle, the students’ interpretation of the story of how all colors combine to make a rainbow. The drama was much enhanced by the addition of a microphone and speakers (courtesy of the Little Wound School and our “AV” team – aka Neil Straub), which enabled the small and, in some cases, shy voices to be heard loudly and clearly by all those in attendance.

PR Friday 4Speaking of which – if attendance is any measure (and why would it not be?) – the 2017 Lakota Art Camp was the most successful in the five year history of the program. Two dozen or more students were on hand for all four days of the camp (recall that Tuesday’s activities were cancelled for a memorial service for the late Charlie Long Soldier) and more then three dozen children participated in at least one day of the Art Camp. Further attesting to the value of Art Camps-past, roughly half of the students were returnees; no less encouraging is the fact that the camp attracted more than a dozen new students, evidence of the Art Camp’s growing popularity as well as the community’s embrace of camp and its volunteer staff.

Following a traditional exchange of gifts among the volunteers and some of the parents, the staff busily de-constructed the art room, packing-up a portion of the supplies and equipment for transport back to Pittsburgh by Connolly Ground Freight (aka John Connolly’s Toyota Tundra). As usual, the remainder of the art supplies and an assortment of books for all ages were donated to the Little Wound School, and the left-over food was distributed among the families.PR Friday 3

Later that afternoon, the Art Camp volunteers traveled to Rapid Cityfor a farewell dinner (and an adult beverage or two) at the Firehouse Brewing Company before a well-deserved rest at the sumptuous Motel 6. The following morning marked the start of the return journey to Pittsburgh while John Connolly and yours truly headed to the Black Hills to scour antique – aka junk – and rock shops in search of material for future Lakota craft projects before heading home (in John’s case) via the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Connections Across the Centuries

HazelThe 2017 Lakota Art Camp folks took some time to host a picnic for the Art Camp students and their relatives together with individuals and families from Kyle and the surrounding communities.  Despite searing temperatures (think 95 degrees at 4:45 pm) the extremely dedicated (and hot) crew of Renatha Cornelia, Linda Huggins, Terri Molnar and Eunice Nasri performed over and above the call of duty in a positively sweltering kitchen preparing barbecued chicken and baked potatoes along with a fresh salad and with watermelon and strawberry shortcake for desert.

Unofficial estimates had the peak dinner crowd approaching three dozen, sending the rest of the Art Camp staff on a scavenger hunt for extra picnic tables and, most important of all, ice.  In the end, everyone was very well fed, relatively cool and enjoyed great communion and fellowship among the families and Art Camp volunteers.  Most importantly we were honored to have Hazel Thunderbull in attendance, a particularly special moment for John Connolly as her living memory includes interactions with William A. Edwards who first journeyed from Western Pennsylvania to Pine Ridge more than 100 years ago and whose life-long friendship with the Lakota nation ultimately gave birth to the Lakota Art Camp project. tee shirt

Although Thursday dawned mercifully cool the pace of the Art Camp’s activities at the Little Wound School was feverish as ever.  Following breakfast and a reading from the White Buffalo Calf Woman graphic novel, the students busied themselves coloring their own personal copies of the book while the Art Camp volunteers made final preparations for the day’s art proiects.  Chief among those projects was silk screening tee shirts for each of the students with a representation of the White Buffalo Calf Woman graphic novel’s cover art; plans are for the students to personalize the tee-shirts on Friday by further decorating the shirts with fabric paint.

In addition, the second step in the creation of the parfleches (bags)  and icapsintes (quirts) was completed with the addition of shoulder straps and (faux) beaver skin wrist straps, respectively.  The students also painted the clay sculptures they had created on Monday while several newcomers to the class had the choice of either starting their own clay project, a parfleche or an icapsinte. Turtle 1

Later, Suzanne Big Crow led a fascinating tutorial on the role of the turtle in Lakota society, featuring a hand-out written both in English and Lakota.  After reading the hand-out in both languages, the students then painted either wooden cut-outs of turtles or, in the case of the youngsters, traced an outline of a turtle on construction paper and then painted their own turtles. Turtle 2.JPG

After another delicious lunch of tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and apple & orange slices, we bid bon voyage to Terri and Pastor Dennis Molnar who headed back to Pittsburgh.  Then the dress rehearsal for the Rainbow play — aka ROYGBIV Comes to Kyle — commenced including special effects that would put George Lucas to shame in the form of a rainstick, thunder (drums) and lightning (flashing the overhead lights off and on).

