The below story is one of many I had the opportunity to write for tankabar.com and was originally posted on Oct. 23, 2013. I am reposting here as it was another experience that I truly enjoyed during my time on Pine Ridge. I shot all of the photos in this story.
A little before the cooler temps and snow of autumn reached the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD, one local organization hosted a special camp for youth to reconnect to their Lakota culture.
Located in Porcupine, SD, Wakanyeja Woapiye Wicoti (Children’s Healing Camp) focuses on young people ages 7-12 who have experienced trauma, loss and/or grief. Knife Chief Buffalo Nation Organization created the camp in partnership with Medicine Horse Society. Lakota Oyate Wakanyeja Owicakiyapi, Inc. (LOWO) is a tribal child welfare agency on the reservation that brings some of their children to the nearly weeklong event.
Susan Hawk, a family support specialist at LOWO, said the camp is a place where these children can feel comfortable.
“Regardless of where they come from, all of them feel a part of one,” she said. They belong here and have a sense of identity and culture.”
The camp allows parents of children in foster care who are working with LOWO to attend the camp as a safe place for them to reconnect with their children. In some cases the camp is the first time these families (including siblings) get to see each other in over a year.
Everyone participates in traditional ceremonies and work on craft projects. Camp attendees also eat three meals a day, which are made possible by donations. Part of the camp took place in a community building in Porcupine and laughter flowed throughout as volunteers worked together to serve food and tend to children’s needs.
“Everyone is supportive and helpful,” Ms. Hawk said.
One day of the camp offered children an opportunity to ride and interact with horses. Each small face lit up as they reached out to stroke their horse before they were assisted on top of saddles to ride as adults pulled the reigns. Several children remarked how much fun they were having and wanted to keep taking turns to ride.
This is the second time the camp has been in operation, which runs mostly on donations and fundraising efforts. Camp director Ethleen Iron Cloud-Two Dogs stayed busy keeping things running smoothly and organizing all of the volunteers. She expressed the importance of having all of the tipis up during the camp for everyone to stay in and explained the purpose of the structure.
“The tipi is tiikceya. It is a healing place to sleep and live,” she said as she pointed out how the top of the inside of a tipi resembles a star. “We are connected to the Star Nation. They are our relatives and the tipi is an acknowledgement of that.”
The Child Protection Office of the State of South Dakota has stated that over 60% of children in foster care are Native American. Emily Iron Cloud-Koenen , executive director of LOWO, said the camp helps Lakota children strengthen their minds, spirits and bodies.
“It is a healing opportunity for children who have been traumatized by loss, grief, abandonment and abuse,” she said. “The children who participate are different when they leave. They are more peaceful because their spirits have returned to them much better in order to cope with life.”
For more information about Wakanyeja Woapiye Wicoti, visit Knife Chief Buffalo Nation Organization.