Experiential Education -- Thoughts on the LeMoine LaPointe Interview

By Diane Wilson

Halfway through our conversation, LeMoine LaPointe paused and said, that’s all I have to say right now. He sat in silence for a moment, moved beyond words by the memory of the elders who guided him early in his life. It was their teaching about the importance of experiential learning that he credits with allowing him to live a healthy life. His strong emotion is evidence of the lifelong passion, commitment, and gratitude that he brings to his work as the Program Director of the Healthy Nations Program at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

LeMoine is of the wajaje tiospaye. He is from Little Crow’s Camp, located in the central part of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. The tribal people who reside upon the reservation are called Sicangu Lakota. They are one of seven bands of the Lakota Nation, who reside west of the Missouri River. His family was large, six brothers and four sisters. His parents were LaVerne and Adeline LaPointe.

On his father’s side, LeMoine’s grandparents were Albert LaPointe (an Ihunktowan of the Yankton Sioux Reservation) and Elizabeth Ringing Shield. Elizabeth’s parents were Rattling, Ringing Shield (a medicine man) and Susan Barbed Arrow. Rattling Ringing Shield’s father was Tall Mandan, a chief and signer of the 1851 and 1868 treaties. On his mother’s side, LeMoine’s grandparents were Little Wolf and Mary Eagle Bear. Following the untimely passing of his mother’s biological parents at a young age, Broken Leg (Little Wolf’s brother) became the father to Adeline and her siblings. He, also, was a medicine man who raised them to a healthy adulthood. “That’s my background,” LeMoine said, much like someone would tell you about their Ph.D.

Before leaving the reservation in 1988 to diversify his youth work experience, LeMoine began working with children, but not as a conventional educator. Instead, he was given the responsibility by the elders who asked him to work with their grandchildren, the kids the schools didn’t want, who had been written off as incorrigible. Refusing to give up, the elders had asked in prayer, who will love our grandchildren and care for them as much as we do, and teach them the culture? Who will teach them about the rivers, mountains, deserts, and plains? Through prayer and ceremony, they decided that person was LeMoine LaPointe.

“I speak for my relatives who are no longer here,” LeMoine said. “I speak for the elders who have taught me many things. They have taught me to be an experiential learning educator.”

At first, however, reservation schools were resistant to changing their curriculum to include the natural world and physical learning experiences. LeMoine asked them to use their resources to accommodate the children in the way the elders wanted them to be taught. They said, no, you bit off more than you can chew. LeMoine began searching outside the Native community for help, asking for money for his programs, and learning from the experience of other educators.

In the 1960s and 70s, a burgeoning interest in experience-based education led to the founding of outdoor programs such as the Outward Bound in Colorado. Outward Bound uses outdoor expeditions to inspire leadership, responsibility and environmental awareness in young adults. This program, and others like it, would provide an early model for LeMoine to learn from.

In the early years, LeMoine was especially inspired by a speech he heard from Joe Nold, one of the founders of the Outward Bound Program, who best expressed the value of this approach during a speech at San Francisco State University. “We have to have faith there is learning in experience.” LeMoine felt he had never heard anybody sum up the value of experiential learning so well. He began seeking literature, which was scarce, about the experiential educational movement and making phone calls. He thought of Sacajawea, the legendary Native woman who led the historic Lewis and Clark expedition for more than 3,000 miles, across challenging geography that was inhabited by numerous indigenous nations. He asked himself, why don’t we have ways of honoring our own people who accomplish extraordinary experiential learning exploits? After all, this process developed over thousands of years and allowed Native people to be masters of adaptation in a society that is continually changing.

“If we as a Lakota people believe that we are a nation, then why don’t we open up opportunities to interact with other nations?” LeMoine asked. He recalled Operation Raleigh’s 1988 USA expedition that was coordinated out of London, England. It was a program supported by Prince Charles to send 272 youth from more than 32 countries to the United States. He called London and asked expedition organizers if Native American youth were involved in the approaching expedition. After being referred through several people, a decision-maker invited him to send 10 Lakota youth on this expedition of “service, high adventure, and science.”

The group spent 90 days living in tents and sleeping bags in both the Rocky Mountain and Appalachian Mountain regions. They helped to map the mammoth cave system, survey wildlife in the Rockies, recover a sunken civil war-era submarine from the ocean, build park benches and shelters, construct hiking trails in the mountains, replant natural vegetation in pristine areas damaged by human intrusion, and much more. They explored diverse environments through white water rafting, hiking, and biking. The elders responded by saying, this is what we are looking for, what is lacking in our community.

In advance of the expedition, LeMoine worked with Operation Raleigh coordinators to develop a syllabus around this experience. He presented it to Sinte Gleska University and asked that they extend Lakota Studies credits for the 10 Lakota participants. It was the first time the tribal community had seen a program developed around experiential learning. Even the people who had initially refused to help LeMoine were now paying attention.

Convinced that the educators themselves were in need of learning, LeMoine organized a 5-year experiential learning conference on his tribal homeland. Each year, over 50 practitioners arrived upon the reservation for 5 days of community interaction and workshop presentations in isolated tribal communities. He, also, hoped that credentialed teachers and administrators would have an opportunity to respect Native kids in a new way and discover more appropriate ways in which these children could learn. While appreciating the efforts of programs like Outward Bound, LeMoine points out that experiential learning is intrinsic to Native culture.

“Experiential learning began at the time of creation,” LeMoine explained. “This is how we evolved over time and space. The creation story is at the root of experiential learning. The roots in non-Indian organizations are shallow. They look for sustainability, which is different. Native people developed our processes over thousands of years. Our lives are imbued with everything in nature, the day sky and night sky, everything we know came through our experiential learning process. That’s how we evolved from the time of creation to where we are now.”

“One element that I like most in experiential learning is that it gets kids on their feet, so their legs are moving and puts them back in nature. When we lived with the buffalo, the first thing we did was walk. You never knew what would happen. You had to cross river currents, where you could get swept away. We had to work together as family and carry everything we needed. When the animal went over the hill, there was a sense of expectancy. You never knew what was on the other side. We looked forward despite the anxiety and uncertainty. These same elements engage children immediately, when they are in the context of nature. When they sit at the same desk every day and we give them an assignment for tomorrow, it’s predictable, there’s no uncertainty or anxiety.”

“Kids lack stimulation. They reach for video games that engage the mind but not in a holistic, cultural, physical and spiritual way that is only present in nature. How do we expect to teach culture if we’re spending 90% of our time indoors, when our culture evolved outdoors?”

Incorporating a holistic approach to education is an essential part of experiential learning, a process that teaches team building, communication, trust, personal and social responsibility. Schools need to teach indigenous youth to uphold the key principles of Native culture, helping them to learn wisdom, generosity, and fortitude, among the values cherished by indigenous nations. “If we’re not enabling our indigenous youth to uphold key principles, then we may be failing our children,” LeMoine said. “We’re supposed to uphold values.”

Yet with few exceptions, public schools are not willing to change.

“Through all of these experiences, it is imperative that we look at indigenous learning as the most viable option for our children,” LeMoine said. “We need to change the educational system right up to the international level of the United Nations and include this in the rights of indigenous people.”

Throughout his conversation about experiential education, LeMoine often referred back to the elders who chose him to do this work. If they had not provided their vision, persistence and support, all these things would not have been possible. “I lived in a community where mortality was extremely high,” LeMoine said. “I have seen loss of life through my own eyes. I didn’t give up because I had prayer at my back. I saw the sky open up and illuminate my way.”