With a little luck – and a lot of effort — all the art projects will be completed tomorrow morning just in time for the students’ parents to attend the Art Camp’s traditional grand finale of an art show followed by the highly-anticipated world premier of ROYGBIV Comes to Kyle.

Bravery and Flexibility

The key words for the Unity Presbyterian Church/Hot Metal Faith Community 2017 Lakota Art Camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation are bravery and flexibility.  One of the core values of traditional Lakota culture, bravery is the underlying theme to the art projects and Lakota mythology we are sharing with the elementary and middle school students attending the art camp.  On the other hand, organizing a week-long art camp with our friends on Pine Ridge, some 1250 miles away from Pittsburgh, requires a high degree of flexibility.

Little wound school

Thus after the art camp got off to a great start at Kyle, South Dakota’s Little Wound School on Monday, with 16 attendees participating in a variety of activities – from reading along with and, later, coloring the first section of the White Buffalo Calf Woman graphic novel to starting a clay modeling project as well as laying the groundwork for other Lakota craft projects and a student play – we were saddened to learn of the passing of Charlie Long Soldier.  In light of the fact that he was a pillar of Kyle’s educational community, it was only fitting that Charlie Long Soldier’s funeral would be held at the Little Wound School and thus Tuesday’s art camp was cancelled.

The unexpected “vacation” day enabled the Art Camp “staff” some free time – time which was spent visiting the Badlands National Park but also meeting with some of our friends on the reservation including Geraldine Little Boy and Everett Charging Crow, who graciously agreed to accompany our group’s annual pilgrimage to the Wounded Knee memorial to pay our respects and pray for healing among all of God’s peoples.

Did I mention flexibility?  A 90 minute drive from Kyle to Wall, SD to pick-up tee shirts for another art project slated for Wednesday was met with disappointment as the tee shirts had not been delivered; rather, they are due today, requiring another 120 mile round trip this afternoon to get the missing tee shirts, not to mention rescheduling the tee shirt project for Thursday and shuffling around some other projects to fill-in the gap on Wednesday.


Have I mentioned flexibility yet?  Owing to a computer glitch, my lap top seems bound and determined to rebuff any and all attempts to connect with the Internet, thus there were no entries for this blog on Monday or Tuesday, and I am only posting an entry today thanks to the generosity of the library at Oglala Lakota College which kindly offered their computers for our use!

With all that in mind, students and teachers reconvened at the Little Wound School today for Day Two of the Lakota Art Camp on our third day in Kyle.  Happily, attendance showed no signs of being hurt by the unexpected day off; indeed there was a healthy boost in attendance as nearly two dozen students ranging in age from four to 14 attended today’s program.

Following a healthy breakfast, we adjourned to the school’s distinctive interior amphitheater where – making up for the lost day on Tuesday — we read the second and third sections of the White Buffalo Calf Woman story, followed by John Connolly’s thoughtful observations on some of the lessons embedded in the story.

John C

We then returned to the class room where the students spent a half an hour or so coloring the White Buffalo Calf Woman story book before diving into the second part of their clay-modeling project, namely painting the sculptures they’d made on Monday.  Suffice to say the multi-colored turtles, hearts, bowls, giant worms and even a recreation of Wind Cave (home of the Lakota ancestors before they moved to the surface of the earth) are destined to become treasures of many a household in Kyle in the coming years.  Likewise the parfleches (leatherette bags) and ceremonial icapsintes (soft quirt-like devices with wooden handles) which the students began painting and assembling before breaking for a lunch of apple and orange slices, grilled cheese and ham sandwiches or beef noodle soup.


After lunch the students assembled in the amphitheater again to continue preparing for the “Rainbow” play – which shows that all colors are necessary to create a rainbow and which is scheduled to make its off-off-off Broadway debut on Friday in front of a, doubtless, appreciative audience of family and friends.


