“Snowstorms in April and Mai are no rarity,” says Isabel Stadnick from Switzerland when she collects me in Rapid City. She has been living in Pine Ridge, a reservation which is as large as the German state of Baden-Württemberg, since 1989. It is home to approximately 30,000 Lakota Oglala Native Americans, familiar to us as the Sioux. We turn off at a sign pockmarked with bullet holes. “In October last year we were all taken by surprise by the winter and masses of the black cattle froze to death outside. You can still see the occasional carcass lying there and broken trees.”
I consider how inhospitable it can be living out here on the prairie: no mountains to protect against the wind. It is a land of extremes: in winter down to minus forty degrees, in summer up to plus forty.
How must the Lakota have suffered at the end of the nineteenth century when most of the buffalo had been wiped out, they had lost the basis of their existence and were driven without shelter here to Wounded Knee where on 29 December 1890 the massacre by the US 7th Cavalry put an end to this once so free and proud people.
We arrive. The wooden houses in the school grounds with the pictures of horses look pretty. Inside they are finely varnished and outside there is an inviting playground and wooden toys.
To my surprise young chickens also live in the classroom which are looked after by the pupils and will later supply the school with fresh eggs. A henhouse is being built.
Establishment of the Lakota Waldorf School
A number of concerned parents from the reservation met with Bob and Isabel Stadnick in 1992 to discuss the lack of kindergarten and school facilities for their children. Bob, Isabel’s Lakota husband, died in 1997. Isabel was a pupil of the Basel Waldorf School. What she told about her own time in school gave rise to the wish for such a school. Would it not be possible to set up a Waldorf establishment here on the reservation and have Lakota culture flow into it?
The language of the Lakota was also to be used in this school. They enquired from Heinz Zimmermann, the then head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach, whether Lakota culture was compatible with Waldorf education. “It would not be Waldorf education if it did not contain the culture of the people using it and the latter did not find a place in it,” was his response. As a result, the first Waldorf kindergarten on an Indian reservation was established in 1994!
The Lakota Waldorf School was run for many years as a kindergarten until in 2012 a first class with seven children began. Because many children live in unstable family circumstances, fluctuation was and is high. During my stay there are between 14 and 18 children in the kindergarten group and there is a mixed-age first/second class. Meanwhile another first class with several pupils has formed.
In the initial years after its establishment, a Waldorf teacher spent a sabbatical year at the school. But it quickly became clear that the school has to train its own Native American teachers – meanwhile all the teachers are members of the Lakota tribe. An American Waldorf teacher spends several weeks in the year here to support the teachers. The latter continue their training at the Waldorf teacher training seminars during the summer.
The seminars are a long way away and the costs are considerable. A good connection with the Waldorf school in Denver means that the Lakota teachers can spend a week there each semester to gather experience.
A school day
When the children come through the door each morning after more than an hour and a half on the school bus, I sense sigh of relief and wellbeing: “Here the world is still whole.” They experience that this is a protected space for them. It is a warm home for the children, a little bit of idyllic world in which they can experience attention, calm and rhythm.
The morning starts with a Lakota song in a circle and a joint hot breakfast for everyone. The cook fries eggs and potatoes or makes porridge. The meat comes from the buffalo herd that belongs to the tribe and which is kept on a huge piece of land. The food is served with tea sweetened with honey. A wholesome meal for the tots! Then the kindergarten children play surprisingly peacefully and in small groups with wooden blocks, dolls and wooden animals, spread out animal skins and cloths, build kingdoms of the imagination.
The school children meanwhile go to the small school house where I teach jointly with the class teacher. We sing, dance, say the number series and create our lesson books. I am impressed by the natural way in which the children follow their teacher and how grateful they are for any attention. Some children have clear language deficits because they receive little attention, no one speaks enough to them, no one cooks at home and they are often surrounded by bleak lethargy.
I learn about the mostly difficult situations at home: a life in a space which is much too confined, frequently a group of ten will live in a small wooden hut, domestic violence is a major issue and often occurs in connection with alcohol abuse. Very little of that can be felt here. Bread is baked, scented bees wax is used for modelling, there is felting and singing, painting with water colours and gardening. Every day brings its own tasks.
After classes, there is a hot lunch for everyone, sitting in a large circle, which is freshly prepared using mostly organic products. The school has a garden which the pupils help to cultivate. The good food is intended to help prevent health problems such as obesity and diabetes at an early stage and draw the attention of the parents to the importance of their children’s nutrition.
When the children go home at three o’clock on the school’s own yellow bus, the further training for the teachers begins. The subject is the threefold structure of lessons and the way the day is organised; we knit, play the recorder and sing. Next morning we put the theory into practice. The children love the morning “locomotive” in the classroom which in a two, three or four-fold rhythm travels to distant place from Rapid City or the legend of the great Crazy Horse told from memory by their class teacher.
