Bringing Culture Alive: Lakota Studies at Red Cloud

December 4, 2017

Buffalo herd at the Slim Buttes pasture on the Pine Ridge Reservation.


On a frigid November morning, a small group of Red Cloud students gathered before dawn and traveled together to Slim Buttes, a few miles from campus, to take part in a buffalo hunt. The night before they had participated in an inipi ceremony—which takes place in a sweat lodge—to purify themselves and to ask a buffalo to sacrifice his life in order to nourish them. They had worked for months to prepare for this cultural rite of passage, learning how their ancestors had relied on the buffalo for thousands of years, using every part of the animal to sustain their communities on the Plains. And after the hunt was finally complete, they brought the animal back to Red Cloud to lead the entire school in a sacred buffalo harvest.

As a drum group shared a ceremonial buffalo song, the students and their mentors—teachers of Lakota language, history, and spirituality at Red Cloud—led the gathering in a prayer to thank the buffalo for his life and to honor the entire buffalo nation. For the next several hours, each student cleaned and butchered sections of the buffalo, as Philomine, an elder and fluent Lakota speaker, spoke to the group about each piece of the animal and what it could be used for.

Bella ‘18, one of the seniors who helped to lead the harvest, shared what that moment meant to her.

“The buffalo harvest has always been one of my favorite events—but now that I’m older, I have a better understanding of its cultural importance. That made me even more excited to be a part of it,” she said. “The cultural aspects of the day were amazing, and I was just in awe with how much people wanted to be involved and experience it together.”

Bella is one of the student leaders who choose to take part in the buffalo harvest as her senior community service project. She says helping to bring the community together to experience a traditional Lakota ceremony is one way she can help strengthen Lakota culture for future generations. And for Bella, having Lakota culture integrated into her education is what makes being a Red Cloud student so special.

“Our culture is still struggling to stay alive, and this event really helps, especially in getting the younger kids more interested in rebuilding our culture for the future,” she said. “My culture is a huge part of my life, and it means so much to be able to incorporate it into my school life too.”



Lakota Studies at Red Cloud

The buffalo harvest is just one way that Lakota culture, language, and spirituality is integrated into education at Red Cloud. The unique curriculum, developed by administrators and teachers over the last several decades, gives students a deeper understanding of sacred Lakota ceremonies and the beliefs of their ancestors. And because language is a foundation of Lakota culture, Red Cloud developed the nation’s first K-12 Lakota language curriculum. Not only do students speak Lakota every day at school, they also have the chance to experience a number of sacred ceremonies first-hand, guided by teacher who have devoted their lives to sustaining traditional Lakota practices for future generations.

Russ Cournoyer, who has been a teacher and administrator at Red Cloud for well over a decade, says teaching Lakota spirituality has a powerful effect on his students.

“I think our Lakota studies curriculum really reinforces to them who they are and where they come from,” he said.

“We have many students who may not initially believe they are very traditionally Lakota. But when they go off to college, many come back and tell us they realize how much they value our beliefs and cultural practices. Some say that just being able to smudge themselves with sage or sweetgrass and doing a simple prayer really helped them through a difficult time. They realize, in a time of need, that they can reach out to the Creator and get help and direction and understanding. And that really empowers them.”

Russ was raised as a Catholic but as a young man—while still in high school—he was introduced to traditional Lakota ceremonies. He has been immersed in understanding and practicing them ever since. After serving as Dean of Students for several years, he was asked to join the Spiritual Formation team and to begin teaching the school’s first class, called Lakota Rites, devoted entirely to Lakota spirituality. There wasn’t really a curriculum for him to use, so he developed his own—drawing on readings and lessons from his own experience.

“In Lakota Rites, I want to give my students a general understanding of the purpose of the ceremonies we have, as well as the history behind them,” he explained.

“At the beginning of the semester, I have each student do a research project—to understand our spiritual practices in the pre-reservation era and then what happened once our ways of prayer were outlawed by the U.S. government in the 1880’s, as we were forced onto reservations. Despite that, our ceremonies survived—and so we look at how they evolved over time and how we got to where we are today. It gives our students a strong sense of cultural knowledge and identity, realizing that this way of prayer—the way their ancestors prayed—is still alive and well.”.


Russ Cournoyer reviews a class assignment.


In addition to teaching about them in the classroom, Russ is one of the primary teachers and mentors who leads students through ceremonies held on campus. He served as a mentor to the students who led this year’s buffalo harvest and helped to teach them about the deep and historic bonds between the Lakota and the buffalo nation. As students learn that history, Russ believes they develop a deeper respect for the buffalo as a sacred relative.

He also leads students who want to take part in the inipi. Red Cloud has its own sweat lodge on campus, and students have the opportunity to take part in the ceremony, which is used for both prayer and purification. While not every student participates, he’s seen many students drawn to this sacred, traditional practice in times of need.

“This fall, a student here became very ill and was hospitalized—and many friends and classmates were really shaken. They came to us and asked for a sweat, and we put one together that day, so they could meet their spiritual needs and pray for their classmate,” said Russ.

“Taking part in the inipi can be a challenge. So it makes me proud for our students to learn our traditional ways of prayer—to make a commitment to them and understand that there are sacrifices we need to make to ensure our prayers are heard.”

Russ felt that same pride during this most recent buffalo harvest. It’s something he feels every year, as Red Cloud students take on the role of culture-bearers. Through a strong Lakota studies curriculum—and through experiences like the buffalo harvest—he believes this generation will help to sustain traditional culture for many generations to come.

“Last year during the harvest, there was a moment when I stood back and watched all the students gathered—from kindergarteners to high schoolers—all reaching out and excited to take home their part of the buffalo. There were about 15 young women all lined up at tables butchering the meat and, in that moment, in struck me that that’s just how it must have looked 150 years ago when our people had a buffalo kill,” he said.

“Everyone was partaking and sharing the meat, and making sure all who had gathered had some buffalo to take home and nourish their family. It was such a powerful feeling, and I’m very proud that we can create those moments for our students here at Red Cloud.”


Students participate in the prayer and tȟatȟáŋka wačhípi.


 Photos © Red Cloud Indian School



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