“Reservations are probably the last strongholds of Native culture,” writes nonfiction author Joseph M. Marshall III in the foreword to Walking on Earth & Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School. Marshall would know: He was born on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and his first language is Lakota.
This anthology from students on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota gives voice to students who have lived in two worlds for many years now—that of the Lakota culture and that of contemporary American culture. As the book’s introduction explains, when Chief Red Cloud was appointed leader at the Pine Ridge in South Dakota—after years of military conflict with the federal government—he determined that the Lakota students would need to learn about their own culture, as well as that of European Americans. Given the introduction of the Holy Rosary Mission on the reservation in 1888, the school aims to “facilitate an education of the mind and spirit that promotes both Lakota and Catholic values, a purpose likely much more in alignment with Red Cloud’s vision for his children.”
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Unfortunately, life on the reservation is, according to the book, “difficult and complex.” It resides in the second poorest county in the United States. Residents struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, depression, violence, very harsh winters, poor housing conditions, “astronomically high” unemployment, severe poverty, low life expectancy and much more.
Poet and teacher Timothy P. McLaughlin, who has worked in Native communities since 1997 and is the founding director of the Spoken Word Program at the Santa Fe Indian School, knows this. And over a period of three years, during which he taught reading and writing to fifth- through eighth-grade students at Red Cloud Indian School, he collected the writings of the students in an effort to “honor these Lakota youth and their important words.”
The book is divided into thematic sections, each with introductory facts about the experiences of the Lakota youth. You’ll see sections that are hardly surprising—“Family, Youth, and Dreams,” “Language” and “Natural World”—but you know you have an unusual anthology in your hands when you see such sections as “Misery,” “Silence” and “Spirit.”
Yes, a section on misery. The students “sometimes feel total despair,” writes McLaughlin in this section’s introduction. “Consequently, their writing comes alive when investigating the subjects of pain and sadness. On the days we explored these melancholy topics, the students’ faces and words conveyed serious intensity. They rarely produced vague, abstract descriptions of these dark emotions.”
Yet, underneath the despair, one often sees a strength of spirit. This, McLaughlin writes, can only come from the type of strong inner character that rises from such suffering.
What you’ll read on the book’s jacket flap and from reviewers is that this is an important and powerful collection of writings, vital for giving readers a glimpse into a culture too often overlooked. This is all true. But it’s even more than that. Some of the more evocative writings are striking, and all writings are bare-bones honest. There is no mincing of words here from those with difficult lives. Take this haiku from the “Spirit” section: “The night of the death / Open your heart to the world / Only God knows why” from Alisha Patton.
And the paintings, mostly acrylics, from S.D. Nelson—himself a Lakota, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe—are beautiful. They are dynamic and teeming with life and movement. Nelson also includes informative notes about the Lakota way of life.
“I have a dream,” student Kiri Hammock writes, “that one day Indians will be treated with real respect. Not just Indians, but all people. Whether they’re black, white, brown, fat or thin, they would all be treated with respect.”
Getting this beautifully designed, reverent anthology into the hands of young readers is but one way to begin that conversation.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
WALKING ON EARTH & TOUCHING THE SKY: POETRY AND PROSE BY LAKOTA YOUTH AT RED CLOUD INDIAN SCHOOL. Volume copyright 2012 by Timothy P. McLaughlin. Illustrations 2012 by S.D. Nelson. Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York. Image used with permission of the publisher.