The students returned to the classroom one last time for what was surely the highlight of their day – delicious strawberry/pineapple smoothies prepared by the Art Camp staff who then, after the students were dismissed to their parents, adjourned to the nearby Prairie Lodge and Resort where we will welcome the students, their parents and other members of the Pine Ridge community for a picnic this evening.


Paradoxical Pine Ridge



The Pine Ridge Reservation is steeped in paradox. Its 3,400 square miles of South Dakota are part rolling prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction, part clay pinnacles and hoodoos of trackless badlands, part vast expanses of lush range and farmland – much of it leased by white ranchers and farmers. Alternately alluring and forbidding, the landscape is dotted with lonely shacks and trailers (many home to a dozen or more people) and weather-beaten towns like Potato Creek, Porcupine, Kyle and Oglala clustered around relatively modern schools, medical clinics, community centers and churches. The towns are connected by well-maintained roads that would be the envy of pothole-weary Easterners and Midwesterners; venture off the main arteries onto some of the washed-out dirt roads of the adjacent tracts of government housing however, and you’ll quickly yearn for a high clearance vehicle, preferably one with 4WD.


Pine Ridge is also a place where military service is often the only ticket out of the second poorest county in the United States and the most decisive defeat in the history of U.S. Army is a widely-observed – if unofficial – holiday.

I’ve spent a week or so on Pine Ridge four of the past five summers, the first a sort of get-acquainted visit and the others as a part of a non-proselytizing art/story telling camp at the Little Wound School in Kyle for elementary and middle school students organized by the Unity Presbyterian Church and Hot Metal Faith Group of Pittsburgh. How a bunch of palefaces from Western Pennsylvania came to share Lakota art and folk tales with these South Dakota children is a long story, but its genesis lies in a man with connections to Unity and Hot Metal named John Connolly who has journeyed to Pine Ridge nearly every year since the early 1970s . . . carrying-on a tradition begun by a relative who, as a tyke, was befriend by Lakota members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.


Collectively, that’s upwards of 100 years of experience on Pine Ridge. Needless to say, my four whole weeks pale in comparison and to suggest I even know the right questions (never mind any answers) to the abundant challenges on Pine Ridge would be the height of arrogance.

I can say, however, the children it has been our gift to work with the past few years have been bright, curious, for the most part cheerful and, without exception, well-behaved. In three, week-long camps that have been rewarding (if chaotic) learning experiences for kids and grown-ups alike, there have been no fights or shoving matches, and I would be hard-pressed to recall a single moment when any of the young voices were raised in anger. The only tears shed were the result of a chipped tooth at recess . . . and the heart-wrenching decision to take away a puppy four boys “adopted” after they found her outside the school one morning.

Joe Mruk photo

Heart-wrenching? Average male life expectancy on Pine Ridge is 47 to 48 years. It’s estimated alcoholism impacts four out of five families, and the teen suicide rate is four times the national average doubtless stemming, in part, from alcohol-fueled family turmoil creating conditions akin to the post-traumatic stress endured by war veterans.

Inevitably, one’s mind wanders to what is in store for two or three dozen of the most engaging kids you could imagine in the coming years. And to other disturbing statistics, like the fact that there are something like half a dozen mental health professionals for what some estimate to be as many as 40,000 people spread across a chunk of America the size of Connecticut. Such is the epidemic of economic and psychological problems visited upon a proud and spiritual people whose culture a host of government and religious institutions did their best to exterminate that mental health workers regularly burn-out after a few months on The Rez.

For better or worse, during most of our time in South Dakota we Pittsburghers only get fleeting glimpses of the darker sides of Pine Ridge . . . roadside memorials to lives cut short by suicide and DUIs, towns where dilapidated, graffiti-festooned structures mix with maintained houses, forlorn trailers silhouetted against boundless skies, our annual pilgrimage to Wounded Knee, “Ground Zero” for the genocide inflicted on aboriginal peoples worldwide.


