As we all walked in to the room we were staying, there was no doubt that there were doubts in my mind. Being the first Creighton students to travel to Niobrara, we had no idea what to expect. Our group knew that we would be interacting with members of the Ponca tribe, undergoing certain traditional activities and performing some service work, but beyond that, we knew no details. Nevertheless, our group set out into the unpredictable and unknown that was the week with an adventurous spirit and bellies full of boxed mac n cheese.
The next day, we experienced a traditional sweat lodge ceremony with the Ponca tribe that left us soaked with sweat, yet completely spiritually awaken. It was pitch black in the small lodge that we were in, as we were surrounded by members of the Ponca tribe. As water was poured over the hot rocks in the middle, hot steam rose, and the small lodge became the hottest place I had ever been in my entire life. During this time, members of the tribe sang their prayers as the drum was being beaten as I felt fully connected to the world around me. As our group braced the hour and a half of piping hot darkness, the tone for the trip was set. We were all in this adventure together. During this sweat lodge, we had encounters with community members that enabled us to develop a connection with those that are a part of the Ponca tribe, as well as other tribes in the area. However, it is safe to say that one encounter changed the week as we all would know it.
As we returned to our residence after the sweat lodge, a man walked up to our door to greet us. After introductions, we became to know him as Larry. Larry, the spiritual leader of the tribe. Larry, the buffalo keeper. Larry, our new friend. Over the next week, we explored Niobrara with many unexpected and compassionate characters, but connections grew as Larry took us to see his buffalo herds, dinners and sunsets were shared, and many stories were told where both compassionate understanding and laughter was abundant.
Larry’s advice was incomparable, and his wisdom seemed unmatched. He knew of the trials and struggles of his people and he knew that change and progress had to occur in order for their culture to thrive among the community. Even after all that the Ponca tribe has been through with the displacement of their community, there still remained a hope for the future and a belief that their people could endure anything, which I was confident they could. Throughout the week, Larry remained a constant friend and inspiration as we navigated the various adventures we encountered from cleaning the Ponca tribe’s cemetery and staining a cooking shack to having lunch with Ponca elders and hearing their stories.
We woke up each morning unaware of the new people we were to meet and the experiences that lay ahead. However, sometimes in the mornings or the afternoons or at the end of each day, we were graced with Larry’s presence, smile, and words. Larry talked about his own relationship with Ponca culture and his participation in Sundance and their Powwow, where Ponca members gather and celebrate. It was clear that Larry had a profound connection to his people, himself, and his homeland, which was an inspiration and seemed to simplify the craziness that life is, into what really matters.
The presence of both unpredictability and continuity was something that I experienced a great deal with during the trip. As we learned about the Ponca tribe’s displacement by the US government and the decline of their cultural knowledge over time, I realized that little in life is certain and guaranteed. However, from listening to Larry and others and experiencing it all with my group, I soon realized that that which is the most important – yourself, those surrounding you, and the experiences that shape you…those are the things that will remain a constant in one’s life.
In turn, we must take these experiences and build upon them, educate others, and spread Larry’s advice: we are the two-legged of this earth, we are connected, we all belong to the same higher power. That’s another thing that will always be constant.
Hannah Olsen, Class of 2022