Program Director, Healthy Nations Program, Minneapolis American Indian Center
Interviewed on October 27, 2008
- Family Background
- Chosen by the Elders
- Beginning of the Experiential Movement
- Operation Raleigh: Service, High Adventure & Science
- Changing the System
- Curriculum Suggestions
- Links for more information
In talking about his lifelong work in experiential education, LeMoine LaPointe credits the elders on the Rosebud Reservation for guiding him early in his life. It was their direction, he says, that not only allowed him to live a healthy life, but also pointed out what needed to be done to help the children who were considered incorrigible by the schools. The elders asked him to find ways to teach their grandchildren about “the rivers, the mountains, the desserts, and the plains.” After running into resistance from the reservation schools, he found inspiration in a speech by Joe Nold, a founder of the Outward Bound movement in the late 1970s, who said “We have to have faith that there is learning in experience.” From that point on, LaPointe found creative, innovative ways to provide Native youth with the kinds of experiences that the elders had asked for, experiences that support the adaptive learning style that has been intrinsic to American Indian culture since the time of creation. After three decades of working to provide this kind of learning to Native youth, LaPointe says, “I believe through all of these different experiences that it is imperative that we look at indigenous learning as the most viable option for our children.”
My name is LeMoine LaPointe. I’m from the Little Crow community on the Rosebud reservation. It’s an isolated community located in the central part of the reservation. I come from the Wajaje tiyospaye of the Rosebud reservation. My people on the Rosebud reservation are called the Sicangu Lakota. We’re a band of the larger Lakota nation that’s currently living primarily in South Dakota. We often demarcate our land base in accordance with the 1868 treaty. It’s the western part of the state of South Dakota beginning on the east bank of the Missouri River, parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. The center piece of my homeland is the Black Hills of South Dakota. My people are one of seven subdivisions.
I come from a large family. In my immediate family I have six brothers and four sisters. My father is LaVerne LaPointe. My mother is originally from the Wososo tiyospaye on the Rosebud reservation, which is a community. My father is from the Crow’s Camp. When my father and mother married, my mother moved to the community of my father. In that community my father was raised not only by his mother, who was given the English name of Elizabeth but her name is Ringing Shield. Her father was Rattling Ringing Shield, who was a medicine man. My grandmother’s father raised my dad and taught him the things that he knew and showed him the things that he’d seen. Rattling Ringing Shield’s father was named Tall Mandan. He is my great-great grandfather. Tall Mandan signed the treaty of 1868 that I spoke about that demarcates our land as Lakota land. We look at Lakota land as being consistent with that treaty.
My mother’s community, again, is the Wososo community. And that’s on the western part of the Rosebud reservation. Her fathers name is Wichahpi sapa, Black Star. Her mother’s name is Eagle Bear. They gave her the English name, Mary. When my grandparents on my mother’s side passed away, Black Star’s brother rescued my mother and her brothers from being orphans and adopted all of them. Five brothers and three sisters. His name was Hu kawenga which translates in English to Broken Leg. He also was a medicine man. So both my mother and my father were raised by medicine people. That’s in a nutshell the family that I come from. I regard that as my background much as one would regard a Ph.D and other things as their background. This is the way that I prefer.
I came to the Twin Cities in 2003. I came here from the state of Washington, where I lived for 9 years. Prior to that I lived in California for maybe four or five years. But I had left the Rosebud reservation in 1988. Up to that point I worked on the Rosebud reservation with children, not as an educator in the conventional sense. I was given a responsibility by elders to no longer work with them but to work with their grandchildren. They asked me, “Who will love our grandchildren as we love them? Who will care for them in the way that we do? Who will teach them the culture that we know?” So with that guidance, I left working with elders and began working with youth.
I went to the schools and asked them for help. To make a long story short, they wouldn’t help me. They told me I bit off more than I can chew. These words came from administrators that had decision making power and resources to make these things happen. But they wouldn’t divert or incorporate or expand their capacity to accommodate our children in the way our elders wanted them to. I was left in the cold. I didn’t know what to do. I had to look outside my community in the non-Indian community for help. When I asked for help, I received it. I asked for money. I asked for the use of other people’s experiences. I asked for participation in ongoing programs that incorporated nature. I asked if there were programs, not only in South Dakota but throughout this nation and even on the international level that exposed their young people to the various elements of nature: the rivers, the mountains, the desserts, the plains. These were all things that I was directed to look for.
I found that there were people asking the same questions. In the 1970s, especially the late 1970s, I found other people who were just beginning the experiential education movement. I never pronounce that word appropriately. I can pronounce it easy now. At that time it didn’t seem like a word that was relevant to what my elders wanted me to do. We didn’t use those kinds of words in my community. Now I use it. Some of the elders are using it now. All those who asked me for help and directed me to do these things are no longer alive. They’re all gone.
I’m going to have to clarify myself a little bit there. I think this is a difference of perspective. Sometimes when an interviewer and an interviewee are talking about experiential learning and education, we think that it began with a particular kind of movement. But in my culture experiential education began at the time of creation. It began with us coming into this world. It began with how we evolved over time and space. But when I mention the experiential education movement and the use of that word it largely began in the mid 1970s, primarily in Colorado. It was there that people started talking about ways that they could incorporate this kind of experience in learning.
