RAPID CITY, S.D. — After scarfing down sandwiches and grabbing free hiking sticks at the trailhead, students began hiking up — some at a runner’s pace — Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.
“It’s pretty cool and fun to go on, and tiring,” Isabella Two Crow, a seventh-grader at the Lakota Waldorf School in Kyle, told the Rapid City Journal.
Two Crow was part of a group of more than 20 students, five staff members and three dogs who made the trek to welcome back the Wakinyan Oyate, or thunder beings, by smudging sage and leaving food and prayer ties at the 7,244-feet-tall summit.
“Every time the thunders roll for the first time we always come up here,” Two Crow said.
For generations, Lakota people have hiked up Black Elk Peak to honor the thunder beings, which disappear in the winter and return in the spring, said teacher Celestine Stadnick.
“It’s a way of paying respect and welcoming them for the renewal of life, for another year,” said Santee Witt, who teaches Lakota cultural studies at the school. The coming of the thunder beings is when “everything starts anew again,” when animals have babies and nature is reborn.
The Lakota Waldorf School, the only Native American and tuition-free Waldorf School in the country, opened in 1993 as a kindergarten through second-grade school. The private, nonprofit school expanded to sixth grade in 2017 and has continued to grow since.
Waldorf Schools believe in going beyond “head learning” by teaching children not just by thinking, but through emotions and activity, said school administrator Isabel Stadnick.
“Learning doesn’t happen through the mind. Learning happens through feeling what you’re learning about and what you’re doing with it,” Celestine said.
“What’s the point of reading if you can’t really go out there and do it yourself?” Two Crow asked.
The second annual field trip to Black Elk Peak perfectly combines the school’s values of hands-on learning and the importance of teaching Lakota culture. The students first learned about the thunder beings in class, then created prayer ties (tobacco wrapped in cloth) and finished by hiking up the peak to make the offerings.
“Cultural identity is one of the big themes that Native children have to gain. It’s really important for their mental health and their future,” Celestine said. “Our culture is really starting to become stronger.”
Celestine said the field trip also helps the students understand that “everybody is a part of a big circle,” that all people, spirits, animals and the earth are related.
“They have to experience intimacy with nature,” to feel responsible for taking care of it, she said.
On their way up the mountain, students discovered ponds, pointed to the spires that surround the summit, picked up sparkly rocks and stepped on a squishy part of the trail that made mud ooze out of the earth, all without the prompting of the staff members.
Teegin Livermont, a third-grader, seemed to take an appreciation for the environment with her.
The hike is a “little hard,” she said, but worth it since “nature is beautiful.”