America's relationship with its native population is a long and often troubled one. It seems fair to say that the United States would be a richer, better place if we had done more in the past to promote cultural understanding of and respect for this continent's original inhabitants.
At Outlaw Ranch, campers learn leadership through service and cultural exchange on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota. In small groups of 12 to 15, participants contribute to hands-on projects like constructing homes, building handicap ramps, and assisting with other needs prioritized by the local community. The program also exposes participants to key sites – the historically significant Wounded Knee, the educational system of Red Cloud Indian School and the new Lakota Funds, the first credit union on the reservation. Each of these sites is significant in its own way and provide a window into past events and current daily life on the reservation.
Through youth activities, worship with members of the community and engagement with elders, campers learn about issues of poverty, diversity, and the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Lakota people.
“The trip gives the youth a chance to use leadership skills in a different culture,” says Outlaw Ranch Assistant Director Mary Stutz. The most important aspect of the program, she says, is building relationships.
“They learn how to acknowledge people and show respect in a new community,” says Stutz.
Native American elders have authority because of their age and experience, but this level of respect is not as commonly practiced in modern American culture, she explains. Listening intently, without interrupting or asking questions, is another custom that participants learn. “It’s a different way of relating to people,” says Stutz. “These are skills they can use not just on Pine Ridge but also in relationships back at home.”
Since 1992, Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota has organized mission trips to the reservation, with as many as six, week-long youth trips planned annually. Outlaw Ranch, in the Black Hills, also offers scholarships for Lakota youth from Pine Ridge to attend the camp an exchange opportunity that allows campers to reunite with friends made on the reservation, says Stutz.
To learn more about the history of the Lakota, please visit the American Indian Heritage Foundation.