[lin1] The conditions of the trip were interesting. “So, OK,” I thought to myself as I hauled my luggage-sized backpack and sleeping bag down the street. “You’re about to travel to South Dakota with 21 strangers to drywall for spring break.”
It wasn’t to be a typical, “get wasted in Cancun then flash people in a wet T-shirt contest” spring break experience, but something altogether different. I wasn’t looking for hours of uninterrupted sunbathing, all-inclusive “delicacies,” swimsuit-clad college kids and booze more plentiful than sanitary drinking water. I was looking for the type of experience I would consider worthwhile, though what worthwhile would come to mean in the context of this trip, I couldn’t begin to know.
A Van Full of Strangers
In the fall, I had signed up to participate in an Alternative Spring Break through MSU. I was excited; I had high hopes for the experience. Packing myself into the four-car caravan on that Saturday in March, however, I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or nervous. Deciding I was both, I piled in the car, set my backpack at my feet and examined the map. Michelle, our group’s leader started up the car as I called out to the caravan on the two-way radio, “Is everybody ready?” My own hybrid anxiety was settling in, preparing for the long trip ahead.
Among my 21 fellow MSU students with a desire for a service-filled week, I took off for South Dakota to stay on the Rosebud American Indian Reservation. We went to perform community service in one of the poorest counties in the United States and to learn about the Lakota culture. I was aware we would be doing home repair activities such as drywalling and insulating. I — who wasn’t even exactly sure what drywall was — was hoping to undergo a complete Bob Vila-esque transformation. At the very least, I knew I would learn a thing or two.
[lin3] We took turns driving and “navigating” — staying awake in the passenger seat next to the driver. Navigation wasn’t too hard, as around 800 miles were spent on I-90. The trip took a good 18 hours with all of our gas and bathroom stops. In order to avoid running out of gas on some vacant, rural freeway we stopped to refill at every half tank. This rule seemed a little excessive by 3 a.m., as we all poured out of the vans and bought cups of gas station cappuccino, bonding through our hypnotic, caffeine-supported and sleep-deprived stares.
For a portion of the ride, I sat in the very back of a gold minivan and leaned my head against the window, watching as we dashed through empty land and darkness. I just couldn’t fall asleep. I mean, there I was in a car full of people I had just met, passing through states I had never been to before.
Next to me, Alana, a freshman on the trip, slept with her mouth slightly open and her legs wound in toward herself like a yo-yo. Faint music came from her headphones that had fallen down to rest on her wavy, auburn ponytail. The current driver, Laura, and the front passenger, Allison, were playing trivia with the three other vans over the two-way radios. I could hear snatches of the game over the crackly connection. Laura stumped the other van with, “Stand anywhere in Michigan and you are within how many miles of a Great Lake?” No one knew. “83!” she finally informed them, and the lessons of the trip were just beginning.
Help Was On the Way
[lin2] We crossed the Missouri River just as the sun was beginning to turn the sky into a warm, morning hue. The flat terrain changed instantly into a picturesque and hilly countryside. After a while, we had finally made it to the reservation. I was impressed by the expanse of open land — the way the land went on in all directions uncultivated and undeveloped. Its sheer emptiness was amazing in contrast to the suburbs of Michigan I am used to, with a Wendy’s or Kroger on every block.
When we got to Mission, South Dakota, the small town where we would be staying, I continued to note my surroundings. The town was tiny and enveloped by the same open expanses of flat fields. Other parts of the reservation were somewhat hilly. Here, it looked as though the buildings were pasted onto the dusty ground, simply placed there in a temporary arrangement.
At first I didn’t see many people around town or outside the houses lining the streets. I could already see this was a place full of stories. The innards of cars lay open and exposed on front lawns, laundry hung outside and dogs roamed the streets. Some of the Lakota children were followed by prowling, stray dogs, and they stopped to look at us as we passed. I saw their curious stares, and how they must be asking the same questions we were asking each other and ourselves: “Who are these people? What are they doing here?”
[lin4] I don’t think many of us were prepared for the reality of the community service we would be doing. I spent the first day in town on a reservation called Antelope, at a community center. There, my group and I were instructed in insulating a former storage room. The small room was going to be made into a GED room with computing capabilities. The work was rewarding, progress was visible and my group and I left feeling satisfied. Other groups were met with a very different situation. Many came back feeling their work was useless, and I couldn’t understand. Isn’t all help good help?
The next day I went to the site that evoked those same ambivalent feelings. In Saint Francis, a nearby town, our project was to refurbish an old senior citizens center and transform it into a youth center for local youth. This was a great idea and a much-needed resource for the area, since there is little for youth to do and therefore considerable gang involvement.
The problem, however, was the state of the abandoned building. It had been left to seed for a while, and seemed beyond help. Parts of the floor were worn away and dangerous. Mold grew on the walls. The whole place had a musty smell. We wore respirators as we covered up rotted bits of floor with more wood, drywalled over deteriorating wall and painted over mold. It felt like we were providing such temporary solutions for pervading problems. But this is what the community said they wanted and the organization that set up the project, Tree of Life, relayed this need to us. Was this helping? Was fixing up a building that would likely be condemned in Michigan really a contribution?
