With support from the National Park Service and Bozeman, Montana-based Hopa Mountain, the Cheyenne River Youth Project chaperoned a group of eight Lakota youth ages 14-16 to Bear Butte State Park and the Black Hills earlier this month. The trip was made possible through the NPS “Connecting with our Homelands” travel grant.
On Thursday morning, Aug. 5, the group traveled from CRYP’s Eagle Butte campus on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to Bear Butte State Park. This western South Dakota park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1981.
Despite the 90-degree heat, the young people and their chaperones hiked to the 4,426-foot peak of Mato Paha, the Lakota name for Bear Butte. Known as a geological laccolith, this mountain comprises igneous rock that intruded through the sedimentary layers above and then eroded. It is a sacred landmark and ceremonial site for several Native nations, the Lakota included.
“We were excited to introduce the kids to Bear Butte and teach them about its cultural significance,” said Youth Programs Director Jerica Widow, who chaperoned the group with Youth Programs Assistant Wendell Nezzie and volunteer Sandy Morford. “We also liked seeing our kids actively hiking in the park. It teaches them that you need to get out of your car to really experience a place — and that’s essential at Bear Butte, where you’re also connecting with your culture and your ancestors.”
Next, the group visited the “Cosmos Mystery Area,” a Rapid City attraction that highlights a variety of optical illusions. They concluded the day with a stop at Bear Country USA, a popular wildlife park in the Black Hills.
“These young people haven’t had opportunities to travel,” Widow noted. “They would probably tell you that the best part of the day was getting to see real black bears and reindeer at Bear Country USA. They loved the animals.”
In previous years, the “Connecting with our Homelands” program has allowed CRYP to take trips to Bear Butte State Park, Devils Tower National Monument, and Wind Cave National Monument. According to Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director, these trips provide unparalleled opportunities to bring Lakota youth into the heart of their culture’s most precious stories.
“Our hope is that these experiences will instill in our young people the importance of keeping our traditional stories alive for future generations,” Garreau said. “Not only will our youth understand more about their culture, their ancestors, and these natural places, they’ll also learn a little bit more about themselves. That’s vital for them to become healthy and well-rounded adults, as well as leaders and culture bearers for the Lakota Nation.”
“Connecting with our Homelands” is an annual NPS program open to applicants from Native tribes, Alaska Native communities, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Recipients are able to use these travel funds for intergenerational trips to ancestral lands now located within national park units. The goal is to provide support for youth and elders to travel to a national park, where they can share indigenous knowledge, cultural heritage, traditions and epistemological healing.
This NPS program is managed in partnership with the nonprofit Hopa Mountain. Hopa Mountain is dedicated to investing in rural and tribal citizen leaders who are improving education, ecological health and economic development.
“Hopa Mountain is pleased to provide grant support to the Cheyenne River Youth Project for this initiative, in cooperation with the National Park Service,” said Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer, Hopa Mountain’s executive director. To learn more about Hopa Mountain, visit hopamountain.org.