The day had started out easily enough – it was hot, however a light breeze was coming in every now and then to cool both the horses and riders down. A half dozen young riders had tacked up their horses early that morning, warmed them up in the corral and ridden towards Oglala without a problem. One of our young riders noted to himself something interesting he observed with a cow when we were tacking up- but for whatever reason, chose not to say anything.
The horses, this time of year, tend to be a little more frisky than normal – not having been ridden for most of the winter and super charged up on the nutrient rich grass that covers much of the reservation in the Spring. And so, when the riders came back in – with no bumps or bruises, we thanked the horses, gave gratitude for a good ride and readied to go back to base camp, shade and ice water. . . until our wrangler noted that there was a cow lying under a nearby shade tree, looking mighty distressed as one tiny calf hoof and one miniature calf tongue appeared from its reproductive regions. Well, that neither looks comfortable nor the way it should be, we all noted.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is an extraordinary place for so many reasons. The bluffs, rolling hills, magnificent culture and historical significance have drawn so many for generations. The rural and remote nature of it is (for many) a breath of fresh air when the chaos of daily life begin to take their inevitable toll. Those same qualities also tend to help visitors learn to appreciate the conveniences normally taken for granted, one such convenience being…veterinarians. There are NO veterinarians on the 3,000 square mile Pine Ridge reservation. And so, when one sees a cow trying to give birth to a calf --- and the only body parts that are showing or moving are a tiny hoof and a tiny tongue ---- and mama is clearly in distress and not able to push her calf out, then one does what one does.
So, we grabbed a rope – two actually. One to rope and help hold mama down and the other to loop around the exposed hoof and pull. And so, pull we did.
Now, I’m not sure what a veterinarian would have done to rescue that calf and to help the mother. I’m not sure what the chances were of a live birth, given that the calf’s tongue and hoof had been observed three hours prior. I’m not sure if the calf is grateful to have been freed or angry that we didn’t let it stay right where we found it before we roped and pulled. I do know that the bellowing of the mother cow and the sweet and startled mooing of that calf when it came flying out covered in birthing fluid was among the sweetest and happiest sound I had in a long time..
I also know that I am grateful every day for the lessons learned on Pine Ridge; the experiences gained; the people – and animals – that we meet.
René Duamal once spoke about similar experiences and lessons learned when mountaineering and they seem especially applicable to my experiences, over the decades, on Pine Ridge: “You cannot stay forever; you have to come down again. So, why bother in the first place? Simply just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” And so it is.
Post Script-- Both mother and baby are doing great!
By Dave Ventimiglia
I had a magical, educational, exhausting, fun, inspiring, and heartbreaking trip this past weekend to Pine Ridge Reservation. I was extremely impressed with the impact that Tipi Raiser is making and the way they go about their business – and I suspect that this is the first of many trips I will make to learn and work alongside my Lakota brothers and sisters.
The exhausting part was the work that we were able to accomplish – reorganizing a food pantry, establishing two vegetable gardens, chopping wood to prepare for winter, completing a storage shed for fire bricks, starting a shed for bike repairs, and delivering furniture. We accomplished a lot in just a few days – but the work never got in the way of building new friendships or deepening existing connections with our Lakota hosts.
The rhythms and rituals of the weekend were all structured around the Lakota way of life – providing an education in indigenous wisdom that we sorely need as we face the challenges of climate change and an increasingly polarized society. We learned how to connect with each other through a sharing circle at the beginning and end of each day – how to both honor the wisdom of our elders and hold the young people accountable – and to see a glimpse of this rich culture through learning a bit of the Lakota language.
Magic was everywhere. It was in the sage we burned as part of our sharing circle – in the magnificent sunrises – in the beautiful horses – and the wide-open spaces all around us. It was in the Lakota prayers and songs we heard, the sweat lodge ceremony we were honored to be a part of, and the peace pipe that we passed. It was in the Lakota people’s deep connection to this land and to their ancestors.
I was deeply inspired by the work that Tipi Raisers is doing at Pine Ridge. Their values of alleviating poverty, doing the hard work of reconciliation, embracing indigenous wisdom, and empowering youth aren’t just empty words – they are lived out in the way that this organization partners with the Lakota people and with volunteers. As part of the work of gratitude and reconciliation – we had the privilege of being a part of a tipi raising ceremony – a gift to recognize the long-term contributions of Pansy Weasel Bear and Nobby Bell to Tipi Raisers mission.
I have done volunteer work in rural Haiti and have lived in Africa doing electricity access work for the past five years – so I am no stranger to the challenges of extreme poverty. The suffering that is endured by the Lakota people is heartbreaking – dealing with a lack of running water, electricity, access to healthcare, and unemployment. I had the chance to visit the massacre site at Wounded Knee and can feel the generational trauma from that event that remains with this place and its people more than 130 years later.
In the midst of all these moving parts – Tipi Raisers does a great job in providing a fun and rewarding experience. There is enough flexibility so that everyone can participate in ways that are most meaningful to them, enough structure to walk away with a sense of accomplishment, and enough of a focus on relationships that deep connections are forged among volunteers and with our Lakota hosts. Executive Director Dave Ventimiglia somehow holds it all together – organizing a large group of volunteers, making sure that everyone is having a good trip, honoring the Lakota way of life, and making a lasting impact on the Pine Ridge reservation – he is a teacher, leader, and organizer – and maybe part magician all at the same time. Last weekend was my first trip to Pine Ridge – I am quite sure it won’t be my last.
- David Gibson | May 28-31, 2021 Volunteer
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