The summer after high school I found myself in the backseat of a Rambler station wagon, headed to South Dakota. Destination: the Rosebud Indian Reservation where I was expected to run a church camp for elementary school kids. I occupied the backseat while my traveling companion drove us the 1500 miles between New York City and the town of Rosebud. My job was to entertain this near-stranger’s daughter while she, the mother, kept the car moving westward.
And move we did, fortunately, because pacifying a ten-year-old prone to tantrums and a mom prone to over-indulgence just wasn’t my strong suit. I got out of the car in Rosebud and took a good look around and wondered what the heck I’d signed up for. I’d never seen a landscape so bare of trees, never seen so many skinny dogs, never met a man like Webster Two Hawk. Mr. Two Hawk was a rancher and looked like one, right down to the manure-caked cowboy boots, the snap-button shirt and dusty Wranglers. He explained the rest of the family was out disking the fields, getting them ready to plant, and he was on his way to feed the cows. Mrs. Two Hawk came out to greet us wearing a long flowered dress and a white apron. The smell of grease and cinnamon followed her into the yard. I thought I might have landed in a Willa Cather novel.
My traveling companions and I were destined to spend a little more time together before they took off for the Pine Ridge Reservation down the road. The over-indulgent mother was a minister’s daughter and she’d grown up there. We stayed in a little house between the Two Hawk residence and the church. The church was an old shiplap and plywood building that had once been painted blue. A few stone steps led up to the front door. Inside it smelled of dust and candlewax. I found it depressing and wondered how far away from the building I could organize the summer church camp I was supposed to run. What was a church camp anyway?
An inauspicious start to be sure, but as is often the case with rough beginnings, the summer was unforgettable. I went to my first powwow and danced the men’s dance, the fancier steps that the women didn’t get to do. I was tolerated for this, possibly because I looked more like a boy than a girl, and people were polite enough not to worry about the distinction. Or perhaps because I was white it was understood I’d behave in an insensitive or crazy fashion. I also got to spend some time doing ranch work which I was much more suited for than running a church camp. Mrs. Two Hawk very kindly bought me a pair of Wranglers, skin tight as was the fashion on the rez, and once I was able to squeeze into them I was assigned a position in the back of the pickup where, at a given command, I would pull on a rope attached to a machine called a rake, and it would dump its load of fresh hay and we’d move on.
One of the most memorable pieces of that summer is also the hardest to describe. It was the feeling of sound in my body. Let me explain. The people I spent those two months with were overwhelmingly Christian and quite religious. Everyone went to church on Sunday and because I was running the church camp I went to church on Sunday as well. The service was conducted in the local Lakota language as well as in English, and this in itself kept me in the pews. I was surrounded by this language in a daily way. The kids at the camp spoke smatterings of it, their parents were bilingual, and their grandparents spoke almost no English at all. I like to listen to the language of wherever I happen to be, and though I didn’t learn more than a few words, my ears got used to hearing the elders speak. Then one day, one hot and humid Sunday in that airless old blue church, the whole congregation started to sing in Lakota. It was a familiar song, a church song, but I couldn’t quite place it. Suddenly it came to me: it was the doxology, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.” In Lakota. And do you know, after a couple of Sundays I was able to sing along. The strange syllables made their way into my body. The full congregation in that small enclosed space, singing “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow”—it sank right into me, right down through me and into the narrow planks of the floor. And to hear my own voice singing too—I did feel part of the fabric of that community, even for a moment, as we stood and belted out praise.
I traveled in one summer much farther than the 1500 miles between New York and Rosebud. There was no geography to describe my journey, no photographs or souvenirs. But sometimes I stand in front of the window here where I live, a cup of tea in my hand, looking out at the morning dark, and the strange syllables arrive in me, and I start to sing.
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