Thursday, March 25, 2010

Finding the words

So, the plan to blog from South Dakota? That didn't work out. And when I got back I was immediately overwhelmed with piles of work. (I'm still behind, almost two weeks later!)

And then there's the issue that came up in tonight's Celebration of Spring Break event, where the teams that did service work in various places all get together with some other folks and present some thoughts on the week (in addition to a fun slide show): there's just no way to put it all in words.

As Kelly said tonight, when you come back from a week like that and people ask, "How was it?" and you know they want the 30-second version, it's impossible to express how it was. Even the five-minute version isn't adequate; I'm not even sure the one-hour version would do it. It's hard to find the words to explain how one week on the rez can make you feel like everything's different. How the heck did that happen?

But last week the folks at the chaplain's office who put together these projects asked me to speak tonight, so I started thinking just how I would write about it, what I would say to try to give a feeling of what it was like and what we came back with. Here are my remarks from tonight, which almost kindasorta came out in a near-poem (once you get past the introduction part). (At first I added photo captions, but then I took them out because they seemed disruptive. And at some point I'd like to add in some photos that others took...)

Thanks to Donna and Russell Masartis (the amazing folks who run Tree of Life) and my teammates, who are the inspiration for this: Maria Fullenkamp, Stephanie Heiser, Chris Mickens, Liz Spragens, Matt Hill, Sam Chonko, Linh Nguyen, Becca Salinas, Briana Gunter, Abby Dockter, and Kristen Scott. They are all AWESOME, and I feel privileged to know them.

Hope you enjoy it,

Mitakuyepi, Karen Poremski emaciyape ksto, nahan eyuha cante wasteya nape ciyuzape.

My relatives, my name is Karen Poremski and I come to you with a warm handshake and good feelings in my heart.

I am one of the co-advisors of the Lakota Nation trip; we worked for Tree of Life, an agency that provides home rehabilitation, a thrift store, a soup kitchen, nursing home visits, school visits, and various other forms of support to the people of the Sicangu Lakota nation (known by the federal government as the Rosebud Sioux tribe). We worked for Tree of Life during the day, and in the evening were visited and taught by various elders and leaders on the rez: Dolores Kills in Water, Albert White Hat, Butch Artichoker, Steve Tamayo, and Mike Marshall (and, sort of accidentally along the way by Shane and Noella Red Hawk).

I’m going to try to tell you what our experience was like…

Mitakuye oyas’in!

That means “all my relations,” or “all my relatives.” And on our trip to be with the Sicangu Lakota, through what we did and what we witnessed, we learned just what that can mean.

-- Before we even got to South Dakota, we learned that it means someone will come help you when it’s dark and cold and BOTH vans are stuck by a lake in Wisconsin. And these someones, these strangers who are your relatives, will be intrepid, brave, and actually cheerful!

-- We learned that the staff at Tree of Life—people who practice Christianity and people who practice traditional native ceremonies—can work together to make something good on the rez.

-- We learned that it means when you go to work on a house and the family has nothing—and I mean nothing: mud for a front yard, with four dogs and a cat wandering around; a two-bedroom house for your extended family, and part of that house is condemned because of the snakes; grime covering your food containers; and no sheets on the bed—when you go to work in this family’s house, they will offer you a Sprite. Even though they have nothing.

-- We learned that it means when you have nothing to give, you can give a smile, or make someone laugh.

-- We learned it means that the elderly man you just met today in the nursing home will want you to write to him; and the elderly woman who plays a mean game of bowling is going to ask you at least three more times this afternoon, “Are you coming back tomorrow?”; and the elderly woman whose father-in-law was Black Elk tells you a bizarre story about a skunk and you both laugh so hard you’re crying; and the young woman there who was paralyzed in a car accident ten years ago, a descendant of Red Cloud, will want you to call her.

-- We learned that it means that everyone is a relative, even the person at the Indian School who discourages you, who tells you that what you’re doing here is meaningless, won’t change anything, won’t help anyone; even that relative will teach you, in her frustration and heart-brokenness, what it means to face inconceivable obstacles.

-- We learned that it means visiting your relatives the prairie dogs, and trying to call your relatives the buffalo, and maybe sneaking a little lunchmeat to the cats hanging around the back door, who are also your relatives.

-- We learned that it means carrying sheetrock and carrying doors and carrying lumber and sorting screwdrivers and drills and tape measures and gloves and figuring out how to build a cabinet.

-- We learned that it means going back and working on the tile again, even after you’ve discovered you hate working on tile.

-- We learned that it means sharing your frybread. Even when you don’t really want to.

-- We learned that it means when you make a mistake you’re forgiven.

-- We learned that it means responding to three suicide attempts in one day, and praying to say the right words that will give all three of those young people hope.

-- We learned that it means mentoring two middle-school boys—showing them how to make dream catchers and regalia and how to play hand games—and knowing that, even if their parents don’t seem to take notice (because they’ve never bothered to meet you), and even if it’s just two boys and so many more are going to be lost to drugs and alcohol and hopelessness and maybe suicide, still, you’re doing a good thing because you’re their relative.

What we learned seemed sometimes a bit mundane, or small, or maybe unimportant or unnoticeable. But I’m here to tell you that it has the potential to change. Because it can change your heart. And that’s the only way to change the world, isn’t it? Isn’t that the place we need to begin?

Mitakuye oyas’in!


  1. I grow more and more proud of you all the time.
    I'm glad you didn't blog from SD - sounds like you had more important working and living to do while you were there. But I'm even gladder to read about it now.

  2. Everyone IS a relative. Thank you so much for this beautiful poem/report. Thank you.

  3. It is wonderful that you went to my Rez to help. The Tree of Life is good for all the people - it helps and brings things to those who truly need it.

    I am inspired by your work. I am also appreciative on behalf of the relatives you mention, for the work you have done.

    Mitakuye Oyasin, Lynne

  4. I don't see anything small or mundane here. Wow. What an experience! I'm sure there was much more than you were able to explain in your speech, but you said a lot. A lot. You should be part of the Difference.

    BTW I love being called "dude."

  5. Lynne and Reya--thank you! Your appreciation means a LOT to me...