We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—Little Gidding of the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
Up on the roof, I stood, stretched, and surveyed the earth around me, a vast sea of prairie grass spreading out in all directions. I could see that the land wasn’t really flat at all, as I had expected, but consisted of ebbing and flowing hills. That way ran a river, for there was a deeper crack between the hills with a few scrubby trees jutting up. And over there were some roads, splicing through the hills as straight as the edge of a 2×4, leading off the reservation in four directions, towards Rapid City, Pierre, North Dakota, Wyoming. Yet for all this expanse, which could lead one to ponder a lonely existence, a remarkably communal feeling began to spread through me.
I wasn’t alone on that roof. Our foreman, Jeffrey Four Bears, knelt up there with me and half a dozen other students, showing us how to plumb lines with chalk and yarn to create even rows of shingles. We fell easily into the rhythm set by Jeffrey, some of us laying the black squares, others working the tar to set them. As we squatted on top of the one-story house, we got to know each other. We played Two Truths and a Lie. We sang songs. We talked with Jeffrey, his dark hair sheltered by a baseball cap, his wind-chapped hands expertly working the materials and tools. He told us about his beloved grandmother and described his difficult adolescence, how he left and ultimately returned to the reservation. And then as natural lulls in conversation scudded through the day like the clouds overhead, we took the opportunity to breathe in the crisp air and look at the world from a fresh perspective.
I was on the Cheyenne River Reservation, in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, a three-hour drive northeast of Rapid City, on a weeklong Habitat for Humanity work camp experience with twenty other students from my university. I had gone on a similar “alternative spring break” trip two years earlier, and while I hadn’t traveled far in terms of mileage—only from my suburban Philadelphia campus to an inner-city soup kitchen – I had journeyed far in the evolution of myself. For this trip, though, I wanted to trek further, to experience places I had never been to before and probably would not easily venture to again. I was taking a course that year in American Indian Thought and Culture as well as writing a senior thesis on Native American literature, so traveling to South Dakota, home of the Lakota (Sioux) seemed a perfect place to go.
I was asked to lead the trip relatively late in the planning process, so as a last-semester senior trying to maintain a 4.0 average and applying for jobs and scholarships, I immediately got down to business. I researched. I organized. I held meetings. I outlined how much money we needed to raise, for flights from Pennsylvania to South Dakota, for car rentals and accommodations and food. I made a list of everything that needed to be done before we left and steadily checked off each item as we completed them.
Needless to say in my pursuit of efficiency and orderliness I wasn’t always as friendly as I could have been. I didn’t have that goal in mind as I prepared. I guess you could say that I was something of a Type A personality. Of course I was polite. I was respectful. But in my mission for all twenty of us to be ready, I came off as somewhat brusque. Apparently, I learned much later, people even feared me a little. At that time, of course, I didn’t realize any of that. I simply wanted to create a rewarding and organized experience for all.
After arriving in South Dakota, I felt the craziness of East Coast life start to dissolve, though, paradoxically, I was as busy as ever. We were on the roof each day by 8 AM, putting in at least eight hours of physical labor. And we were sleepy, staying up late every night to talk and explore our surroundings. The first weekend we were there, we rushed around to see the major monuments, like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, and the sacred lands of the Sioux, including the Black Hills. I witnessed these places with a mixture of emotion, for I was acutely aware that I stood on hallowed, stolen ground. After we arrived in Eagle Butte and as I adjusted to the different cadence and priorities of life there, I considered the privileges of my own circumstances and upbringing. Were the things that caused me stress really so noteworthy?
I began to not think so anymore. I was finding that on the reservation, simple moments could slice through some of the complexities and complications of history and politics and modern society and create connections. In the middle of our second afternoon on the roof, a few of us took a break and traipsed into the long grasses nearby. I sat down, listening. It was quiet but certainly not silent. The constant breeze shook the grass, and the grass in turn chanted back to the wind. That night, we drove out of Eagle Butte, where even its minimal lights could not disturb the celestial wonder overhead. We went into the plains and stopped nowhere in particular except that it seemed like the perfect place to get out and look. Stars splattered the sky from one horizon to the other. Never before had I seen so many. Bright ones like blinking beacons. Faint ones smeared in clusters, sprinkles of white paint on a blue-black background. Being from the egocentric East, I marveled at how utterly beautiful South Dakota was, a simple, mature splendor for only those who took the time to look.
Midweek, in keeping with our objective to learn about the people and the land (and with the blessing of Jeffrey), we left Eagle Butte. We decided to spend the day in Badlands National Park, among the spooky, ethereal clay formations. When the sun shone between the passing clouds, the peaks glistened like thousands of rainbows in a surprising array of hues for surfaces that originally seemed only a spectrum of brown. The hills were not welcoming exactly, but they beckoned, enticing us to discover what lay between their folds. Known as mako sica to the Lakota, we heard they weren’t a place to stay in too long, as evil spirits haunted them. But they lured us to get lost inside them, prompting one of the more poetic members of our group to quote Eliot’s “Little Gidding.” After a day spent hiking and driving, we headed back to what had become our home in Eagle Butte, and I felt an exorcism of ghosts I hadn’t even realize existed within me. They were sucked out the cracked window of the van and vanished into wisps in the darkening air behind us to stay with their kindred spirits among those eerie mounds.
