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Lakota Youth Ride to Recapture Heritage

  • Jim Kent

The Lakota Indians of the northern plains have been called a "horse nation" because they have strong ties, culturally and historically, with the animals. A group of Lakota teens recently saddled up for a four-day ride across South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. This Youth Ride was aimed at reconnecting the group with their culture and with their land. Jim Kent caught up with the young riders in the middle of a spring snowstorm as they neared the end of their expedition.

It's the last morning of a 160-kilometer journey on horseback across the land of the Oglala Lakota. The weather has been tolerable for the last three days. But this morning, the situation has taken a turn for the worse. The temperature has dropped and rain is turning to snow.

As firewood is cut, a group of Lakota adults huddles around a small blaze trying desperately to keep warm. Other adults and Lakota youth sit inside their vehicles, motors running. The cars and trucks are hauling hay for the horses and food and supplies for their riders.

Percy White Plume moves from one group to another, preparing everyone for the start of the last day's ride. White Plume says he organized the event to remind Lakota youth of their traditional connection to their land. "The opportunity to ride across the land is for them a realization that we do have a reservation...this is our home." He explains that many young people never venture into the more remote parts of the reservation, "They don't see the land out there other than what they see from the car driving along the highway. They don't get out and go off up into the hills. And, so, this was an opportunity to give that to the youth."

Braving wind, rain and snow, 50 young tribal members forged their own trail across the Pine Ridge Reservation over the last three days, climbing hills, negotiating buffalo pastures and crossing valleys as they rediscovered the land of the ancestors. At night, elders passed on traditional stories by the fireside as the group erected tipis under the stars.

This morning, the Lakota youth start to break camp. They've spent their last night on the trail in a valley near the reservation town of Manderson. Some are still in their tents, but others are busy preparing their horses for the final leg of their journey. One horse, tethered to a truck, shivers as the wind picks up and the temperature continues to plummet.

A group of young men fights off the morning cold inside a traditional lodge, or tipi. The air inside is thick with the smell of sage and the previous night's campfire. Like many Lakota youth, they're reluctant to talk. Eventually, Angelo Red Elk, 17, offers a few comments, beginning with the point that no one forced him to go on this long and difficult journey. When asked why he decided to join the Youth Ride, he responds, "Because this is my country," adding that it's an important event "to bring all of us together."

Sitting in the warmth of her family's truck, Vonna Blacksmith, 16, is a bit more talkative. She's grown up around horses and says she didn't hesitate to take part in the Youth Ride. "It's important 'cause it's our land and we're the next generation that'll be living here." Blacksmith adds that rides like this also help dispel many misconceptions about American Indian youth. "Most of us are staying away from alcohol and drugs," she says. "And we're participating in our culture... riding horses... just getting involved."

Lakota elder Lois White Whirlwind has three grandchildren taking part in the Youth Ride. She sees their journey as a positive experience. "The benefit of it is seeing the land... seeing what's out there. Because in today's world it's just town, highway and you see the graffiti. But being out there, you become more observant of [nature]." She recounts how one of the young riders had noticed an eagle flying about the group as they rode through a valley. "You know, those are significant things that are important to us."

In the end, Vonna Blacksmith says staying in touch with their culture is the best way for Lakota youth to stay on the right path.