Colonialism, Cultural Rhetorics, and Camping: A Story

Hello from South Dakota! Today is our 6th day on the road; we left the Homestead on Monday morning and have been making our way west ever since. It’s been equal parts exhilarating and exhausting–exhilarating to be out adventuring as a family and exhausting to be doing this during a pandemic. Even so, this feels like the trip of a lifetime.

Our travel itinerary so far:
Day 1–Homestead to Iowa, near Des Moines at Cherry Glen Recreation Campground
Day 2–Cherry Glen to the KOA White River South Dakota, just outside Badlands National Park and almost within Pine Ridge Reservation
Day 3–Badlands National Park
Day 4–Badlands National Park
Day 5–Badlands National Park to Black Hills National Forest, near Mount Rushmore at Whispering Pines Campground (30 minutes outside of Rapid City)
Day 6–Chloe’s Birthday! Deadwood, Tatanka: Story of the Bison, and Bridal Veil Falls in Black Hills National Forest

There’s so much to share and talk about for this trip, so for this post I’m going to focus on a single event that occurred on our second travel day, on the Iowa to Badlands leg, as we tried to enter Pine Ridge Reservation to make it to our campsite; and then I’m going to briefly touch on our experiences on today–our sixth day–and connect those two experiences by reconciling my present with my past and making, what I hope becomes, a circle.

On Day 2, after two days of driving, we drove into Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala and Lakota tribes of the Sioux Nation, only to be stopped after the last main road exchange.

Not my photo. I deliberately did not take photos of this exchange.

There was a checkpoint where men, wearing masks against the pandemic, silently stood, watching us. I told Brian to put his mask on and be respectful as I did the same. One man approached and pointed at the scrolling digital sign across the road that read “COVID-19 present.” Brian rolled his window down and explained we were camping nearby and would just be passing through (though I had hoped to visit some of the sites on the reservation during our stay, as well). The man replied, stating we would need to turn around and use the highway, then gave us simple directions to follow in a gentle but firm way that made it very clear this was the way it had to be. We were exhausted, our GPS had routed us oddly and added nearly two hours to our trip today and we were within 25 minutes of our campsite. Pine Ridge Reservation encompasses as much land as the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined and cutting around a portion of it added almost an hour to our trip. But we did it.

We did it gladly. Brian nodded and asked if he could pull the truck into a shallow shoulder at the side of the road and awkwardly turned the truck with the camper around by doing a three-point turn there in front of the group of men and a line of other passenger vehicles trying to get through. If you’ve never tried to do a three-point turn with a camper, let me assure you that getting the camper to move in the direction you want takes some doing, and so this process was not quick or easy. We did not stay to see how other tourists handled the situation. Once we were turned in the right direction, I nodded and waved, and the man we had spoken with gave me a nod and a wave back, and we drove off.

I’ve touched-on my backstory with Pine Ridge a little on this blog before, and I’ve also intimated more than a few times that I work in higher education and consider my disciplines to be writing studies and cultural rhetorics, both of which require engagement with decolonial work. But what the heck does that mean? This post, I hope, will help clarify that and also, hopefully, help many of you see that this is work you likely engage in already, but we use rhetoric to become more aware–awareness of your engagement can help you do more of it with more meaning and purpose–so cultural rhetorics is a way to add cognition and then action.

As a sophomore in high school I traveled to South Dakota as part of a “mission trip” to Pine Ridge Reservation. I want to pause here to note that I put quotation marks there to denote that I find the term problematic because of its colonial implications. I allude to colonialism a lot on this blog, as I think we all should be talking about it more than we do. We can’t decolonize without understanding that we’re still living within a colonial system. But let’s backtrack away from that statement that can feel surprising, bold, and even wrong to many people, and go back to that sophomore in high school. We’ll return to that statement later.

I lived in a predominantly white, upper-class, rather idyllic place. I had always, however, been fascinated by other cultures, and most especially Indigenous Americans/Native Americans/American Indians (again–none of those terms is value-neutral and I want to acknowledge that). I had read a lot of fiction and nonfiction, had watched Dances with Wolves on repeat for almost two years, and I yearned to know and understand more. I was also wanting to be more involved in my church’s youth group, as I recently had been struggling with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, and so when the opportunity arose to go on said “mission trip” the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I leapt at the chance.

