I walked towards my First Nations Studies professor’s office, found the door ajar, and knocked. My hand shook a little because I knew one way or another this conversation was going to be emotionally charged. It had nothing to do with academics, but at the moment, it seemed to have everything to do with my life, my future, and my relationships with some of my closest friends.
My professor was squinting hard at something on the screen and looked almost angry, which made me even more nervous. I knew she didn’t like the root behind the topic I was going to bring up, and I’d felt she was a bit disappointed in me when she learned I had been a part of it last year. She was a small, curly-haired, powerful Ojibwe woman, with a large voice that could be remarkably soft when she needed it to, and the greatest sense of empathy I’d ever experienced from a professor—or any adult, really.
She looked up at my knock and her scrunched-up look of displeasure smoothed into one of pleasant surprise when she saw me at the door.
“Well, hello! What brings you here?”
First things first, I decided. I held up the can of Folger’s coffee that Stacie had asked me to bring in as a gift for the Elders in Residence. My professor was delighted, rising from her chair to receive the gift. She welcomed me in, thanking me and telling me to thank Stacie next I saw her.
But she could tell there was something else on my mind, and asked me about it.
Here it came.
“I have to cook a pot of chili tonight,” I told her. “And I’m not sure if I should.”
She could have laughed, as others had; she could have immediately offered suggestions without knowing the story behind it. But instead she met my gaze and nodded, straight-faced and interested, and asked me to sit down.
“Tell me about this pot of chili.”
I took a deep breath and told the story from the beginning. The Inter-Faith organization at our school had been leading a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation for one week during spring break, each year for I don’t know how many years. The trip was extremely controversial. The man behind the Inter-Faith center had refused help from the First Nations Department when they reached out, claiming he wanted his students going on the trip to enter as “blank slates” as they were immersed in the Lakota culture.
“But it doesn’t really work like that,” another of my FN professors had explained to me. “Just by virtue of being a part of modern American society, each student has already developed prejudices and stereotypes from their exposure to popular media.”
So each student that went, went in uneducated, unsure, culturally awkward, and relatively clueless, unless they had background in First Nations cultures. But student with background in the culture tended to be excluded in favor of the “blank slate” concept.
I’d gone on the trip last year. My ex had convinced me to go. It was our first conversation after meeting each other. As soon as I told her my parents would never let me go, she was on me, forcing me to go. But in the end (as I sometimes forget) it was really my sociology professor who convinced me, telling me how much I would learn, and how much I could grow.
I was the only one on the team of fifteen that decided to take a First Nations class the semester of the trip in order to better prepare myself for interacting with a culture I’d had no prior contact with. That’s how I’d met this professor I now sat in the office with. I’d been naive. I’d had no idea that the FN department had been rejected from making the trip a better one, and that my professor was extremely bitter about the whole thing. I’d sensed her reaction when I talked about it, saw her awkward anger, and never brought it up to her again.
I went on the trip. The goal was to finish staining the porch of a mobile home belonging to a family on the reservation our school had been working with for years. Years, mind you—one week each of the past six or so years to get this home up and running. And the family patiently waiting. And our group feeling so proud of themselves for this miniscule accomplishment. I’ll be the first to admit that there was some of the White Savior in me too.
But what I was really looking forward to was meeting the kids at the Pine Ridge Boarding School. The other part of our project had been raising enough money to buy them art and sports supplies, and we bought a decent amount of each of these. Kids had terrified me for most of my life after some experiences of accidentally hurting them, and I was determined to shake that. This was the trip that would define my life and my passion for youth advocacy.
It started the moment we walked into the school. It was a large and colorful building, with bars, stripes, and circles integrated into the wall’s color scheme, and a medicine wheel on the floor of the very center of the building, where hallways branched off leading into the dorm wings and the recreation areas, and the two large front and back doors, leading respectively to the parking lot and to the playground and basketball court.
Our team was greeted by the dorm mother of the school. We were informed that a twelve-year-old girl had hung herself that weekend.
It was then I realized that there was nothing I could do here.
There was no way I could be a savior. No way could I help these kids. Nothing I could possibly do to bring that girl back and stop the next one from killing herself.
The only thing left for me to do was observe, and learn, and see what I could do. I was shaking for almost the entire day and into the night. By the third day of interacting with heartbroken, energetic, paranoid, hyperactive, troubled, wonderful kids, my mind and heart had begun to fill with a desire to help them and all the kids like them. The kids in my city. The kids I see each day in my textbooks, on the news, in my social media feeds.
Kids who were like me when I was their age.
I wanted to learn how to help suicidal kids, depressed and anxious kids. That’s what started my work in youth advocacy, lead me to change my major, and prompted me to get involved in local service projects while remaining in contact with a few of the kids I met on the reservation (a notable one being described here).
