GUILFORD — If you ask Isaac Freitas-Eagan about his experience working in LaPlant, S.D., this past summer, he says, "It changed my life."
This Brattleboro Union High School sophomore travelled to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation with eight other teens and five chaperones from local faith communities, including the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, St. Michael's Catholic Church, Newfane Congregational Church and Guilford Community Church, UCC). They rode in three vehicles over 3,000 miles and back to be able to sleep on a wooden floor, work in the hot summer sun building homes and, most importantly, to get to know the Cheyenne River Sioux children and teens in La Plant, the desolate town where the nonprofit Simply Smiles began its work six years ago.
Past interfaith groups have travelled to Kenya, but this group wanted to do something within the U.S. and found they had cross-cultural and cross-class barriers to cross which they hadn't expected.
"You could see the difference the minute we crossed the Missouri River and onto the reservation ... so bare and so poor," said Jacob Bailey.
There is little trust of outsiders on the reservation, given the past history of churches and governmental organizations, and the teens found that playing basketball was one of the few activities where barriers fell away. Over the week, the members of the tribe began to get to know some of the teens their age and they spent afternoons together making friendship bracelets, taking photos of each other, and getting involved in sports. When it came time to leave, they could look at projects they had completed: a climbing wall, sidewalks through what would be mud in the Spring, storage sheds for pellets and a house for a family with seven children. Just as the reservation time operates apart from Daylight Savings Time the teens remarked it seemed everything slowed down, that days were long and connections deep.
Some of the teens experienced "reverse prejudice" which they found shocking. but ultimately, sobering.
Another aspect of the learning, both before and during the trip, was a view into U.S. history, as they spent days after the time in LaPlant visiting Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse museums.
Jonah Petrie, another BUHS sophomore, from the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, said Mt. Rushmore was "hard to swallow" once they realized that the mountain had been a sacred site for the Lakota before it was carved as a monument for the same presidents who had imprisoned and sacrificed Native Americans to allow white settlements.
The return of the group to South Dakota speaks to their awareness that it is important to build relationships across time and space, and that by returning they will have a chance to renew friendships and deepen the trust and connection. Now feeling familiar with the small town, they can return and settle right back into doing what is needed.
The group hopes to raise funds for travel and food through a series of fundraisers, the first of which, a dinner at 5:30 p.m. and concert at 7 p.m., takes place this Saturday, April 2, at the Guilford Community Church UCC at 38 Church Drive in Guilford, one mile south of Exit 1 on Route 5.
Kristen Graves, a renowned folk musician and one of the founders of the Simply Smiles, will join the teens in offering stories and music of the Plains. Graves is a singer, songwriter and humanitarian, and has been mentioned in Rolling Stone for her musical link with environmental activism. Her most recent honor came from Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut when he proclaimed Dec. 15 to be Kristen Graves Day, a day to honor the arts, compassion and social justice. With catchy songs, funny stories and inspiring lyrics, Kristen performs nearly 200 shows a year delighting audiences coast to coast and internationally. Her most notable performances have been with Dar Williams, Guy Davis, Holly Near, Peter Yarrow and the late Pete Seeger.
The chicken barbecue, to eat in or take out, begins at 5:30 p.m. and includes barbecue chicken, potato salad, vegetarian chili, macaroni and cheese, green salad and apple crisp with ice cream. $15 for the dinner and concert. $12 dinner only. The concert begins at 7 p.m.