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Simply Smiles provides bright futures for children, families, and communities. The organization partners with populations in need to create physical and emotional environments where suffering is alleviated and from which local leaders can emerge.

Field Notes from the Reservation: The dogs, a trench and other glimpses into La Plant

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Field Notes from the Reservation: The dogs, a trench and other glimpses into La Plant

Alex Gross

Today's post is brought to you by Ben and Maeve, two volunteers spending their week in La Plant with the Saint Michael's College M.O.V.E. group of Vermont.

As outsiders at the Cheyenne River Reservation, our group of Saint Mike’s comrades has experienced moments of ignorance, instances of understanding, and in both cases, glimpses into the reality of life in La Plant. Throughout this, we have all been fortunate enough to forge friendships with both the local people of La Plant and the Simply Smiles staff.  All of these people have contributed in their own way to an incredibly eye-opening exchange of story, culture, knowledge, and emotion.  

There are three dogs. Well, there are more than three dogs, but Cowgirl, Lady, and Copper have spent the most time around our group; and hence play an integral part in the group dynamic. In the mornings, we drive the bus from the community center to the high school where Simply Smiles hosts the morning walking program - Walk On! - at the track. The dogs follow, entertaining themselves by barking at and sometimes coming close enough to nip at the rubber tires of the 40 foot school bus, constantly pushing the limits of imminent death. This, of course, creates high anxiety for the school bus travelers who can’t understand the sheer stupidity of the carefree animals. But despite their actions, they are so darn cute. 

The best and worst part is that other canines in the town join this mayhem, a parade of pets pawing the line between life and death. Brian has given Copper the nickname “Burrito” for the shape of his body. Not only has he given the dog another name, he even claims Copper is his ideal pet dog. Despite the ticks that haunt the grassy prairie, Brian will pet and play with Copper endlessly, sharing and participating in the lively and exuberant nature of the playful so-called burrito. Unlike dogs where we’re from, these ones sleep and live outside, their allegiance undetermined by a bag of dog food or a PetCo bed. To the dogs where we come from, Copper, Lady and the other dogs of La Plant would appear to live freely, but dangerously. This inherent freedom mirrors that of the endless prairie that seems to go on forever here in South Dakota, and is foreign to us tree-and-mountain-dwelling Vermonters. 

Our loyal companion, Copper, taking a rest. (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Our loyal companion, Copper, taking a rest. (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

At a very specific location of this expansive geography, our group has been doing our part to contribute to the construction of Simply Smiles’ current home-building project. This week, we strapping young college students have been working to dig a trench for the water and electric lines of the new house. We’re (generously) halfway there, and it’s been hard work. As we strenuously pick at the difficult “gumbo” earth, we can hear the age-old work songs of laborers everywhere. Or, that’s just the voices in our heads induced by the hot summer sun. Too exaggerated? Maybe. The point is, it’s hard work but ultimately for a good cause.

If doing what we can to labor for a week eventually brings someone a warm new home, we’ve paid a small price. And don’t let us lead you to think it’s been all work, we’ve had plenty of fun as well!

Ben, digging in to create a trench for the electrical and water lines at the new home. (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

Ben, digging in to create a trench for the electrical and water lines at the new home. (A.Gross, La Plant, May 2015)

When we’re not singin'-and-a-diggin', we're playing basketball, making friendship bracelets, and even baking up cupcakes with the kids. Oh, what a time to be alive. In the afternoon, Simply Smiles hosts a day camp for all of the fun-loving kids of La Plant. Much of that time has been spent losing to the incredibly talented girls of the local high school basketball team, and it’s been an honor. There’s also various arts and crafts (friendship and rubber band bracelets, cupcakes, etc), yoga, gardening, and piggy back rides.

So many piggy back rides!

We really feel like we’re at camp with them, and we’re probably having as much (if not more) fun as they are.

Now that we’re on the eve of our final day with Simply Smiles, we’re not sure what to say other than thank you.

Not only have we been humbled by the labor, the stories, and the basketball talent, we’ve been uplifted by the spirit of the people. The Lakota people, their history, and the enduring nature of their culture will have lasting impacts on us all as we go forward.

We’re honored to be Simply Smiles ambassadors as we return to our respective journeys in life. 

With lots of love, all the best and many smiles,