We took a lot of summer road trips when I was young.  They are a blur of a station wagon crowded with a gaggle of overheated whiny kids fidgeting in the backseats under constant threat of “don’t make me pull over” topped off with the misery of eight or nine people camping in one tent in the rain.  I have no fond memories of these trips … save one: the Yankton Sioux Reservation in Marty, South Dakota.

The reservation was hot and dusty with free-roaming horses and the inevitable piles of shit swarming with flies the size of hummingbirds.  Riding bareback for the first time made up for all of that.

But what really made this experience so memorable was the fact that the Sioux were much poorer than I was … and much happier.

They had no fancy clothes, no store-bought toys, and no apparent longing for life to be different.  I learned to whittle, bead, and knead bread dough.  I watched old men carve drums from tree trunks and old ladies braid each other’s hair.

No one told us to wash our hands or faces.  Dirty clothes were the norm and we slept on cots in a dormitory room with broken windows and howling coyotes in the distance.  I loved it.

Of course it took me a while to understand what I learned that summer:

  • there is no shame in living a simple life
  • living close to the earth inspires integrity
  • life isn’t about the “stuff”
  • laughter comes easily if you play along with life

Please don’t write and tell me that I don’t understand Native American struggles; or that I have somehow romanticized or minimized their culture, poverty, or traditions.  I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be Native.  I’m only saying that living with the Sioux for a week – on their land, in their way – deeply impacted my life.

What began as childish curiosity has grown over my lifetime into profound respect and admiration of the Native American culture.  I’ve attended two seminaries and in each case studied with remarkable Lakota medicine men.  Twice I’ve been in relationship with Native Americans – from the Cherokee and Blackfoot Nations.

I am white and still this indigenous culture calls to me.  I strive to live as the Natives do … aware of the connection of all things and all people.

I’m NOT DONE YET with my education in Native ways.  Many of the families I serve in hospice are Native American: Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and most recently, Mohave.  I am always honored and humbled when they allow me into their lives, share their traditions, and invite me to their rituals.  They continue to teach me so much; as with the Sioux of many years ago – not with their words, but by their example.