We get a more intimate look during an evening visiting with “Dorothy” (not her real name), a soft-spoken, woman who seems not entirely of this world and whose partner recently walked-out on her after twenty years of his on-again, off-again battle with alcoholism. His departure left Dorothy to live with two of her sons – one a man-child who suffered a head injury years ago, the other sharp-as-a-tack who has been jailed a couple of times for minor offenses and is married to the lovely mother of their energetic two year old boy – in a trailer that’s been condemned for, among other reasons, black mold run amok.

Dorothy speaks of the spotty health care available in a Kyle clinic where doctors rotate through every few months – or just about the time they have developed a functioning familiarity with their patients; of a tribal government which, by law, stands for election every two years, all but guaranteeing what little time officials don’t spend lining their pockets is devoted to getting re-elected rather than governing; of a picturesque church atop a distant hill which holds services on Sundays but is otherwise unstaffed, with no one to offer spiritual guidance or social support the remainder of the week.

But for a real vision of hell on earth, it’s necessary to leave the “dry” Pine Ridge and cross the state line to the asshole of the earth, otherwise known as Whiteclay, Nebraska. Population 14, Whiteclay is “served” by no less than four liquor stores that sold nearly 5 million cans of beer in 2010. On any given morning, you’ll find Indians sleeping on the sidewalks of Whiteclay, while others wait in line for the liquor stores to open. A 2014 tribal referendum approved the sale of liquor on Pine Ridge which, if nothing else, should enable the reservation to collect some of the nearly half million dollars in sales tax otherwise destined for the Cornhusker state’s coffers and – presumably – help fund alcoholism treatment programs on The Rez. On the other hand, opponents argued the referendum will just spawn Pine Ridge’s homegrown Whiteclays.

Whiteclay, Nebraska

Given the nature of our “voluntary” summer camps, the kids we see likely come from the most stable and economically secure families in and around Kyle, “likely” being the key word. It’s impossible to imagine the parents who proudly examine a week’s worth of their children’s art projects and enthusiastically cheer our comically sweet “dramatic” adaptation of the classic Lakota tale “Brings the Deer” standing on line in Whiteclay.

Certainly we all want to believe none of “our” kids are destined to add their names to the grim statistics of Pine Ridge; statistics that would catapult Pine Ridge into the national headlines and onto the network and cable news shows were it situated near a major media center instead of within spitting distance of “the continental pole of inaccessibility.”

Similarly, we all recognize there are positive stories coming out of Pine Ridge in addition to the wonderful Little Wound kids. Stories like the Lakota Waldorf School, which offers tuition-free Pre-K to second grade education assimilating Lakota culture with the internationally-recognized Waldorf curriculum and teaching methodology; and the Oglala Lakota College which granted 139 new degrees in June, bringing to more than 4,600 the number of students who have obtained their degrees since the school’s founding in 1971; and ground-breaking for Thunder Valley, the first planned, sustainable “green” community on a Native American reservation featuring new residences, retail spaces, business incubator sites and a community center.


Yet even in hope there is paradox. Like the fact that the Lakota Waldorf School offers free tuition means it must rely on donations and grants to continue its work, let alone realize its ambition of developing a full-on Pre-K through twelfth grade program; like the fact that, thanks to a host of challenges including the need to drive up to 100 miles for a single class, only 11% of students graduate from Oglala Lakota College in “a reasonable” time frame of four to six years; or the fact that traditional Lakota Treaty Chiefs (who have no standing in the eyes of the law and whose power within the Lakota nation stems from ties to their forefathers who signed the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1848 and 1868) view Thunder Valley as just the latest effort by interlopers of tenuous Native American heritage to further dilute Lakota culture.

Joe Mruk photo

It’s difficult to gain valid perspectives about life on Pine Ridge when you live in Penn’s Woods, visit South Dakota once a year and rely on text messages, occasional phone calls and The Native Sun News and stream KILI radio to stay abreast of developments; harder still to ask the right questions, let alone develop solutions. For those we best look to the people of Pine Ridge, especially the students and graduates of Oglala Lakota College and – in the fullness of time – the kids at Little Wound, Waldorf and other schools on the reservation.