Empower disenfranchised teen Lakota girls through cultural exchange.
The educational and enrichment opportunities taken for granted in communities across the country are dangerously lacking for teen girls on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Lakota Cultural Exchange began as an earnest attempt to offer one girl at a time the chance to participate in the empowering Girls Rock! Chicago camp. Enough interest in that format was generated for them to start their very own Girls Rock! camp on the reservation, so efforts to take enrichment directly to Pine Ridge moved to the set-up of music programs at a couple of schools to benefit girls and boys, grades K-12.
Late summer 2018, focus returned to sharing resources in the Chicago area by piloting at Northwestern University STEM outreach with half a dozen more-local middle-school-age girls with an engaging weekend workshop through the Physics & Astronomy department. In March 2019, we’ll be welcoming the same number of Lakota girls and their chaperones from Little Wound School in Kyle, South Dakota for three days of professor and grad student talks, interactive exercise, a special presentation at the Adler Planetarium, viewing at our landmark Dearborn Observatory, and a reprisal of the both popular and moving star-stories-and-science exchange at the dinner honoring our guests.
How we started
When Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horse came to speak in Chicago (arranged through a family friend) years ago about the devastation of the Lakota, I was moved to my core by his description. I had an even more moving personal exchange with Ed after his talk, when I went up to him to express my thanks for his sharing what he did. After learning more on my own, I contemplated what I could do as a teen girl and approached the directors of Thousand Waves dojo about the possibility of securing a camp scholarship for a girl to come and learn self-defense basics. As a pilot of the now evolving cultural exchange, my family hosted a Lakota teen for two weeks to participate in that camp. Through this experience, I learned much more about how vulnerable girls are on the reservation. I concluded that a shorter camp with an older girl would be better, as would an enrichment experience other than self-defense.
Regrouping took some time, but in 2014, an older Lakota teen spent one week in Chicago at the Girls Rock! camp, where the director extended a secure camp spot, scholarship and offer of any other necessary support without hesitation. Committed to defraying expenses that would, in a more traditional exchange program, be shouldered by the guest, enough was raised to cover our guest’s flights that summer with my first stab at a formalized sort of fundraising effort (the seasonal NIKI’S NUTS). You can find specifics about that at facebook.com/nikisnuts, where many posts from its time as a fundraiser-page remain, despite page conversion now to discussion of the Lakota Cultural Exchange Program as a whole. The generous donations that facilitated our guest’s participation that year are deeply appreciated.
For summer 2015, thanks to an incredibly generous donation from an anonymous philanthropist who covered all flight and camp expenses for a girl coming from Pine Ridge to Chicago, focus was on building on the previous summer’s extended pilot by tweaking the exchange experience. In summer 2016, with the exchange in its previous iteration in transition, Pine Ridge got its very own Girls Rock! camp, freeing up energy here for focus on cultural exchange in sharing of other resources directly on the reservation. With thanks again to the philanthropist, whose identity remains undisclosed but whose example remains hugely apparent and inspiring, summer 2017 saw the delivery of two schools’ wish lists, so that the kids could have music programs for K-12 at Little Wound School and K-8 at Red Shirt School.
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Developments, in the set-up for those school music programs and Pine Ridge having its own Girls Rock! camp, triggered evolution in the exchange aspect of this effort with focus not on travel from South Dakota to enrichment opportunities in the Chicago area so much as on the broader expression of cultural exchange (in friendship and sharing of resources) that has sustained this program. And as organically as the first iteration came about a decade ago, the confluence of interested people at Northwestern University and support, including generous funding, from both the school’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and the Center for Native American & Indigenous Research have propelled exploration of resurrecting the original “exchange” focus in bringing some girls and chaperones to our gorgeous campus, where all of the Physics & Astronomy types here can share our beautiful and historic observatory and overall love for physics and astronomy.
The two immensely generous communities that assisted in early efforts to help one teenage girl at a time on the reservation are Thousand Waves, where one Lakota girl benefited from their gift of a two-week camp and Girls Rock! Chicago where girls spent subsequent summers. Both communities are wholly committed to empowerment, the latter focused on girls up to the age of sixteen through music, a medium I believe ideal for the exchange as music-related cultural boundaries are insignificant. Both of these organizations are Not-For-Profit and rely upon their own fundraisers to exist and do all the good that they do. Anyone inclined to read up, can get some impression of their efforts at their websites, where you can also find links to their Facebook pages.
Ditto Blue Skies Foundation, a non-profit devoted to the mission of “preserving indigenous cultures, languages, & traditions,” for their efforts coordinated with LA composer/musician Doug Bossi to facilitate music program set-up in schools on Pine Ridge.
Why this is important
If you haven’t revisited Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee recently and want a quick review, an easily accessed source is Aaron Huey’s TED talk (video below) and the photo journal he did for National Geographic, titled “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee”.