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Pine Ridge Immersion trip takes Blugolds inside Lakota culture and history

| Denise Olson

When students think about preparing to succeed in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, many assume that they will have to fly to faraway — sometimes exotic — places to immerse themselves in new cultures and populations.

In reality, some immersion opportunities are just a short car ride away.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is one of those places.

Every summer 10 Blugolds travel to Pine Ridge to immerse themselves in the Lakota culture, learning about the history and traditions of the Lakota, as well as the many challenges facing those living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation today.

The UW-Eau Claire students spend a significant amount of their time working with local organizations that address the many issues associated with the severe poverty on the reservation, says Heather Moody, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at UW-Eau Claire who leads the summer immersion trip.

“The purpose of the Pine Ridge service trip is to work with organizations that address poverty and issues associated with poverty on the reservation,” Moody says. “The important aspect is working with the organizations and addressing what their needs are.”

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation covers more than 2.8 million acres in southwestern South Dakota, making it the second-largest reservation in the United States.

On Pine Ridge, the rates of alcoholism, suicide, infant mortality and diabetes far exceed the national averages. According to a 2007 Americorps report from Red Cloud School in Pine Ridge, the life expectancy on Pine Ridge has recently been the lowest of anywhere in the western hemisphere — except for Haiti — at 48 years for men and 52 years for women.

Even for social work and American Indian Studies majors who are familiar with these issues and the basics of the Lakota history, it is hard to prepare the average west-central Wisconsin college student for the reality that is life on Pine Ridge, Moody says.

Students begin their journey with traditional classroom instruction and on-campus meetings regarding Lakota culture and the contemporary issues facing the reservation today.

“During the immersion, students are able to take the ‘book knowledge’ and apply it to what they experience during the trip,” says Moody. “They find value in listening to the stories of the people who actually experience life on the reservation on a daily basis.”

Students learn about the culture and traditions, but also establish relationships with the people, Moody says.

The UW-Eau Claire immersion students gain a type of access to the reservation that is rarely granted, and is based on a history of bringing well-informed, respectful visitors, Moody says.

“We work hard to develop connections to the service opportunities through strong relationships. The program already has a reputation for being a good group; we’re well organized and knowledgeable of culture,” Moody says.

Several Pine Ridge organizations were selected for service projects this year, including a youth recreation center and a youth homeless shelter, where painting and landscaping needs were met. The projects completed on this immersion allow the students to fulfill all 30 hours of their service-learning requirement, in a way that is connected to their passions and educational goals.

Students also visited the BEAR Program, which is a suicide prevention center; a center for homeless veterans; and the Brewer Buffalo Ranch, where they learned about the Crazy Horse Ride that takes place each summer. A visit to the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee provided students a somber and deeply personal opportunity to reflect on all they had taken in.

Once limited to American Indian Studies and social work majors, any student may now apply. Often, Moody says, there are more students interested than available spots so students must apply and be selected to participate. The trip is limited to 10 students and two mentors.

Moody takes the task of selecting the right students for the trip seriously.

Not only is it difficult to turn away interested students, but it can be difficult to combine the right group of students to make the trip successful. This immersion is both physically and emotionally challenging, and Moody must be certain that the experience is a good match to students’ personalities, strengths and their level of commitment.


Senior Alec Thicke, an American Indian Studies major from Rochester, Minnesota, will serve as one of two trip mentors for the 2016 Pine Ridge Immersion.

Senior Alec Thicke, an American Indian Studies major, has elected to become a mentor for the trip in 2016, and looks forward to helping bring this experience to more students. As a 2015 participant in the immersion, Thicke qualified to mentor next summer’s group of students. This is an essential aspect of the team, because participants must learn a great deal about customs and respectful observation essential to the continued access to the reservation.

“You can read all you want about any culture, but to really understand it you have to encounter it firsthand. That is what this trip does. It shows you what reservation life is, and it gives you a great insight into Lakota culture, which you couldn't fully get by just reading and studying about it,” Thicke explains.

Junior Erika Powers, also an American Indian Studies major, was grateful to have been prepared for the trip by mentors and the multiple orientation sessions.


Junior Erika Powers, an American Indian Studies major from Homer Glen, Illinois.

“I wanted to participate in the immersion was because it would allow me to go out of my comfort zone, experience something that I never had, and be active in my learning in a new way,” Powers describes. “The preparation for the immersion and previous classes helped me be ready for what I was going to encounter.”

The trip is funded by the Domestic Intercultural Immersion Grant, applied strictly toward travel costs. The grant funds cannot be donated, so students are required to raise funds for the materials needed in the service projects and for their food costs. Each student is limited to spending $50 for the week on food — the equivalent of a weekly food budget for Pine Ridge residents. 

As part of the grant fulfillment, students are required to write a reflection piece about the experience and participate in classroom presentations in the fall. During the trip, they do nightly journal entries, highlighting the most challenging and most positive parts of the day.  An outcome of this method, Moody says, has been helping students formulate concrete expressions of how they recognize their own privilege.

Powers reflected on the experience, saying “The most surprising aspect of the trip for me was how welcoming people were and the amount that they were willing to share with us. The most gratifying part was seeing the faces and reactions of those we were able to aid.”

About this 2015 group of students, Moody says, “Each year's students are unique. This year's students had such a strong work ethic that really demonstrated their willingness to not only help the community in any way they could, but also to complete their work even though it meant long, tiring days. The students were absolutely amazing and formed a community and friendships that will last a lifetime.”

For more information about the Pine Ridge immersion, contact Dr. Heather Moody at The team selection process has already been completed for summer 2016, but students who are interested in the 2017 immersion should look for applications next spring in the American Indian Studies office in Room 150 of Hibbard Hall. 

Moody also has created a video album of their photos, which you can view here

Photo caption

Top photo: Students visited the site of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, located on Wounded Knee Creek in southwestern South Dakota. Accounts vary, most putting the Lakota Sioux death toll in the incident between 250 and 300 men, women and children.