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December 06, 2015 04:15 PM

Red Cloud Students Find Learning, Spirit on Stronghold Table

Scenic, SD

Stronghold Table is an isolated area of little-known beauty in the south unit of Badlands National Park. It's also a sacred place to the Oglala Tribe and other Lakota people.

While trying to protect Ghost Dance sites and other resources, the Oglala Tribe and the National Park Service allow limited access to the Stronghold, often for field trips with Lakota youth.

Educators and students at Red Cloud School on the Pine Ridge Reservation make regular bus trips to Stronghold Table, for outdoor classrooms that include both traditional Lakota instructors and National Park Service personnel.

Vance Blacksmith, activities coordinator for the Red Cloud Lakota language program, feels the spirits at Stronghold Table - deep in the Badlands where his people have come for more than a century to find peace and prayer.

"Any group wanting to survive, there is always a refuge place they seek out," Blacksmith says. "And for our ancestors, this was one of those places."

It still is a place of refuge, long past the time when Lakota Ghost Dancers offered up their prayers in secluded spots far from watchful government agents.

"They came out here basically to survive in that means, which was prayer to their creator and asking for help," Blacksmith says.

The Stronghold Table remains a place of help. That's why Blacksmith organizes regular trips here with student groups from Red Cloud Indian School, where he is activities coordinator in the Lakota language program.

Blacksmith says these visits help Lakota youth understand the badlands, but even more to understand their own culture, history and spirituality.

The program at Stronghold mixes traditional culture and earth connections taught by Lakota instructors, with the more formal science of the present and the past taught by National Park Service personnel.

It's a more personal message surrounded by a landscape the inspires and informs.

"In their relationship to the earth, in our prayer we say, 'Mitakuye Oyasin', meaning we are all related," Blacksmith says. "And the information he shares is valuable to their understanding, not only to the animals of today but the prehistoric time. You know, we're all a part of that."

Being a part of this type of outdoor classroom instruction is a magical experience for  Reed Robinson, an enrolled Rosebud Tribe member and regional National Park Service tribal relations manager.

"The value of what's going on here today is the perpetuity of the Lakota culture," Robinson said. "So another generation, in this case high-school students, are learning from different subject-matter experts about the history, the culture, the plants and animals, geography and other scientific areas, of this very land we're standing on today."

Standing and sitting, lying down and listening, while occasionally gazing off across the Badlands to the sacred Black Hills to the west; It all gives these Lakota students a better understanding of who they are and why they matter.

“What the whole trip taught me was that we come from a really great people," said Samaya Blacksmith, a junior at Red Cloud. "And I really enjoy coming to a place where we express a lot of our culture."

Robinson spoke of his own life experiences and how leaning on Lakota ways helped him face challenges. The Lakota students were listening.

"It just made sense that you're going to go through hardships in life, and it's just about getting through them," Samaya Blacksmith said. "And I think that's what a lot of us go through. And I think that's what a lot of the elders talk about, being able to go through those and to learn from them, from our experiences, whether they're good or bad."

The experiences at Stronghold Table are profoundly good parts of education at Red Cloud.

"You get this sense of serenity," Vance Blacksmith said. "And more of a connection that we're trying to build."

Lance Blacksmith says the trips to Stronghold Table also give Lakota students a different and important view of the Black Hills, off in the distance to the west. He says kids should see the hills from the surroundings where their ancestors saw them, rather than whizzing by on a paved highway.

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