The Pine Ridge Girls’ School is embarking on a mission to prepare young Lakota women for a college education and a fruitful life beyond the borders of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The Porcupine-based school — the country's first non-denominational all-girls college prep school on a Native American reservation — had its grand opening on Sept. 23. And since then, the teachers have been bonding with their first class of sixth and seventh graders.
The girls — 11 in total in the inaugural class — will spend the rest of their K-12 educational careers at the school, and new classes will be brought on every year.
Apart from it being a school just for girls, it is also unique in its approach to Native American tradition. Every lesson at the fledgling school — be it science or U.S. history — is communicated to the girls through the lens of Lakota language and culture.
“We’re trying to teach them to be proud of who they are,” said the school’s head, Cindy Giago.
The school’s name in Lakota is Anpo Wicahpi, which translates to “Morning Star.”
On a warm day in late September, Helene Gaddi led the day’s science lesson into the overgrown wilderness behind the Pine Ridge Girls’ School. Wading through knee-high prairie grass, the six girls in Gaddi’s class turned and looked when she pointed and said “What kind of trees are these?”
“Chokecherry trees,” one of the girls chimed in immediately.
Resourcefulness and a deep connection to the natural world: These are important qualities for Native American women, Gaddi said.
The privately funded college-preparatory school is designed to create a nurturing environment for young women on the reservation to learn in ways that suit them best. While taught through the lens of Lakota culture, the science in Gaddi’s outdoors classroom is sound, practical, and like every subject taught at the school by the staff of three teachers, based on established curriculum, she said.
Earlier in the month, she taught the girls how to make lip balm from plant ingredients harvested in the greenery behind the school. Another day's lesson had to do with floral morphology and stream ecology, Gaddi said. As part of that, she guided the girls down deer paths to a creek winding beneath a formation rocky of bluffs, taking note of different herbs and a bleached cow bones on the way.
“We need more Native women scientists,” Gaddi said.
Getting their hands dirty, being able to see, smell, hear and touch the subjects of their lessons; the girls learn better this way, the teacher said before leading her students back up to the school in time for math class. Once back, they learned about circumferences using a drawing of a sweat lodge, or “inipi,” in preparation for building one themselves.
The meditative smoke and darkness of the sweat lodge are already familiar to the girls, as are many other Lakota rituals, all taught to them by the school’s elders, Gene Giago — Cindy’s husband — Rick Two Dogs, and Ethleen Iron Cloud Two Dogs.
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Before eating a lunch of pasta with buffalo meat and corn-on-the-cob (homemade in the school’s open-air kitchen), the quiet elders looked on as the girls gathered in a circle, smudged with sweet grass, and presented a small offering of food for the spirits. Then one of the girls took a plate to Gene, who smiled and nodded in thanks.
“In a spiritual sense, I watch over the girls,” he said. “In a physical sense, I do the laundry and take out the dishes.”
The girls refer to their spiritual instructors as "kaká” and “unci” respectively, the Lakota words for grandfather and grandmother. The intimate titles have arisen organically as a result of the serene and familial atmosphere that Cindy and her small band of teachers have created at the school.
“They treat each other like family,” Cindy said of the girls.
“It makes me feel like home,” said sixth-grader Breiana High Wolf, 12, while her classmates laughed and batted a volleyball between themselves during recess. “It makes me feel comfortable, that I can tell my teachers and classmates everything.”
Like all of her fellow students, Breiana used to attend school elsewhere on or near the reservation. At her old school, Lakota language and culture were taught only during a single period in the day. At the Pine Ridge Girls’ School, it is all around her.
“We get to learn to sing the songs and speak fluently,” she said. “I’m learning our way of life.”
Cindy and the teachers agree that immersion in the language and culture is essential to the learning process and is all too often deficient or altogether missing in schools like the one Breiana used to attend. At the Pine Ridge Girls' School, all of the students get their own Lakota names, granted to them during spiritual ceremonies. Pasted on each girl’s locker is the name of a Native American woman significant in U.S. history: Winona LaDuke. Jodi Collette. Maria Tallchief. Buffalo Calf Road Woman. Nellie Red Owl. Marie Randall.
“We want to normalize being Lakota, where it’s not separate in our minds,” said Dusty Nelson, the school’s Lakota language and writing teacher. “We are always Lakota. It’s not something we do on the side. A lot of times when people think of academic rigor, they don’t think it includes Lakota thought and philosophy.”
On the dry-erase board in Nelson’s classroom was a Lakota medicine wheel, often used as a sort of flow chart for organizing ideas and schedules. The room was brimming with Lakota books. While the girls wrote in their journals for the day, they bobbed their heads and hummed along to the Native pop music on Nelson’s Bluetooth speaker.
“I love it. It’s beautiful,” Cindy said. “I don’t want to go home; we’re allowing them to create their own identities from what’s inside them.”
The girls have already gone on several field trips, including to Bear Butte near Sturgis and Fort Robinson, Neb., to learn how Tashunka Witko, the Lakota name for the war chief Crazy Horse, was captured and killed by U.S. soldiers. They are in the midst of planning another trip, this time to Cannon Ball, N.D., where a large group of Native American activists are camped in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The trip was the girls’ idea, the teachers said.
“It’s really amazing to see these girls; it’s a miracle happening before our eyes,” Nelson said. “They’ve bonded and they’re being themselves and they’re happy to learn about all this. These girls are really lucky. When I was younger, I feel like if I had a place to go like this, to be who I want to be and comfortable around other girls, I would have had a stronger foundation and I wouldn’t have struggled so much.”