I think it was October, 1989 I attended a conference at San Francisco State University where I heard an old man named Joe Nold, who was one of the primary founders of the Outward Bound movement in the United States in 1964. One of the things he said at that conference struck me. When I heard it I thought it was true. He said, we have to have faith that there is learning in experience. When I heard that, I felt that I never heard anybody say it better.
Because when I started working with young people in my own homeland, they were the ones that the school systems didn’t want. They were the ones that the school system said were incorrigible or disruptive or weren’t learning, that they didn’t want in their classrooms. Those were the grandchildren of the elders that they wanted me to work with. These were the children that they spoke about. I used to wonder about it and say, why me? Why not go to somebody that has one of these advanced educations, that has Ph.D. behind their name? People who often identify themselves that way, why not get one of them types of people?
But through prayer and ceremony, they felt that it was me. They felt that I was the one who could do this and talk for them. To this day, I speak not just for me but I speak for those relatives who are no longer here. I speak on behalf of their children and their grandchildren who have become adults today. Now they themselves have become parents and grandparents. I still talk this way in honor of those elders who have taught me many things. And one of the things they have taught me is to be an indigenous experiential educator. A word that I can use freely now. Because back in those days I faced a lot of challenges because no one wanted to help. I’ve seen loss of life in front of my own eyes and I felt helpless to do what I was asked to do. But I didn’t give up because I had prayer at my back. And when I prayed I saw things ahead of me and I saw the sky open up and illuminate light that enabled me to see my way through prayer.
One of the questions I was asked and one of the questions I continue to ask is, if we as a Lakota people believe that we are a nation of people, why aren’t we creating opportunities for our children to interact with other nations of children? Why do we just keep them in this country and teach them in a way that this country sees fit for us and not in the way that we see fit for ourselves. One of the things that I did in those days was that I read, I made telephone calls all over. The first telephone call I made out of this country was to London, England. I found a piece of paper that said that Prince Charles had created a program called Operation Raleigh. He was going to send 270 children from throughout the world of every color to the United States. I called that telephone number on that paper. I asked the person that answered if there were any Native Americans involved in that expedition to the United States. He put me on hold and passed me onto another person that came to the phone. That person did the very same thing. Finally a third person came on the phone who was obviously a decision maker and said, How many participants do you have for me? We would love to have Native Americans participate in our 90 day expedition. I’ll get you information you need now.
Soon afterwards, I had information about Operation Raleigh. Eventually I sent 10 Lakota youth on this expedition of service, high adventure and science. Those were the three areas that they were focused on. They did mapping, for example, of the Mammoth cave systems. They helped locate an old Civil War submarine off the coast of South Carolina. They did wildlife surveys up in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. They did a whole variety of things in the name of science. They did a lot of high adventure stuff as well. They did white water rafts, they canoed, they biked, they hiked, they rappelled, they mountain climbed, they did everything you can think of in the various environments they were in. They had 90 days experience in sleeping bags and tents. They had experience being in the Rocky Mountains for 45 days while the other half of the 270 participants spent 45 days in the Appalachian region. After they completed 45 days in their respective area, they switched areas for another 45 days experience. The service piece was trail construction for the Appalachian trail system as well as the Rocky Mountain trail system. They helped build things like park benches. They did everything they could possibly construct in the name of service in these areas. These were experiences that the elders at that time liked. This is what they said they were looking for. This is something that we didn’t have in our community.
What I did with that was I took all of this information and brought in the leadership of Operation Raleigh. I asked them to develop a syllabus for me. With their help we approached the local tribal college and I requested them to incorporate this syllabus in their Lakota Studies program and extend educational credit to the 10 participants of this particular expedition. It was the first time that our tribal community had seen something like this. I was amazed that the person who had refused to help me was present there. This was the individual who had said earlier that he couldn’t help me because he felt that I bit off more than I could chew.
As we moved forward with this, these were some of the earlier inspirations that helped me develop my approach to looking at experiential learning through indigenous ways. Eventually all of these people, all of these various organizations that I’ve worked with over the last three decades, I’ve hosted on the Rosebud reservation. I’ve hosted over 150 experiential education practitioners and just as many organizations on my tribal homeland. So that our credentialed educators who work in the school systems can look better at our Native students and have more respect for the way that they learn, and not in the way that the government regulations require them to teach. Our Native children learn in different ways. I believe through all of these different experiences that it is imperative that we look at indigenous learning as the most viable option for our children.
We have to start initiating system change, not only at the local level but all the way to the international level. So that we’re incorporating at the international level things that are being done with indigenous people at the United Nations, incorporating documents like the rights of indigenous people that was accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. There is a school on my tribal homeland that has taken that declaration of the rights of indigenous people and translated it into our language. I believe that these things would never have happened if these elders back in the 1970s had not provided the guidance, the vision, the persistence and support, made these things possible. I’ll never stop telling people that. Through their way, through the things that they wanted to see, through the things that they spoke about, if they had not shared that with me, my health would never have improved. I lived in a community where the mortality rate is extremely high. I’ve seen the social ills in my community all around me every day. Yet through all of it, through the help of these elders, I lived a healthy lifestyle. That’s all I want to say about that.