It was a dry blustery day in Pine Ridge SD the day my wife Theresa and I decided to take a little trip while on vacation. The town was buzzing with the sound of drums and singing and there was word that a Pauwau was happening that day. There were children running around in T-shirts of different colors but they all had a similar emblem on them. We were about to leave when we noticed that the intersection was blocked by a gathering of people. Being curious we drove over to check it out.
The crowd was a mixture of old and young, native and non-native. They were in a circle holding hands. At one side stood an older man of large stature; his hair pulled back in a pony-tail. He was soft-spoken and needed a PA to be heard. It was clear that he was praying in an unfamiliar language. To one side several people were carrying a banner. As the crowd dissipated I asked one of the participants what this gathering was about. The gathering was a prayer-walk, a memorial for a youth who had recently committed suicide. We knew at that time that we had been led to this point for a purpose, to lend a helping hand in whatever way we could. Little did I realize that in less than a year my wife, son and I would be making flutes with grade-school children in a small town just north of the Wounded Knee memorial.
Reservation life can be a hard struggle for a child. The winters are bitter cold. Several families often live in a single family dwelling. The buildings are old and may not have adequate insulation or heat due to the high rate of poverty. The influence from gangs is everywhere, from the graffiti on buildings and road signs to those who threaten children in the schools. Domestic violence and abuse are visible in the faces of the children who make it to school bruised and hungry. Single mothers may not have the capability provide basic needs for their infants and toddlers.
No wonder youth suicide on the reservations is four times the national average. Substance abuse is the leading cause of death among young people, in places where alcohol is prohibited by tribal ordinance. Alcohol has been called a slow means of suicide by experts on the reservation. This is a means to escape the pain of reservation life.
But the Lakota people have a passion for their youth. They have risen out of the ashes of the Wounded Knee tragedy, surviving the abuse of the boarding schools, which was aimed at destroying their culture. They believe that healing the wounds of the past can be realized through identification with their core cultural values.
One of the central icons to the Lakota culture is the flute. Originally a courting instrument, the flute is closely linked with Lakota folklore. Its spiritual significance is evident in its Lakota name “Siyotanka” where “tanka” is the Lakota word for great.
Upon our return to South Carolina we founded Flutes for Hope an outreach ministry supporting suicide prevention efforts in Pine Ridge. We were already making Native American styled flutes as a hobby and selling them locally. This seemed to be the best way to accomplish the goal. I contacted the Pine Ridge health administration‘s program for suicide prevention who then connected me with Richard Iron Cloud. After some time raising funds through flute sales Richard suggested that we have a workshop at one of the local schools. “Working with hands is therapeutic” he told me. “It gives the mind something to focus on besides their pain.”
Our first workshop was at the Wounded Knee School in Manderson, SD in March of 2012, where we worked with Mr. Bryan Charging Cloud, the head of the Lakota language department. Theresa and I were honored to share what little we knew with these kids. It was challenging but at the same time, very rewarding. Because we worked with the Lakota language department we gained a wealth of knowledge about the Lakota people and their culture. Although the workshop was chartered for a group of sixth graders, we had an opportunity to share with almost every grade in the school.
Since then we’ve been asked to return to Wounded Knee School four additional times. The next year we were invited to the Cheyenne River Reservation, where well over 80 youth from grades 4-12 made flutes in-spite of a spring snow storm which closed the roads and schools for a day.
We originally carved our first flutes but now we make river cane flutes after the Cherokee traditional design. This method is one which can be completed in approximately 2 hours. It’s simplicity and the use of burning implements gives us an opportunity to teach a cultural lesson while the students are learning a craft. So at the end each child has a complete instrument to take home. While these flutes are not tuned to a particular key, we use a template which renders it tuned to itself and unique. <More workshop Pics>
It’s during these workshops that Theresa and I take the opportunity to encourage gifts of the students we serve. This can be as simple as giving a flute to a youth who shows a keen interest and talent for playing. It could also be sending a care package of art supplies to a talented child who wants to build a portfolio but whose family doesn’t have the means.
The relationship we have with schools has opened doors for Flutes for Hope to serve the surrounding communities as well. Working with the schools, we have a means to understand the specific needs of the community and a way to distribute donated goods to those most in need. This partnership has grown into collection drives which provide winter clothing and baby items for families who would not normally be able to get them.
Since that blustery day in June 2011, Flutes for Hope has made hundreds of flutes in the fight for native youth. We have conducted workshops in three reservations in two western states. Our workshops have touched the lives of hundreds of children from grades K-12. Each time we return, we are greeted with eager young faces expecting to make flutes. But the highest reward is the joyful sound of a freshly made flute being played by the youth who made it echoing through the halls of the school.
Ken Grut. Ken and Theresa Grut are the founders of Flutes for Hope.
Flutes for Hope is an outreach of Lamb’s Chapel “Life Worth Giving” ministries. Donations to this outreach may be made on-line through the Lamb’s Chapel website.
Comments are closed.