The trip was being planned again for this year. My ex, having been the team leader the year before, told me I could go again and serve as an advisor to the new team lead. That was before we broke up. I didn’t think the breakup would have any effect on my participation in the trip. What I didn’t know was that during the time we were not speaking with each other, my ex had continued organization without me, picking her friend and my roommate as leaders, and all of them had begun planning without me. So by the time we considered each other friends again it was apparently too late for me to jump on board.
The fact that our breakup was now the only thing preventing me from going, no matter how many stupid excuses m ex made about my previous behavior or lack of team ethic (all of which were wrong according to everyone else in my life), infuriated me beyond anything I’d ever felt before. I fought to keep myself on their radar, offering my time, ideas, experience, input, and by far doing the most outreach via classroom presentations (I’d have to say almost half, if not more, of the people who applied did so because they saw me present about it in their class).
I offered to cook chili for a dinner fundraiser they’d planned. That was before other things started happening.
Before my roommate told me I could not go on the trip, despite the fact that my ex was in a different country and no longer had influence.
Before I found out from the other leader that the Inter-Faith supervisor hated students to go more than once unless they were leading. That his main focus was not building support for and connections with the Lakota people on the Reservation, but exposing students to what was basically poverty porn and voluntourism if it wasn’t pulled off right.
Before I found out that their next project was to build a coffee house on the Reservation.
When she heard me say that my professor leaned back and drew a hand across her face.
“A coffee house?” she said. “Who’s going to travel miles and miles across that huge Reservation to pay five dollars for a cup of coffee?
“Who’s going to run it? Who’s going to pay for it?”
“It’s not part of their culture,” I said.
“It’s such a middle-class, white thing to think of!” my professor exclaimed. “If they want to help they could just build a generic rec center, not restrict it to a particular use.”
“And it has nothing to do with what we learned last year. No one we talked to said they needed a coffee house. They all focused on their youth—they need more resources for their youth. I can tell they’re going to frame it as a way to build community and have an alcohol-free space, but first off, it’s not going to work—it’s not part of their culture, it’s going to be expensive, who’s going to buy coffee when they could buy whiskey, and the kids aren’t going to be interested in it. And second, it lets me know that the one big takeaway they all had last year was that Pine Ridge has an alcohol problem. Not that they’re taking great strides in providing for the next generation, not that they’re building themselves up.”
The issue was that I wanted to say all of those things, but I had been given the opportunity to lead the trip next year. If I put myself in a bad light by criticizing the current teams’ every move, it was unlikely I’d gain favorable rapport and be able to lead.
But I also wasn’t sure I even wanted to lead anymore. It was not the trip I’d signed up for; I’d gone in with a completely different perspective on what it was supposed to be. Did I really want to be a part of bringing a bunch of “white saviors” to perform tasks I didn’t agree with and work with people I was coming to resent?
An alternative was to start a project right here in my city, helping out the local kids. As my professor pointed out, “You don’t have to go all the way to South Dakota if you want to help out the Natives.”
“There’s porches to paint right here,” she said.
We talked about launching a mentorship program or coat drive with local schools. We generated a few ideas; I got excited; my professor spoke to me again.
“You were put on this Earth to do big things,” she said, resting her elbows and clasped hands on her desk. “The trip you went on, the impact it had—that goes beyond you. You were meant to go on that trip. And I didn’t say anything when you talked about it, because I didn’t want to interfere in your learning process. You got to this point by yourself. And I’ve seen the work you have done since then, and what you took out of your experience was good.”
I breathed slowly, and she leaned back in her chair again. “You came in here to ask about a bowl of chili,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m not sure if I want to make it. If I don’t agree in what the trip stands for anymore.”
“I can’t tell you if you should make it or not,” she said slowly. “I can see it would be difficult to make something if you don’t agree with it. But I can also see that you gave your word, and keeping your word is very important.
“I can tell you if you decide to make it, make it with good thoughts in your mind. Make it with positivity, and that positivity will go into the food, and everyone that eats the food will feel it. Because if you make it with bitterness, and put your frustrations into the food, then everyone who eats the food will take in that negativity.”
A few more things were said, we thanked each other, and I walked out. I felt lighter. Hearing her speak and the method with which she used her words, the patterns and rhythms of her thought, always calmed me, always helped to guide me.
I want to believe what she said. That I was put her to do big things.
I know the effect of this trip goes beyond me, and that’s why I can’t let it go. The trip influences every person that our students interact with on the Reservation and everyone that we talk to about it. It affects the kids that I met, the ones who want me to come back and see them again. The ones I told I wanted to come back. The ones who would not see me and who would add me to their list of people they could not trust to hold their word.
Because that’s the kind of relationship this trip is promoting.
I walked back to my apartment and into the kitchen. I pulled my tomatoes out of the cabinet. I started cooking onions. I thought good things as I stirred, and when I hugged the pot as I carried it to the Inter-Faith Center, I felt its positivity.
My impact goes beyond this one pot of chili and I’m determined not to waste it.