That next evening at the Habitat for Humanity Okiciyapi Tipi offices, the families whose houses we were working on thanked us by making a dinner of buffalo burgers and bannock. We felt then that we were ever so slightly getting to know the people who lived full time in the area. They were quiet, polite, though generally not overly friendly, and I was never quite sure what they thought of us, these relatively rich kids from the East Coast. They did give us the gracious compliment of their trust by inviting us to attend a powwow practice after dinner. We entered the gymnasium tentatively, feeling conspicuous among the bleachers of Lakota kids. A few of them asked us to join the ring of dancers keeping time to the drums, and everyone seemed to take great pleasure in laughing at and with us as we attempted to integrate ourselves. They made it look simple as they danced in a circle to the pulsating drums and chanting, but, as evidenced by our clumsy steps, it was not so easy to be graceful, to pay homage to the great spirits, to feel and interpret the music so intimately.
We returned to our trailers after the powwow practice to participate in a naming ceremony, to give each of us a new name that befit the characteristics we had displayed during the week. In many native cultures, it is customary to rename an individual to mark a transformative experience or when he or she has achieved something great. It seemed an appropriate way to honor those who had given us such an opportunity—the local culture and each other—by doing the same. The group dubbed one young man, known for his sharp temper but unfailing strength and tenacity, Tatanka, meaning bull. I was given the name Gentle Leader. Considering my pre-trip reputation, I felt very surprised and greatly strengthened by this title. Intuiting the change occurring within me, I felt it accurately portrayed my leadership experience that week. Most importantly, it was a name to live up to.
Our time in Eagle Butte was too quickly drawing to a close. We had one day of work left on the houses and the last evening we were to be given the honor of participating in a sweat, a soul-cleansing ceremony we were are all immensely looking forward to as we labored. At lunchtime, Jeffrey Four Bears brought his grandmother over to the trailers to talk about her life and the Lakota culture. We piled our plates with food and sat down to listen to this wise woman. Several stray puppies that we had taken in for the week were roaming and tumbling about. Only when I arose to throw out my trash did I realize I had been sitting in puppy poo. Now, the old Type A, uptight girl from Philly would have had a fit. She would have cursed and been upset and bothered by it. But at that moment in time, I truly didn’t care. Nothing could ruffle me, or so I thought.
When I went to the bathroom to clean off, however, I was truly tested. I realized that I had just gotten my period. We had been told that under certain conditions, including a woman at that time of her cycle, it was disrespectful to participate in a sweat. I was angry. This rule seemed arbitrary, anti-female even. I was torn. Do I pretend that nothing happened so that I could attend this once-in-a-lifetime experience? Or do I come clean? I started to cry. A friend, hearing my whimpers, came to the bathroom and hugged me, transmitting to me the power to make the right choice. I chose honesty, though it was enormously difficult. And I normally would have been mortified by such a revelation. But once I decided, I felt calm. I felt inner reserves of unknown strength course through me.
After the others departed for the sweat, one carrying an article of my clothing as a way for me to share vicariously in this communal event, I took the longest, hottest, steamiest shower I could, feeling a settling in my bones of utter tranquility. When the group returned, I listened with genuine happiness and peace to their descriptions of the healing ritual. At that moment, I felt an integral part of them, of the land around us, at one with nature and humanity. It was one of the most glorious and pure feelings I had ever experienced.
We flew back to Philadelphia the next day. For weeks after, I was on such a high, a healthy, life-altering high. I had gone on a journey and returned, completely transformed. I saw my life and the world around me in a totally new way.
Inevitably, of course, that high wore off. Worries over the next stage of my life, post-graduation, gradually crept back into my daily existence. Years later, I certainly would classify myself again as Type A. But still, it is a slightly tempered Type A. It acknowledges that trip to South Dakota that became a quest, it bears witness to that progression of character and personality. Every now and again, when I talk to the one friend I keep in touch with from that trip or when I see a picture of the mischievous-brown Badlands or the long shimmering grasses of the prairies, I remember that week of volunteering where I was taught how to lay shingles on a roof. Where I discovered the meaning of community and the essence of helping others, and of being helped. Where I realized I could laugh at myself. Where I learned to gently lead. Where I had a glimpse of the person I wanted to become, and realized she was always there.
Gina Buonaguro is a writer, editor, tutor, volunteer, and traveler who enjoys exploring the intersections between geography and literature. She has lived in seven different cities in two countries over the last ten years. She recently walked 60 miles along the Hudson River with her mother, raising more than $8000 to help find a cure for breast cancer. Originally from New Jersey, she currently resides in Ontario, Canada.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.