Pingree community members live and serve in a community wholly different from their own.
How well do you adapt to changes in plans? Are you comfortable putting community over self? What kinds of chores do you help with around the house? Would you describe yourself as self-motivated?
These are some of the questions posed to students interested in participating in Pingree's annual trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Todd County, South Dakota. Because the Rosebud visit isn't just a high school service trip. It is an enduring partnership between the Pingree community and the members of the Sicangu band of the Lakota (Sioux) Tribe, who welcome Pingree students, faculty, staff, and alumni into their community each summer, teaching lessons and offering perspectives that simply cannot be attained at home in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
The program was launched in 2006 under the careful leadership of Alan McCoy, director of athletics, and Anna McCoy, history teacher, service coordinator, and ninth grade dean. That first visit, Valerian Three Irons, a Mandan Indian and Sun Dance Chief, conveyed a message that has formed the basis for the trip and for Pingree's service and civic engagement efforts as a whole:
"If you go to help, you assume they are helpless. If you go to fix, you assume they are broken. But if you go to learn and to serve, you assume they are whole."
Today's participants stay on the reservation in pop-up tents at Sinte Gleska University, with shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities. Students cook for themselves, taking turns preparing family-style dinners to be eaten around a large round table each night. With the absence of a fixed "service agenda," the daily schedule is loose, flexible, and at times, unpredictable; participants strive to support community efforts underway and do not engage in activities unless they are invited to do so.
The Rosebud Reservation is one of the poorest places in the United States, with one of the lowest life expectancies. A majority of residents live below the poverty line in substandard housing, with few opportunities for advance-ment. It is an unfamiliar world for many Pingree students.
"My first trip was definitely a culture shock," shares alumna Emma Phippen '11. Phippen has participated in the program a total of five times, with three of those visits occurring after graduation from Pingree. "You're put into an entirely new cultural and socioeconomic setting and it's eye-opening. You almost can't believe that you're still in the United States. It feels like you're in a different country."
On Rosebud, students are exposed to a culture that is remarkably different from their own, but that is also very much an American culture, opening their eyes up to the fact that not everyone in America has the same beliefs, customs, or standards of living that they've come to expect. And while they may have heard this in class or seen it on the news, experiencing it in person is an entirely different thing.
"The Rosebud trip made me so much more aware of a lot of social issues that really are not talked about in the mainstream discourse," says alumnus Adam Logan '08. Logan has been on the trip seven times, including the very first year. "Rosebud is a prime example of one of the most underserved communities in the United States, and being there really made me a lot more attuned to important social issues both locally and nationally. It certainly made me more mature."
Following his experiences at Rosebud in high school, Logan focused on American Indian history at Holy Cross, returning on his own to do oral history research, and ultimately writing his thesis on the Lakota Language. He also participated in a pro-bono trip to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma while pursuing his J.D. at Boston University.
Pingree teachers consistently push students to take risks. Stretch. Step out of their comfort zones. And they do it because they know that from vulnerability and discomfort comes understanding, mindfulness, and personal growth. The Rosebud program supports this notion, compelling students to stretch themselves in ways that are foreign to them.
"It feels a little uncomfortable to be on the reservation at first," shares Pingree senior Meg Foye, who just went on her third trip to the reservation this past summer. "Suddenly, you are the minority, and that can be really uncomfortable for kids that aren't used to that. But taking that step is really important."
It's common for participants to feel a deep sense of guilt when they see the relative poverty in which many community members live. There is a natural inclination to want to "fix" the situation, and the McCoys and program leaders stress to students that these feelings are normal, and to be expected, but that there are appropriate ways of dealing with them. Simply feeling guilty inhibits one's ability to engage, and ultimately doesn't help anyone. Albert White Hat, a revered Rosebud elder who died two winters ago, put it this way: "They say the worst thing you can do to a person is to pity them. It's a way of putting that person down, putting yourself above them... [and] the greatest gift you can give is time. Generosity is measured in the ways of respect and honor, not pity."