An excursion to the circus
At the teachers’ meeting I learn about the great annual event: all the schools on the reservation are invited to a large circus performance in Rapid City, two hours away. Everyone is excited since there is very little variety in everyday life. More than thirty school buses are parked in front of a huge circus tent. Before the actual performance starts, the children spend the few dollars their parents have given them on pink candyfloss, luridly coloured iced drinks in flashing glasses and glowing toys. Despite the great financial difficulties of the parents, these souvenirs simply belong to the whole experience. And as Naomi They Like Her (that is her name), one of the teachers, assures me: “This is America!”
The teeth of the children tell the same story, some of the smallest have metal caps on their teeth from the reservation hospital since caries if rife.
Once all those who still had some money left have had a ride on the camels and elephants and the national anthem has been sung by the standing mass of people, the circus itself starts. The children are almost too tired for the impressive performance. Later, on our way home on the bus, one of the children starts to sing. With deep feeling a Native American song sounds out and everyone joins in. To my ears there is nothing child-like about these intensely deep and high notes. They sound like the stamping of the buffalo and the bright shriek of the eagle, earth and sky, darkness and light. I am deeply moved.
That same evening I am taken to a powwow. The door of the sports hall-sized entrance hall opens and I freeze: deafening drumming, shrill song with high and deep tones, a dance group of men in full dress with eagle feathers and beaded leather clothing, elaborately embroidered moccasins and tobacco pouches, tomahawks und spears in their hands, dances to the rhythm!
Hundreds of people, many of them in traditional dress, prepare for their performance. Proud warriors, beautifully adorned women and children, all dance one after the other in competition and at the end the best group is presented with gifts, applauded and honoured.
A buffalo experience
One day, Jeff Iron Cloud takes me to see the buffalo. We drive criss-cross through the prairie. I hold my breath as Jeff drives sideways along a sloping hillside. Then we see the herd in the distance. When the animals become aware of us, they run away leaving only a cloud of dust behind. They have young and are even more shy than usual. We drive on when they suddenly reappear, galloping in from the side, directly in front of our truck.
They stand there with their dark, dense hide, the powerful head facing downwards with its thickset neck and chest, a fierce look coming from deep within, and the small upward-pointing horns – their whole being shows their close connection with the earth.
On the way back we listen to Native American music on Jeff’s cassette recorder with drums and shrill song. We drive past a site where trees have been decorated with coloured bands. In response to my question, Jeff answers: “Here is the place for the sun dances.” I dig around for my camera. “You can’t make a photo here,” says Jeff. It is a sacred place and ashamed I lower my camera.
The ancient culture of these people still exists, it is alive! That is not at all to be taken for granted. Because until 1976 the American government had banned all practice of Native American religion. Children were removed from their parents. They were forced to go to schools which were intended to inculcate in them the values of white, Christian civilisation. Repression and punishment were something which had previously been alien to Native American culture. With military precision, action was taken against all these traditions and the memory of origin and belonging eradicated.
The children were not allowed to speak their native tongue in the state and missionary schools and parents were prevented from seeing their children throughout their whole time at school until the latter were released from these residential establishments having been alienated from their families and culture. Such enforced integration uprooted the Native Americans, their loss of identity drove them into depression, resignation and alcoholism.
There is little income on the reservations, no industry and almost no agriculture. There is 85 percent unemployment and half of Native Americans live under the poverty line. Schools have a low success rate and more than 60 percent of pupils drop out of school early. Almost half of people suffer from diabetes and the suicide rate is extremely high, as is child mortality. Life expectancy for men is 48, for women 52.
Many parents cannot bring up their children themselves and often the grandparents stand in for them. Alcohol is illegal on the Pine Ridge reservation and its consumption is strictly punished with imprisonment. Even the Waldorf teachers, the school bus drivers and staff are subject to unannounced testing.
A good team has meanwhile come together at the school which works seriously and with a lot of commitment. There is even some publicity work in that some of the teachers regularly talk about Waldorf education, nutrition, the importance of sleep and rhythm in the life of the children on Kili Radio (a Native American radio station on the reservation).
The parents are unable to pay school fees. The Lakota Waldorf School is exclusively financed from donations. Isabel keeps a firm hold of the purse strings so that the Lakota Waldorf School can make ends meet each month. Her life’s task is to create a good place for the children of the reservation so that they can gather strength for their path into the future.
Only in its beginnings, this school sets an educational example for other reservations in the USA and Canada. Interested parents and teachers travel long distances to learn about this new form of education which is compatible with Native American culture. And the Lakota Waldorf School itself has a vision for the future. A new school village is on the drawing board.
About the author: Kyra Karastogiou is a class teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School and visited the Pine Ridge reservation during her sabbatical year.