I do not remember what my young self expected to experience, but I do remember the first feelings I had upon entering the reservation. I don’t know that it exists in word-form, but the closest I can think of might be an odd mixture of feeling like a trespasser, feeling guilty because the word reservation seemed somehow wrong and also loaded with meaning, and yet also feeling completely dumbstruck at the reservation’s beauty, vastness, and mostly untouched and unspoiled nature–a nod to the romantic notion of the American Indian. I spent the next week encountering a series of firsts: first time I was ever the minority, being one in a handful of white people in a room, first time I was ever a guest in what felt almost like another country, first time I was expected to do real physical manual labor, and the first time I had encountered in the flesh the reality of what my books had shown me–the reality that I, as a white person, was culpable in this story.

On our way into the reservation, I remember vividly seeing a bison standing right near the road, coming even with our little church bus in height, and we gaped in wonder as we slowly passed it.

I remember the feeling of the tall grass and fields of wheat, growing on hills that rose above the road, comforting and enveloping, as if the road existed within the folds of a great blanket.

I helped repair a door on a local church. I tended young children at a daycare we set-up. I played and laughed during the day and then sat humbled in the evening as locals gathered to cook us meals, generously sharing what little they had.

I had read about Wounded Knee. But I can tell you now that as I sat on the tall grass looking down at the fields below, I cried. I imagined the bodies, the terror, and the blood. And I acknowledged in full cognition that my ancestors were the reason this had happened.

I had read about pow wows. But I can tell you that nothing compares to the singing, the drumming, the dancing, and the sheer authenticity of it. This was for them and I felt outside of it all, almost as if I shouldn’t even be there–this wasn’t for me and I could not be a part of it, but somehow, they were allowing me to watch, and so I did with my breath practically held, as if I would disturb the scene with my breathing and make it all disappear.

We stayed in a church, sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags. One morning, I walked out, up at dawn before anyone else, and looked across the road to the beautiful rolling grass hills only to hear first and then see a moment later there, rising over the crest of the largest hill a herd of wild horses. They were a medley of colors and patterns, nothing like the pure-bred horses in the stables at home. The stallion was in charge, a point at the front of a chaotic-looking bunch. But soon, upon spying me, like birds in flight the stallion changed their course and, in unison, the herd followed in almost choreographed precision. I sat there, gaping, my young brain trying to process what had just happened. It felt almost like a message, like I had witnessed something sacred and now I had to do something with it.

Part of the herd. Photo is an iPhone photo of a computer photo of a full photo. So, quality is top-notch.

There are other flashes of memories–but these are the most present in my mind. I was not yet sixteen, boy crazy and insecure, which is not a good combination for a young girl, but my brain was grappling to understand what it was seeing. I wrote in my journal in the church bus on the long hours of driving, paragraphs and paragraphs of my clumsy first attempts at grappling with colonialism. I didn’t know that’s what it was then, of course, and the word “colonialism” never once appears in any of those writings.

Another iPhone photo of a computer screen showing a film photo. I’m encircled in white. This is circa 1996-1997.

Nor does it appear in the writings that came soon after. A few years later, the summer before my senior year of high school, for AP English, we were assigned a year-long inquiry project about any topic we wanted. We had the summer to think over topics and then we had to propose it formally the first week of school. The parameters were that it had to be inquiry and then research–think of an overarching question, develop sub-questions for further research, and then write a series of papers over the course of the academic year to combine into a portfolio-style book. I wrestled with different topics until one day I realized my topic had been staring me in the face. Literally. Hanging on the walls of my bedroom were photos I had taken from that South Dakota trip. Looking at them, I realized I had so many unanswered questions and feelings. I knew this trip had changed me on a deep level, but I didn’t have the words to express how or in what ways. This flash of inspiration for my project seemed big and unfocused, but my teacher did say we could pick any topic we wanted. So, I thought that perhaps I could start big and then narrow as I went along.

So, that’s what I did. I wanted to understand what I’d seen and experienced. Why did we even go on a “mission trip” to Pine Ridge, anyway? Weren’t all the poor people in need of our help in other countries? Why are they so poor? Why is there even a reservation? What is a reservation? What does that word even mean? What are its implications for the Sioux Nation? Why did we kill so many of them? Why did any of this even happen?

So. Many. Questions. I tried to tackle them all, eventually honing in on a paper about land and mining rights as a way to get at the larger issues. As it turns out, Pine Ridge is the poorest county in the entire United States. As it also turns out, the reasons they’re poor are because of colonialism. And when I say colonialism, I do not mean Great Britain in India or even America, I mean us–Americans–still engaging in the activity of colonialism even today. I uncovered old treaties and understood how we had not honored the terms–how the Black Hills are sacred to the Sioux and, by rights of the Laramie Treaty, should be a part of the Sioux Nation. I read laws about mining for minerals and how, at least to my 17 year old understanding of law, it seemed as if the Sioux owned the surface of their land but not what was underneath it. I read laws about fishing rights and toxic waste from our industries that pollute their waterways. And most baffling was the notion that they were autonomous…. but also totally not, otherwise the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not be a thing.

