Travels in the Black Hills
A Vietnam War veteran, LaPointe says he has struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction and homelessness. A more recent battle: proving his kinship to Sitting Bull. While many claim a blood link, LaPointe and his sisters are the only ones with the documents - including an airtight family tree that LaPointe's wife, Sonja, compiled - and oral history to prove it, all of which they provided to the Smithsonian Institution in order to bring home a pair of leggings and a lock of hair that belonged to their ancestor. (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires institutions to return human remains and cultural items to the families to whom they belong.)
Members of our group furiously scribble notes at every stop. "It would take five years of reading and trying to figure it out on our own to learn what Serle is teaching," Sassoon says. Notes Morgan Griffith-David, "It feels like I'm back in school, but in a good way."
We're in the U.S., as the highway signs and bag of classic American candy (souvenirs collected by the Welsh visitors) on the backseat confirm. But we are traveling in a parallel universe that feels no less foreign than the world I encountered while spending a college semester in Africa. At night, during one-night stays mostly in chain hotels, I feel disoriented enough to check my room's telephone for an address that confirms our domestic location.
Later we travel through the Big Horn Mountains to The Passage Resort, where we will spend the night. Owner Brett Wood points out a bull moose just yards from his hotel. Its velvety antlers rise from the tall grass as we photograph it from a safe distance. Wood discusses his tourist business over a lunch of buffalo and elk burgers.
"Our strongest market is Europeans looking to experience Native American history. Americans seem more interested in cowboys," he says. Wood hopes to build on The Passage's potential as an educational hub and is working with GNA on a rental-car GPS system that will allow his guests to conduct self-guided tours of Native American historical sites.
We fast-forward to the present with a visit to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where the median household income is $14,417, and the life expectancy is 57.
"You enter the heart of America and you enter the third world," says Chapman. Nowhere is this more evident than at Cheyenne Children's Services, a charity founded by his aunt, Florence Running Wolf, who operates it out of a modest trailer on the reservation.
Running Wolf describes a program that pairs volunteer sponsors with reservation youths on welfare. She beams as she points to a bulletin board dotted with photos of sponsors - about 75% are foreign - and kids. But there are no smiles when we tour the organization's storeroom. It is filled with supplies for the children: basics such as soap and detergent. Running Wolf says that, lacking these necessities, reservation children were once plagued by skin diseases, including impetigo. Sassoon and Fellers take note. They have come on this trip partly to figure out how they can help, and they plan to sponsor one or two children through the program.
The next day, we drive through Wyoming high country headed for the Medicine Wheel, an ancient ceremonial site at an altitude of 9,642 feet in the Big Horn Mountains. Like sand traps, pockets of snow dot the green hills we climb to reach the wheel-shaped configuration of stones, which measures about 80 feet across. We walk the last 1½ miles up a dirt road that offers sweeping views of the countryside. Brightly colored prayer ties, bits of fabric that serve as offerings to spirits, flutter on the surrounding fence. A lone park ranger stands guard. The only sounds are the wind and the crunch of gravel beneath our shoes as we circle the sacred formation looking for the Medicine Wheel's 28 spokes.
From there, we travel to Cody, Wyo., home of the Plains Indian Museum, where Chapman provides an insider's view of the exhibits. "That's Bear Woman," he tells us, indicating a photo of an unidentified woman behind glass - his grandmother, it turns out.
Traveling through the Black Hills, we hear the Native American perspective on Mount Rushmore, seen in the distance. The celebrated shrine of U.S. democracy sits on land that the federal government stole from the Lakota in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Speaking of that theft in a 1980 Supreme Court opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "A more ripe and rank case of dishonest dealings may never be found in our history." The legal dispute continues today.
After the tour ends, it's just photographer Brad Swonetz and me, tagging along with the Chapmans - Serle, Sarah and their five-year-old daughter. We pull into South Dakota's Badlands National Park shortly before sunset for a reunion with Sequoia Crosswhite, who lives about an hour away in Rapid City. The vast moonscape of multihued sediment and ash was once an ancient seabed, and the Lakota believe that female water spirits dwell here.
Against the backdrop of the Badlands' craggy peaks, Sequoia plays an original flute composition in the traditional Lakota style, then performs a grass dance - the original purpose of which is to sanctify and prepare a new campsite.
The Go Native America experience lingers after the trip. From Wales, Gretchen Griffith-David writes: "We're home in body, but not in spirit." Back in New York City, I reflect on the sudden strangeness of my habitat, where nature is confined to parks and fenced-in sidewalk trees.