"Our role there isn't to help them," echoes senior Gabby Assad. "They don't need our help. We're there to learn. And that's the best way we can contribute, by taking the time to get to know them and working to make each day we're there a good day."
The Lakota have a tradition of tiospaye, which roughly translates to a small piece of a large family. It can also mean community, and Pingree visitors seek to live, work, and interact in keeping with this tradition while on the reservation. The idea is to put community over self and be accountable for the wellbeing of the group by what- ever means possible. Students work together to complete daily chores, doing their own cooking and cleaning.
At the end of every day, participants gather together for a discussion circle, during which each person says one thing they are thankful for and shares a moment or observation they had during the day. And just as the students convene in this way each evening, so too do they return each year, in doing so continuing the circle of trust that has been built between the Lakota and Pingree, thus expanding the Pingree family in a very unique way.
"The real strength of our program has been its continuity, and the fact that we continue to go every year," says Logan. "That engenders a lot of trust with the community. They trust that we're there for the community and we're not there to pat ourselves on the back. We do this because we genuinely enjoy it and derive a whole lot of value out of it."
The Rosebud trip has created, in Pingree, "a substantial investment in another community," says Anna McCoy, "and I think it's a pretty cool, healthy, amazing thing that this little school can be so connected to another part of the world."
By Ann McCoy
I am afraid of flying. For as long as I can remember, air travel has brought with it overpowering anxiety that for many years was so bad that I avoided it altogether. So when it came to doing a semester abroad in college, I had limited myself considerably— or so I thought. In my Work Study job at the University of Massachusetts I happened upon a pamphlet that advertised the opportunity to complete a semester of service on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I had very little background in American Indian affairs, and absolutely no desire to go to South Dakota, but somehow the following August I found myself driving across the country with my father, Alan McCoy, in my 1987 Volvo station wagon. The trip was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was that the radio broke in Michigan and we spent the rest of the ride memorizing state nicknames. This type of
"atlas fun" remains a big part of riding in my father's car in South Dakota, along with enduring favorites such as "Let's Memorize the Presidents" and "Who Knows What a Cattle Guard is?"
That was in 2001. In 2006, after my first year as a Pingree history teacher, I proposed to my father that we return to South Dakota — this time with students in tow. He agreed. That June, accompanied by English teacher Jim MacLaughlin and twelve students, we made our first trip.
In our history classes this year, most teachers have incorporated the TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called "The Danger of a Single Story." The message of this talk is about the danger of accepting a single story about a person or place, and allowing that story to serve as an absolute. Doing this creates stereotypes and as Adichie says, "The danger of a stereotype is not that it's wrong, it's that it's incomplete."
The Rosebud Reservation is one of the poorest places in the United States with one of the lowest life expectancies. To gloss over these realities would be to ignore the very real challenges faced by so many living there and to deny the privilege that we bring with us when we go. Just as dangerous, though, would be to create a vision of the reservation that is bleak, hopeless and sad. In the fifteen years since I began working with the
Sioux Nation, however, I have become increasingly aware of the fact that — despite astounding and systemic challenges — hopelessness does not define this community.
One of the most indelible memories I have of our journeys to South Dakota happened during our third summer. A group of us had the privilege of overseeing the day-to-day activities of a children's emergency shelter for the week. For those five days, we provided activities for the children, cooked, cleaned, did the laundry, supervised naptime, mediated disputes, calmed babies, and put on a fashion show with donated clothing. We used a hose to create a backyard water park (later a mud puddle), ate our weight in oranges, and sang the same T-Pain song over and over. The last day was hard.
Our every minute had been consumed with the joys, adventures and peaceful exhaustion that comes with caring for young children, and yet we had to leave knowing that, due to confidentiality, we might never know what happened to them. Waiting in line at a gas station and listening to Mika's "Happy Ending," I peered in the rear view mirror. The tears streaming down the faces of my passengers revealed that every single one of them had, in some way or another, thrown their lots in with those kids and would never, ever see the world the same.