Experiencing a part of the Native American Culture

July 20, 2017

I started my day at 7 am with a quick check of the pasture that the team would be sampling. Using my GPS, I checked to make sure that my 5×5 meter plots were still marked out with flags and reoriented myself with the pasture. Then I went back to the house to gather all of the supplies that I needed for the day, made sure that the ATV had gas and made last minute transportation plans with my team of students. Afterwards I jumped in the car that the family has loaned me for the week and made the thirty-minute drive to Sisseton, South Dakota. In Sisseton, I picked up the catered lunches for the students and then picked up a few of the students that did not have rides out to the ranch.

I then drove back to the ranch and met up with the rest of the students. We all quickly got organized and jumped into the ATVs and went out to the  pasture. Today we sampled our final field, the summer cattle pasture. On the summer cattle pasture, I had set up in May two 150-meter transects with three 5×5-meter plots at 50, 100, and 150 meters. Since the team had been working all week using the same sampling method, I did not need to give any directions. The students split up into soil and vegetation teams and got to work. The vegetation team used a premade 75x75cm square as their margins for harvesting the vegetation. All of the plants within the square were cut down to the soil and placed into labelled brown bags to be shipped back to the lab at UVA. The soil team used the Hydrosense probe to take measurements of soil moisture in percent by volume. Then they took three soil samples from within the plot to be sent and analyzed in the lab at UVA.

Once the team had finished the six plots along the two transects, we went out to another field to practice plant identifications. All of the students working on the project will be receiving a half science credit for their work this week from the tribal high school, so the school asked that I give them a final assessment. The assessment will take place tomorrow and will be to identify plants in the field based on their medicinal purposes. I have created different scenarios that will require the team to search out in the field and gather the plants that they need to treat a wound, help with a sore throat, and even help with rheumatism. In order to prepare for this assessment, we all spent about an hour in the field walking around practicing plant identifications and finding as many different types of forb species as we could.

Then we packed up everything and headed back to the air-conditioned equipment garage to have lunch.  After lunch all of the students went home with print out pamphlets of the different types of plants that they might need to identify tomorrow.

One student stayed behind with me to take samples from the hay that the rancher had just baled so we can analyze the hay for nutrients. The rancher only feeds hay in the winter to his buffalo that he grows on his own ranch, so the nutrient contents will give us a point of comparison between what the buffalo are eating in the summer and winter. After we finished sampling the hay we organized all of the bags that contained vegetation samples and soil samples. The final student then went home and I spent a couple hours transferring data from the notebooks to our team’s collective Google Sheet.

After all of the work was done, I prepared to go into sweat for my first time. Sweat is a traditional Native American prayer ritual. It is intended to clear the body of all negativity by using hot temperatures and steam to make you physically and emotionally uncomfortable all while praying to the Creator for positivity and strength. The rancher’s son-in-law prepared the sweat by burning seven hot stones in a fire for two hours.

The women then change into traditional long skirts and the men where shorts. Once the fire dropped and the stones were hot enough we began the ceremony. Two people filled two traditional pipes with loose leaf tobacco while the girls in the family sang in Dakhota.  We then crawled into the sweat as a humbling gesture. Once inside the hot stones were placed in the center of the sweat lodge and sage was placed on top of the stones while prayers were said in Dakhota. After all of the stones were placed in the center of the sweat lodge we all went around and said an opening prayer. The door was then shut and the sweat began. Water was poured over the hot stones to produce a cleansing steam while songs and prayers were spoken. The door was opened three times to let the negativity out and allow for healing. I did not know the Dakhota prayers, but it was a beautiful experience where everyone cried out for help, healing and purification while honoring their ancestors. The heat was almost unbearable, but combined with darkness it allowed me to think deeply and feel connected to the human presences around me. Once sweat was finished, I felt deeply relaxed and cleansed. I felt more attached to my own humanity, but also to those important in my life. Sweat was truly one of the more healing and releasing experiences of my life. After the exhaustion of sweat, we all drank lots of water and ate dinner together in our new serenity and reflection.

Going to sleep I felt relaxed and blessed that I got to experience a meaningful part of the Native American culture. I gained a new understanding of a deeply personal and religious experience outside anything I had ever done before. I felt at peace with myself and grateful that I got to be a part of the ceremony.

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-Megan

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