I wrote all of this down, and then paused, just as I’m going to pause right here to do. Some part of me realized then that I had to write myself alongside this paper. I didn’t have the words for it at that time, but I do now–the trope of the White Savior is a very real stumbling block to decolonial work. Without writing myself into the paper, I come off as having all the answers to the problems that had previously been unsolvable by Native people and very much engage in the activity of objectifying an entire nation of people, or at the very least, romanticizing them, flattening them to caricatures that exist in old stories while we all lament that “all the Indians have disappeared.”

So, I wrote about Wounded Knee, and the horses, and the daycare, and the dinners. I wrote about swinging a little girl named Duanna around and around outside while she giggled. I wrote about the experience of reading Russell Means’ biography alongside a report of it, about reading fiction novels about Native Americans alongisde a report about why there were so few Native voices in my “official” sources; I wrote about the feelings of watching Smoke Signals, a movie wrote and filmed on Pine Ridge, and I included photographs of my time in Pine Ridge alongside collage artwork I pieced together from album cover art, magazine clippings, and more. I wrote myself into the story so that my biases, struggles, and emotions could be part of the work and so I could hopefully understand myself and my experiences while also amplifying Native voices and Native stories without taking over. In engaging in this assignment in this way, I was practicing cultural rhetorics.

I had no idea that’s what I was doing, though. It was pure instinct. And now, I can look back on this project and shake my head at all of the flaws and failures of my allyship. The places that would make me cringe now. The times where I did romanticize, where I did Save, where I did flatten and objectify even if in the next sentence I tried to work my way out of it. It was far from perfect, but it was a start. That’s the thing about doing decolonial writing and work–by the time you’re done with it, the activity of doing it was so instructive that you read-through and realize all the new things you’ve learned and want to change moving forward. But, we write most of the time to publish, and so publishing should not be seen as the exclamation point of wisdom it is, but an evolution of a long conversation during which–hopefully–we all benefit from our collective wisdom and learn and grow beyond our present selves. Everyone should read-through their old stuff and shake their heads; that means you’re doing it right. It’s the process that matters more than the outcome.

For years this experience stayed with me as I struggled to find myself. I kept writing this way–placing myself front and center into the text, even if it was an academic paper and that was not “academic writing.” Most of my teachers and professors let me get away with it. It wasn’t until I got into graduate school and met my thesis advisor (turned close friend/work partner/and boss) that I encountered the term “cultural rhetorics.” But it spoke to me. This is what I’ve been trying to do–imperfectly but earnestly–since those paragraphs written into a journal during the bumpy bus ride in South Dakota. I can trace a clear, straight, wondrous line from that experience to my master’s thesis, which is why, in the introduction to it, I acknowledged it and briefly retold this story.

Cultural rhetorics is a discipline. We research, publish, and conference as any discipline would. But it’s most importantly–above all of that other stuff–a practice and an orientation. It is a way of being and doing in the world. It seeks to recognize the relationships between people, places, things, events, and experiences, forcing us to make connections and deconstruct binaries and narratives to get at the more complex meaning hidden so often from our views. Our biases get in the way. Our own experiences get in the way. Our emotions can get in the way (but at the same time they also instruct). It’s only when we write those in to the work and put them on the page next to the story we’re writing about that we can see that. We see how we are implicated in the story; we see how we can change and grow. We see how our changing and growing can create actions to make change in the story. Everything we think, feel, and do writes a story we all write together; rippling out and weaving together–crafting what we call reality.

I made no secret of the fact that I was looking forward to sharing Pine Ridge with my children on this trip in my previous post about this. I was cognizant that they might not have the earth-moving moments I did, but nonetheless, I felt it was a way to take the line from a straight path into something more purposeful and strong–like a circle. I wanted to draw a circle.

We pulled into the reservation, the Oglala and Lakota welcome sign greeting me, and I smiled and held my arms close around me, hugging myself with disbelief. I was returning. This place that had changed me and I had dreamed of ever since. I was about to touch it and smell it for the first time in 24 years. And then came the checkpoint. In that moment, I swallowed my disappointment and decided the best way to honor my past experiences would be to honor and respect the boundaries being enacted by the Sioux Nation right now. I would not disrespect or disagree. I would not react in any way, in fact. I would nod and wave and talk to my children about border rights and Native lands, and use this moment as another spark in what, I hope, is a long line of sparks I have and will continue to stoke as they grow-up.

