I have made it to the Lakota Sioux spirit camp in South Dakota. After a long day of hitchhiking a Native guy from the Rosebud reservation just down the road drove me straight to the circle of seven tepees where I will be staying for the next week. All I can see in any direction is the scraggly remains of last season’s corn stalks and the vast expanse of brilliant blue South Dakota sky.
Upon arriving I am immediately welcomed by a small group of campers and a camera crew filming a documentary, who excitedly rush me through a re-enactment of my arrival and then interview me about my reason for being here. My head is spinning somewhat by the time they finish with me, and I turn to the camp. Several organizers come and introduce themselves, and show me to the tepee where I will be staying so I can set down my heavy winter pack.
That night there is a gathering of Native kids joining us at the camp, and one of the coordinators delivers a rousing speech about just what the Keystone XL pipeline, passing through this site, would do to the local Native community. He speaks of contaminated water, of wildlife disruption, of the dangers of leaking pipes. In particular the people here are concerned about the social problems that have inevitably sprung up around the man camps set up for the workers building the infrastructure. He and several others share a story about a young boy who was passed around for sex by workers at the man camps up in North Dakota.
After the kids leave I sit down to pizza to listen to stories from the Lakota and Nez Perce organizers. Several of the men are working on a healthy masculinity project where they use storytelling to communicate messages about respecting women and being emotionally available to men in prison and young boys at schools on the res. For them, ending domestic violence is particularly important because men from off the reservation can come and abuse women on the reservation, and then flee tribal jurisdiction by crossing back into the Unites States.
Upon arrival I was immediately conscious of gender roles. At camp the women seem to be expected to do all of the cooking and cleaning, and so far men have seemed to be in charge of lifting heavy things, chopping wood, etc. As someone who has been fighting about my own gender assignment, it has been a challenge navigating my role at the camp. Coming from a Bay Area activist community that tries to assume nothing on the basis of gender to this community is a challenge for me to practice listening and humility while also respecting my own needs. I asked several organizers about gender, and they explained that in their culture everyone is welcome to choose their own path and expression of gender, that gender is not traditionally binary, but that certain responsibilities are based on a person’s body. The gender roles and interactions are seen as being deeply rooted in respect.
As I go through this journey, I feel like I have been invited to learn the same lessons again and again. I have been invited to tear down my walls and try to trust people and love people freely. I feel like I am being led down a path to some sort of realization, and hopefully soon I’ll be able to better articulate this.
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