By Quentin Smeltzer
My church takes mission trips. That is, a bunch of us who pay dues to the church (aka the members), pay some more money to go someplace rustic to help people and not proselytize to them; not even one itsy little bit. I guess the idea is that if we go there and we are helpful and pleasant enough, some of the people we help might be sufficiently confused to look us up on the internet some day to figure out what that was all about.
Which is the way I like it. As I’ve written before, our church is basically a collection of whomever shows up and we believe whatever it is that we happen to believe. We are Congregationalists, which as far as I can tell means we are earnest loiterers with mostly good intentions.
This year’s mission trip was to the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation in La Plant, South Dakota. Actually, “Sioux” is a word the Indians don’t much care for. They are Lakota, which means the people who help each other. Sioux is a French word that means snake in the grass or something along those lines. It may be the least of the insults the Lakota endure.
History runs deep on the reservation. In the 1800’s white settlers and gold prospectors were advancing on Indian lands. The gold prospectors were mostly white too, but that's besides the point. The Indians resisted. Battles were fought. Treaties were formed and then broken. White settlement continued. The Lakota and other tribes would raid the settlements. The raids would generate counter-attacks by the US Army. Atrocities were committed on both sides.
After many battles, including the Battle of Little Bighorn, the US Army was strengthened to the tune of 2,500 men by an act of Congress. The Lakota, the Arapaho and the Cheyenne were finally defeated in 1877 and the Indians were confined by treaty to reservations. In the following years the Lakota were coerced into signing away more of their lands. Treaty promises to feed and clothe the Lakota were ignored. Low-level conflicts continued and in 1890, fearing rebellion, the Army rounded up and killed at least 150 mostly unarmed Lakota men, women and children with Hotchkiss machine guns in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
Despite this history, despite being forced into a dysfunctional welfare state, despite being a culture of hunters and warriors stripped of the ability to live their own identity, the Lakota are warm and welcoming, with a wonderful sense of humor. Their spirituality revolves around their connection to the land, the sky and all of creation. They celebrate bravery and honor: the bravery of their men and their women. Even the bravery of their horses is honored in song and story and dance.
On my previous mission trip to Orland, Maine I mostly tooled around in a pickup truck with my buddy, Bruce, shopping for electrical parts which I helped him install in the homes of the poor. In the evenings we had showers and good meals. One day we went hiking in Acadia National Park and then we had lobster for dinner. Not a bad gig. The reservation, on the other hand, was different… very, very different.
First of all, there was no running water in the community center where we encamped. And we slept on the floor. There were no showers. There were no bathrooms, just outhouses, three of which blew over when a microburst of wind raged across the open prairie without warning.
The mosquitoes and other biting insects were voracious. Bug spray had no effect. And the ugliest dogs you’ve ever seen in your life milled about the camp more like matted homeless people than pets.
We worked seven days straight, which was not smart. Some people like to push themselves to extremes and then push themselves some more—you know, so it really hurts—and then there are the other six point seven billion of us who were not our leaders on this particular mission trip. So that was some bad luck right there. Especially for me, as I happen to be one of the six point seven billion who don’t consider heat exhaustion "fun."
In ninety degree heat under a relentless sun, we upgraded houses in the mornings. Then we ran a day camp for the local children in the afternoon when the real heat kicked in.
Before our first day-camp we were told that what the children need most is attention: a hug, a piggyback ride, a game of catch. Many of these kids live with grandparents; the parents are gone, taken by drugs, alcohol or poverty. So we gave hugs and piggyback rides and played catch. Some of the boys feigned initial toughness. But that quickly melted away once they realized we spoke to them with no agenda. Which was easy, because we don’t have one.
Other boys seemed starved for attention—they would cling to my back and legs, wrap their arms tightly around me and refuse to let me go. The girls were more likely to hang back, but they wanted piggyback rides too.
At one point I untangled myself from the boys long enough to give one of the girls a piggyback ride. She was maybe six or seven years old with beautiful, black hair and black eyes. She climbed aboard but she didn’t cling to me like some of the boys had. Instead, she told me to run. When I did, she stood on my hands, stiffened her body and threw her arms skyward. Then she did something that made the hair prickle up on the back of my neck: she let out a warrior’s cry: Wah hay! Wah hay!
Maybe it was the heat exhaustion, maybe I has hallucinating, but suddenly I was not some old guy giving a child a piggyback ride: suddenly I was her adrenaline-amped horse charging across the high plains, carrying my precious young warrior headlong into battle. It gave me chills. It made me want to keep running with her forever. It made me actually want to go into battle, which is worrying.
So what did we learn here? What did I learn? One: before you go on a mission trip, check the schedule and pencil in a day off when no one is looking. And two: don’t worry. Even if you are led by happy, committed masochists, experiences you could never have imagined might just make it all worthwhile.