As one of our travelers said near the trip’s end, “I expected to return from this trip with a heavy heart. What I did not expect was to feel so inspired by the people we met and so hopeful for their future.” I think this statement sums up the feeling for many of us as we participated in this program.
The people we met were indeed inspiring: from the legendary Phyllis Young, one of the founders of the Standing Rock protests and an advocate for Native American issues for over 40 years, to young Lakota judge and lawyer Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, an energetic proponent for voting rights on reservations. We witnessed the great work being done on Pine Ridge by the Thunder Valley Community Center and learned about urban Indian issues from Darius Smith at the Denver American Indian Commission. We heard from Linda Baker of the Southern Ute about economic issues facing Native Americans and how they are uniquely navigated by each tribe.
The tour was full of grand vistas: the big skies and rolling plains of North Dakota, the craggy pastel-colored Badlands, and lush pine forests and rocky outcrops of the Black Hills. We encountered horizon-to-horizon rainbows, wind storms, epic thunder clouds and sunshine (often within a few hours!). We got a wonderful sense of the vast beauty of the country and of the sacredness of these lands that were stolen from Indigenous people.
There are so many critical things that non-Native Americans could be learning from Native peoples, from their singular understanding of environmental issues (anticipated in treaties dating back hundreds of years), to the values of their legal systems which prioritize restorative justice and reconciliation versus punishment, to their expanded concept of kinship and family to include animals and plants.
We really do have so much to learn, and we felt so grateful to the Native Americans we met on this program, for their generosity and patience in beginning to teach us.