Tara Seibel/ Nica 66/ ENV
My neighbor in the United States was a vibrant, strong 6 year old with big glasses and a black and white puppy – Rainy. Every day after school, she’d visit. Sometimes her visits were to share a new song she learned or teach me how to string a fishing pole. When summer storms would roll into Wanblee (a small town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and home to the initiation of the American Indian Movement) she would run to my garage, grab our Pow Wow chairs, and we would sit. We would watch as the Thunder Beings made their way to the Badlands, bringing rain and an epic storm across the sky – a storm we could see coming from 40 miles west. Watching the storms and admiring the grand nature of all that surrounded us, Rainy would tell me stories about the Star Boy and the White Buffalo Calf Woman. She shared stories that rested close to her heart. She told stories that were passed down to her from her mom and dad and from all of her ancestors that, too, welcomed the Thunder Beings through their history on the land in (what is now) South Dakota. Rainy is Oglala Lakota Sioux, a descendant of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Her whole self is strengthened and enhanced by the stories, the people and the traditions that surround her.
In my mid-twenties a handsome young devil (now my husband, horns and all) challenged me to consider moving from Denver to Pine Ridge. There, he said, I would find community like I had never experienced before. He said I would find extreme beauty and extreme pain, and the chance to work alongside tribal members to fight the legacy of centuries of oppression. My experience there over the following four years would profoundly shape how I see the world. In the Lakota language there are two incredibly powerful words, “mitakuye oyasin.” They convey the sentiment that we are all related – that there is an intimate, spiritual connection between all living things on this earth as well as those who passed before us. These words are used in every prayer. The Lakota teach that every action we take and moment that we live is a prayer. Therefore, to experience this world as we are meant to, we must aways live with an awareness of our relation to the physical and spiritual world around us. The significance of what can seem as first as a simple mantra continues to grow on me. As I’ve learned about the history of this place now called Central America, I’ve been taken by reality that this meaning exists, too, in its indigenous cultures. For example, to the Mayans there exists the word “in lak ech” – a belief that we are all a part of a larger whole. This sentiment translates in Spanish as:
Tú eres mi otro yo.
Si te hago daño a ti,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
Si te amo y respeto,
Me amo y respeto yo.
As I reflect on my time on Pine Ridge, all of my thoughts and feelings and experiences are tied up in the humble reality that I have been able to grow, develop and be refined by the communities I have been a part of, not in spite of but because of difference. As a white, Christian educator living on a reservation, it was critical for me to interrogate my identity and the impact of my identity as I interacted, especially, with students. In doing so, I could work to humanize and be humanized by experiencing joy and pain with others. We could share our truths and share our experiences as far as the sharing allowed us to magnify the joy and process the pain – a transformative process. And I’ve grown because I’ve learned from difference. I’ve grown because I was open to interrogating my own belief system – what it was, what it meant, where it came from. Through living alongside people, I have been able to incorporate different systems of beliefs, shift and mold and modify my world view, and really identify my truths. Based on my limited experience in this life and drawing from the truths that others have graciously shared with me from their culture and traditions, I offer this humble reflection:
To all of my fellow volunteers, tu eres mi otro yo. You and I, we’re related – inextricably linked to one another. And, therefore, where there is injustice in this world and where there is marginalization and oppression, we are all affected. As such, we have the privilege to come together and to collectively experience the human condition. Also, our talent and our care and our passion and our responsibility are connected. Our joy is connected. Where we triumph and overcome, we have the privilege to share and multiply our experience. This Peace Corps experience is unique. There are few other people in the world who have shared the same late night songs and conversations, the same questions and struggles, the same charlas that perhaps included horse manure or dinámicas or teaching strategies or condoms, the same pizza cravings and moon walking admirations, and the same hopes.
We too are connected to those students, teachers, community members, and family members with whom we work and with whom we live. The power of our work lies in that connection. The communities that we have the privilege to partner with have the questions we will explore and they have the answers. We have the chance to look for the all of the bright spots in our communities. We have the responsibility to recognize what we bring and what limitations we have. We have the joy to connect with the realities of our neighbors. And the privilege to sit with our 6 year-old neighbor, learning from the wisdom she carries. I am grateful to walk alongside each of you as you do this work.
Though I do not have all of the words to share my gratitude and my hope. I will offer this. When we look at our work and our community, our neighbors and our time here in Nicaragua through the lens of “mitakuye oyasin” and “in lak ech“, we will be compelled to live with more empathy, humility, and heart. Then, I would say this:
We should not let language separate us but let us connect because of and in spite of words we can share.
We should not transform communities but let us be humans living and doing life hand in hand with others.
We should not consider this our great adventure alone but let us be aware of the realness of our work and the importance of our charge.
We should not expect to have the solutions but let us remember we are charged to be explorers.
We should not focus on the challenges but let us see challenges as opportunities.
We should not simply be teachers but let us be learners.
As a friend once shared before I left the reservation to move to Nicaragua: we are learners forever in this life, life is struggle no matter where you are, and love is real no matter where you are, adventure can be found no matter where you are, and hope exists no matter where you are. Living here will aid all of us in the process of being more human because we shared and learned from difference. That is real transformation. That is what revolutions are built upon. That is true education. That is our work.