Spirit Lake Nation

Posted on October 18, 2017
by Stacey Simpson Duke
Spirit Lake Youth Trip

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)

In June 2017, our church sent a group of 13 teenagers and adults to the Spirit Lake Nation, a reservation in eastern North Dakota, home to 7000 Dakota and Lakota Sioux. The team traveled to the reservation to work with United Methodist missionaries Mike and Libby Flowers, who run a Ministry Center on the reservation.

With such a small population on such a large amount of land, the people there face a sense of isolation. They struggle with many of the same issues found in the inner city, but without the sort of infrastructure and resources found in urban centers. Additionally, the statistics regarding the challenges they grapple with go beyond what is sees in the inner city: an unemployment rate of around 43%; massive issues with domestic abuse and child abuse; and issues of drug abuse and trafficking that have risen to such epidemic proportions that the tribe declared a state of emergency in 2015. The poverty is staggering and contributes to a sense of depression in the community.

Such issues are part of the legacy of the subjugation of indigenous peoples by the U.S. government. Our team did not go to Spirit Lake under the illusion of fixing such complex and sweeping issues. The team went to support Mike and Libby Flowers in their long-term work of solidarity and empowerment.

The team spent the week stripping, sanding, and repainting a deck for one of the elders in the community. She had fallen on the deck back in the winter, because it had been painted with a paint that left it too slick. Our team painted the deck, in a color of the elder’s choosing, with a paint that had some texture in it. When they were done, they prayed a blessing over the deck and for Miss Gloria. But the team said they were the ones who felt blessed.

Issac Working

Some of the team helped out with a daily kids’ camp run by the Mission Center. Each afternoon, about 25 kids, ages 5 to 17, came to the Mission Center for a hot lunch, crafts, a lesson, a snack, and games. For some of the kids, it was the only hot meal they got in a day. For some of them, it was the only meal of any kind they got in a day.

In addition to the work on the deck and the work with the kids’ camp, the team spent time clearing and hauling junk from the yard of an elder who had been debilitated by a series of strokes. In the past, this man used to be on the tribal council that helped make the decision about who in the community needed help. He was the one that was in charge of getting the supplies to do the work for the people who needed help. Now, he was the one who needed help.

Because of his strokes, he was not able to speak very clearly, and it could be hard to understand what he was saying. He was undeterred, however, in talking with the team and trying to get to know the team members. He asked the group about their heritage, wanting to know their native roots. The team members called out their backgrounds: Scottish, Irish, English, German, Thai, Burmese. The team leader said something about how most of the members of the team, like many white Americans, had family stories of Native American ancestry in our background, but that most of us didn’t have details or any real proof. The elder pointed to his heart and responded, “Indian is in your heart.” He said Indian is like God. God is everywhere, but God can also be in your heart, if you choose.”

It’s so easy for white Americans to have romantic notions of Native Americans, and to wish that we could lay claim to some of their mystique, without having had to suffer the horrors of the history. Instead of condemning that, this elder offered a beautiful, grace-filled testimony to kinship, and to the reality that we can make the choice to belong to each other, in our hearts, and in our actions.

While at Spirit Lake, the mission team learned a beautiful Dakota prayer that speaks to the power of God’s Spirit to give us understanding of our kinship to each other and all creation:

Grandfather, Great Spirit,
you have been always,
and before you nothing has been,
there is no one to pray to but you.
The star nations all over the heavens are yours, and yours are the grasses of the
earth. You are older than all need, older than all pain and prayer.

Grandfather, Great Spirit,
look upon your children,…
that they may face the winds
and walk the good road to the day of quiet.

Grandfather, Great Spirit,
fill us with the light.
Give us with the light.
Give us the strength to understand and eyes to see.
Teach us to walk the soft earth, as relatives to all that live.

Help us, for without you we are nothing.