Throughout the trip, both during our volunteer work and at other times, we learned much about the Lakota culture. We went to the local Lakota museum and we heard Duane Hollow Horn Bear, a Lakota Studies professor, public speaker, spiritual Lakota leader and descendent of the well-known Chief Hollow Horn Bear, speak to us about his people.
[lin5] Some individuals tried tripe (cow stomach) as part of a traditional meal and others participated in a traditional sweat at a sweat lodge. We saw how this vibrant culture was bogged down by historical inequity, poverty, alcoholism (which is rampant though the reservation is designated dry), alcohol-related car accidents, domestic violence, youth gangs and drug abuse. There was so much I wanted to do for these people, so much my whole group wanted to do, and yet we were there to paint over mold and hide the problems of a deteriorating building.
Silenced by Wounded Knee
When Wednesday rolled around it was time for our much-anticipated day off. The 22 of us broke off into groups, depending on what sites we wished to see. My group had a jam-packed day as we went to a Wounded Knee museum at Oglala Lakota College on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation. After that, we went to the actual site of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Next, our itinerary included the Badlands and the Black Hills, followed by the Crazy Horse monument and a drive by Mount Rushmore.
At the museum we learned about the Wounded Knee Massacre and how at least 150 Indian men, women and children were killed in less than an hour on December 29, 1890. White officials were alarmed by the religious fervor going on among Lakota Indians through the Ghost Dance, and their presence was a response to the Indians’ rebellion against their restrictions.
The site has come to represent larger symbolism of this country’s historical maltreatment of American Indians. My group of two carloads of white kids with diverse backgrounds put on headphones and listened to a narrator describe this horrible massacre to us and give us history of the Lakota people as we looked at pictures and documents. We all stood there, nine college kids, just staring in silence at walls of pictures, pain and memories. We left that way, with heavy and personal thoughts.
[cheeto] When we got to the actual site of the massacre there was a small, closed-up hut that was supposedly a visitor’s center of some sort. There was graveyard at the top of the hill. Across the street was a patch of grass and a faded green sign describing the events that took place. Part of the sign that had said, “Battle at Wounded Knee” had been covered up to say, “Massacre at Wounded Knee,” to reflect the injustice of the events.
The nine of us piled out of our two vans and read this history and looked out at the land. The slightly crisp March weather of the off-season meant we were the only tourists there. The landscape looked like any other, but knowing the historical suffering behind the place made it profoundly sad. We stared at the land as if it would explain something to us and we felt a sadness that could only be digested in silence, alone.
During our contemplation, a middle-aged Lakota man and his wife appeared at the sign. He told us more about the history we had just heard and then went on to describe the area. I nodded when he finished, and we thanked him for his information.
“Please,” the man said. He wore a faded sweatshirt and jeans. His face was lined with time, the kind of wear resulting from more than age.
“Please,” he repeated. He waved around a beaded keychain. “These are very important to our culture. Would you like to buy?” He smiled. His wife stood behind him looking off in the distance.
The wind blew our hair and howled as we processed this request, that this man was peddling wares at the site of this great injustice against his people.
“I have to haul a propane tank up the road so I need the money, you see,” he said with a pleading look. “It’s for the children. This is better than you’ll get in the gift store.”
[lin6] What were we supposed to do? We didn’t want to buy this keychain; we’d heard of situations like this where the money was used to buy alcohol. I stared at my feet on the dusty ground, embarrassed because I didn’t know what to do, embarrassed for a history that had brought us to this point. Finally, in order to break the awkward tension in the air, Jeff said he’d buy one. We all knew someone had to say something, and I silently thanked Jeff for making the first move.
Back in the car we were still consumed by our own quiet thoughts. I hated my inaction; I was supposedly there to help and yet I just stared at my feet when the man said he needed me. I looked down at the bag of Cheetos poking out of my backpack on the floor, and for the 80th time on that trip, I realized how much I take for granted. I wasn’t thankful for Cheetos specifically, but for the opportunity to travel to South Dakota, for being in college. I have had so many opportunities many people don’t have and I wasn’t even appreciating them.
Later on that trip, we would laugh, we’d stare in awe at the Badlands and make fun of Mount Rushmore. The four people in my van would crack up at the pictures we took of ourselves in the car, and we’d sing along to a “Saved By the Bell” soundtrack. We’d end up having a great time. For me, though, sitting in that van at Wounded Knee and staring at Cheetos would be a memory I knew I’d latch on to.
I realized there are many ways to help a person, and that awareness and broadened horizons are the first steps making a difference. Because of us, one kid might stay off the street and find something else to do, and that is definitely something. I had firm resolve in the rest of the week’s volunteering, in the growing awareness that made my trip worthwhile. We might not have changed history or righted the wrongs of Wounded Knee, but we learned that every little bit of drywall can help — if only for a while.

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