By Alex Cohen
Like I said in , today started sitting next to the bus driver, chatting about life and staring at the open road – there’s a lot of road between here and there. The driver suggested we would stop at the only place that served breakfast within 30 miles, and when I asked if it was any good he said, “it got 4 stars on Yelp.” So, we decided to take a chance.
The place was called Jigger’s Restaurant in Kadoka, South Dakota; it was a very plain white building with the word RESTAURANT written on it. We pulled our huge bus right in front and everyone inside the restaurant looked out the window wondering who the hell we were!
We walked in and could tell right away that this was a local, small-town eatery where everyone knew each other. We were not neighbors, we were strangers. The first person I noticed was an older gentleman eating alone wearing a Vietnam veterans cap, I smiled, but he had not warmed up to us yet. Another group of four included whom we later found out was THE police officer of the town (population: 690). At another table were two older couples that looked like they had been friends forever, and their conversation never stopped. At yet another table was a nice young couple, a single young man sat alone in a table behind them, and then there were our two bus drivers.
We ordered the most delicious breakfast from the waitress, who was also the cook and the cashier. She was so nice and knew all the customers’ names. We asked her if it was okay to pick up the tab for everyone in the restaurant. She smiled and said “yes, sure.” I wanted to be respectful.
The older gentleman eating alone was the first to ask for his check. When the waitress told him “it’s already been taken care of,” he turned to us, removed his cap, and gestured thank you. It felt good. Watching the elderly man’s response, the police officer called the waitress over and asked what that was all about. She told him, “these people are traveling across the country doing random acts of kindness and they wanted to do something nice for you all.” At that point, everyone at his table also turned, waved, and said thank you. We paid the bill and I left the waitress a $100 tip, and thanked her for such a wonderful meal and experience. She was thrilled and we were on our way.
As we began our drive to South Dakota the temperature quickly dropped and it began to snow. We were not prepared for the quick change in weather but were able to layer enough clothing to get through the day. We reached Pine Ridge Reservation at 11:00am and pulled our big bus up to the Lakota Immersion Childcare Center, which is a program of the .
Once inside, we were greeted by Matthew Rama, Director of the Lakota Language Initiative, Darlene Helper, Caregiver at the Lakota Language Initiative and Liz Welch, Director of Advancement at the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. They explained that we would need to be cleansed with sage before we could spend time with the children. Matthew came to each of us with the braided sage and asked us to cup our hands to the smoke and bring it to our bodies and over our heads. He explained that they needed to protect the children from any bad experience or thoughts that we may be carrying with us. Then one of the elders from the Center said a prayer in their native Lakota language.
Lakota, they explained, is the one of the oldest Native American languages. Today, the elders of the Reservation are the only people who still speak Lakota, meaning it will soon become extinct. The goal of the pre-school in the Child Care Center we visited is to teach and preserve the Lakota language for generations to come. As part of this commitment, the adults at the Child Care Center speak only in Lakota to the children. Although the children’s primary language is English, the elders encourage the parents to also come in and learn Lakota so they can continue to practice with their children.
Our group was split up and escorted into two separate rooms; in one we were to help the children make bird feeders with popsicle sticks and glue, and in the other room they were teaching the younger children to plant watermelons, carrots, beans and onions. We enjoyed spending time with the children and they seemed to be happy to have special guests visiting and helping them.
After clean-up in the classrooms, we served everyone lunch and sat down with the people who run Thunder Valley. Their mission statement is:
“Empowering Lakota Youth and families to improve the health, culture and environment of our communities, through the healing and strengthening of cultural identity.”
We were shown that explained how the people of this reservation were among the poorest in America; their unemployment rate is 80%, and they have the highest rates of suicide and alcohol and drug addiction in the country.
I wondered how WE, the richest nation in the world, could not see this, which reinvigorated me to continue on this journey. This IS the reason we are here, to educate people about what the middle of this country needs. Let’s not forget them, they need our help.
We said our goodbyes to the children, their teachers and their elders and made our way back to the bus for our journey to Custer, South Dakota. As we drove, the snow picked up and began to accumulate, which made the trees and landscape even more beautiful. On the ride, we came across some very large buffalos just roaming near the road – what a great site to see.
Once we got to Custer we dropped the drivers off at their hotel to rest. We had a few hours free, so we decided to go see Mount Rushmore, as most of us had never seen it before. When we arrived, we realized that the cloud cover and heavy snow would make it hard to see clearly. Luckily, just as we arrived, the clouds moved away momentarily and we were able to make out the historical faces carved into the mountain. We took some fun pictures and then decided to continue on to the town of Deadwood, the historic old western town where Jessie James shot Wild Bill Hickok over a poker game, and where calamity Jane is said to have died.
We ate in the same establishment where this all occurred in the late 1800’s. The restaurant, The Social Club, was above . There we celebrated our very successful second day of the tour. We talked about what our favorite part of the day was, and how grateful we were to be able to do this trip and experience such amazing and inspiring people.
And now, after a well-deserved shower and change of clothes, we’re back on the bus. It’s time for bed; we need to get ready for the great things that tomorrow has in store for us….