We pulled in to our campsite, a reservation COVID-19 warning border sign not 500 feet away from us. I could see the rolling hills and imagine those were the same hills where I saw the herd of wild horses. Close, but not quite there. And it had to be enough. The next morning I did some research online. Less than a week prior to our arrival, tribal president Bear Runner had re-issued shelter-in-place orders and what was termed “border monitoring.” After reading through some council minutes on Facebook, it became clear that border monitoring meant anyone who had been off the reservation for more than 24 hours, and especially those who are outside travelers and tourists. I did some more digging, determined to take action–to honor the boundaries and borders while also finding ways to reach across them, even if only metaphorically, and found the Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation website. We plan to donate when we get home.

Today, on our sixth day of our trip, we visited Tatanka: Story of the Bison just outside Deadwood at my request. Chloe wanted to see Deadwood for her birthday (well, her actual request was “a town like Gatlinburg in the the Smoky Mountains” and the closest thing I could think of was Deadwood); Brian wanted to see a nearby waterfall; Liam was happy to do anything, and I wanted to visit Tatanka because I knew Kevin Costner had funded it and that it would likely be really interesting because Dances with Wolves was amazing. I also thought it might provide a bit of the perspective we weren’t able to access on Pine Ridge Reservation.

Deadwood was extremely busy and not very many people were wearing masks, so we didn’t stay long.
Bridal Veil Falls was beautiful!

I wasn’t wrong. We walked in and were immediately greeted warmly by the Director, Susan, then met Truman, a Lakota cultural interpreter. Truman escorted us back to a museum room, filled with cultural artifacts and pieces from the movie. He spent the next 15 minutes or so telling us about the Lakota story of the bison, about how the Lakota view everything as a circle that is connected and related–this all should sound familiar to cultural rhetorics, and indeed, cultural rhetorics as a discipline was primarily founded by Indigenous scholars. He also talked about how General Sheridan had ordered the mass killing of the bison as a way to force the Lakota onto the reservation, answering a question I hadn’t been able to as a 17 year old senior in high school: the story of how we got an entire nation of people onto “a reservation.”

Truman then took my family and two friendly older gentleman outside to a nearby field where targets were set-up. We got to spend around an hour throwing hatchets and learning to use a bow and arrow. Truman patiently letting my children try and try again until they had it right, guiding them along the way and even asking his son to help my daughter with the bow and arrow. He clapped enthusiastically when they succeeded, and gently pushed them to try again when they failed. He talked of a time when he had visited another nearby tourist attraction and had been pained when a group of young children were dressed-up as cowboys and hollering that they wanted to kill “the Injuns,” and their caregivers had encouraged them to do it.

Truman helping Brian throw a hatchet

After hatchet throwing, we walked around the path from the target practice field to view the sculpture Kevin Costner commissioned to sit on this site after his experience riding with 3,000 buffalo while filming Dances with Wolves–the first group of people to do that in 100 years. The bronze sculpture is impressive. It’s the third largest bronze sculpture in the world. It moves with you as you walk around it, viewing it from different angles, seeing different parts of the story. You feel the anguish of the buffalo first and it seems horrific. And then you notice the restraint on the Lakota faces. They are not smiling or laughing or even grimacing all that much. They are doing what they need to do to survive another winter. The Lakota warrior at the back of the pack eyes the numbers, knowing when to stop, knowing when they had enough, knowing when to send the warriors in to divert the rest of the herd away from the cliff.

The sculpture is so big I preferred capturing it in vignettes, butt his is a wider angle, attempting to get most of the sculpture into the frame (though it’s so large that this is difficult to do while still being close enough to see any details).

This experience at Tatanka felt authentic, not unlike the pow wow I watched all those years ago, except this time I did not feel like an outsider. I felt invited in. I felt reciprocity: I wanted to learn and they, the Lakota interpreters, wanted and offered to do the emotional labor necessary to teach me. My children watched, listened, experienced, and appreciated. They both loved it. Both of them kept turning to eye me at important moments throughout because they know–I’ve talked with them about colonialism, racism, white privilege, and the complex lived and embodied experiences of many minority groups, including Native Americans before. I’ve also talked with them a lot about how this experience on Pine Ridge and my other experiences have changed and shaped me. But, listening to their mother blabber on about something is one thing; hearing this from a powerful Native voice is something else entirely. They felt that. They asked questions. They were engaged. And they both told me they really loved that experience. I wasn’t expecting them to. I wasn’t asking them to. I was hoping they would and now they have. Together we have closed one circle and started another. Truman would say that, according to the Lakota, that means we’re stronger.

Published by kelinmchull

Wife, mother, teacher, dreamer/doer, adventurer, wannabe farmer, writer, and all around curious gal.

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