Sisseton, South Dakota

Claire Kirchoff

Picture this: you’re sitting in a field surrounded by plants you’ve never seen, learning their individual names and purposes, while discussing important issues in the environment.

That’s what our first week in Sisseton, South Dakota looked like. Wrapping up week 1 in on the Lake Traverse Reservation felt like a whirlwind. The week flew by, starting on Monday with special talks from Dr. Howard Epstein in the Environmental Science department at UVA, and Jeremy Redeagle, a local Native plant and Dakota language aficionado. Before long, our students were passionately discussing prominent environmental issues facing their ecosystem and creating posters aimed at building awareness of an issue of their choosing. We’ve discussed topics related to health, sustainability, and the importance of bison to the grasslands ecosystem and Dakota community. Our mornings start off with group discussions and reflection time, and quickly evolve into small group discussions, projects, and individual journaling with provided prompts. Afternoons were spent in the field placing plot markers, collecting plant data, and practicing plant identification.

As an ongoing component of the lessons, we incorporate service learning and social justice into our discussions and activities through creating posters of environmental causes, writing speeches about mental and social health, developing plans to encourage recycling, and building awareness of the methods of reducing waste.

Student poster: “This is Earth. On the left side is how Earth used to be. On the right side is how Earth is now. See the difference? This was before and after pollution became known.”

With cultural differences constantly present, our group has learned so much about the history and culture of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe. Over the weekend, we traveled 2 hours south of our home base to an annual traditional powwow. Members of the Sioux tribe from all over the Midwest and Canada were present. Dances and songs were performed, including a tribute to the community of Native American armed forces veterans.

A local family has opened their home to me for the duration of our time here. I have enjoyed getting to know this family, their stories, and the challenges they face. Living with a family and spending time in their home has provided me with a glimpse of their place in time and within this country.

As a student and academic who is greatly interested in cultural differences and similarities, the experiences I have had over the last 7 days have been nothing short of eye-opening. With as much preparation, reading and researching as you can do, you’re never really ready for that cultural shift, even within your own country.

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