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CRST member creates Lakota Immersion Program for Pennsylvania college students


This group of Penn State students/faculty/staff recently traveled to the Cheyenne River Reservation for a week-long Lakota Immersion Program created by CRST member Carolyn Rittenhouse.

EAGLE BUTTE – Carolyn Rittenhouse, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Lakota, is an excellent example of “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” the theme of this year’s National Women’s History Month celebration. While living away from the Cheyenne River Reservation most of her life, she has made a huge impact on behalf of Native Americans in her large circle of influence. In early March 2024, she brought students, faculty, and staff from Millersville University in Pennsylvania to Eagle Butte for a week’s Immersion in Lakota history and culture.

Rittenhouse was one of 50,000 Native American children taken from reservations between 1947 and 2000 as part of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Indian Student Placement Program. The program was designed to assimilate Native children and convert them to Mormonism. Rittenhouse lived in an out-of-state LDS operated boarding schools from grades 3 through 12. She came back to the Cheyenne River reservation to spend her summers.

Rittenhouse says that during her formative years away from her Lakota community “sports saved me.” She competed in basketball, volleyball, track, and softball. She says that sports were very influential and “helped me cope.”

After high school she attended Brigham Young University in Utah where she met the man who is now her husband. He was from Lancaster County Pennsylvania where the couple moved after they married. Rittenhouse secured an administrative position at Millersville University (MU), one of 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, where she has been employed for the past thirty years.

While employed at MU, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology in 2012 and her Master of Social Work Degree in 2018. Two of her children also earned degrees at MU. Rittenhouse is now preparing to become a Licensed Social Worker.

When she first became employed at MU, Rittenhouse found that she was the only Native American staffer at the school, which offered only one course related to Native Americans. In the geographic area near the school there were virtually no other Native American residents.

Rittenhouse learned that the Native tribes Indigenous to Pennsylvania, the Susquehannocks and Conestogas, had been massacred in 1763 with no survivors to bring forward the culture. There was a complete lack of knowledge and awareness of Native American culture and history among the Euro-American residents of Lancaster County.

When she told them of her Lakota identity, she typically received responses of shock and even outright disbelief by those who believed that all Native Americans had died or had been so completely assimilated that they no longer exist as a separate cultural entity. She laughs and says she was even accused of outright lying about her Native American lineage.

Rittenhouse requested and received special permission from MU to start a “Lakota Immersion Program,” in which students could receive academic credit for participation. In 1999, she brought 20 MU students plus faculty and staff to South Dakota. They created a week-long basketball camp and volleyball camp.

The MU students also facilitated mini-wellness workshops on topics such as dance therapy, art therapy, drugs and alcohol abuse prevention, nutrition, team building, and herbology. There was also time during the day for storytelling, games, and naps. The tribal Council provided breakfast and lunch for the children and the MU students and staff involved in the Immersion Program.

During the evenings, Cheyenne River Lakota community members including Rittenhouse’s mother Cynthia Cook and her stepfather Gilbert Red Dog, Sr., hosted traditional Lakota meals and cultural education events for the Immersion staff. These included bonfires, a sweat lodge, and speakers on various related topics. While in the area, the group also observed a Sun Dance and attended the Iron Lightening Community Celebration.

On a daily basis, over 100 Cheyenne River children aged 4 and older participated in the programming of the first Immersion Program. Between 1999 and 2003, Rittenhouse organized five Lakota Immersion Programs with MU students, faculty, and staff. Most of the participating MU students were those who majored in education, social work, and other “people professions.”

Carolyn Cook-Rittenhouse CRST member residing in Pennsylvania, and Uncle Wakinyan Peta of Eagle Butte, descendants of Chief Wakinyan Maza Iron Lightning.

The students reported that the experience on the Cheyenne River Reservation was “super healing” and enlightening. Rittenhouse also said that her own husband and children attended and participated in the Immersion programs, which were a major eye-opener for them.

Rittenhouse says that her primary motivation was her wish that when MU students completed their university education and went out into the world of work, they would be equipped with knowledge, sensitivity, and tools to establish positive interactions with Native Americans. She said, “I want people to learn how to help others better.”

After 5 years of organizing the Summer Immersion Programs, Rittenhouse said she needed to get focused on her own personal education goals. She suspended plans for further Immersion programs to pursue her degrees while maintaining her full-time administrative position and rearing 3 children. However, she did not suspend her commitment to Native American advocacy and cultural education.

In 2010, Rittenhouse co-founded the 501(c)3 non-profit organization Advocates for Native Nations (ANN) to promote and preserve Native culture and to create ways to engage students and their communities in the work to support Native peoples through collaborative efforts. Along with her daughter, Danielle Rittenhouse Carr, a student at MU at the time, she started the first Native-American oriented student organization at MU, the Friends of Advocates for Native Nations (FANN), with a similar purpose, mission, and goals. Rittenhouse served as the staff advisor to FANN.

Rittenhouse said that the FANN student group started out with 25 students and grew from there. She gives credit to the exceptional leadership skills of her daughter Danielle, also an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Lakota, for the success of the group.

Meetings of the FANN group always include programming to educate and raise awareness of Native American history and culture. The FANN group also made trips to New York City and to Washington D.C. to museums specializing in Native American collections.

The FANN group also raised funds and sent assistance to the Lakota in South Dakota. For example, one year they collected coats and raised funds to purchase 313 pairs of sneakers for the 313 back to school students on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

During the same time frame, Rittenhouse and Carr were often invited to local K-12 schools to present cultural presentations. They always welcomed and accepted the invitations.

This year Rittenhouse reorganized and resumed the Lakota Immersion Program, building on the success of twenty years ago. From March 2 through March 9, 2024, Rittenhouse brought 13 MU students plus 5 MU staff to Cheyenne River for a pilot program. The students received academic credit for their participation in the program.

Five MU students were assigned to work with the Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP) in preparation for their annual Passion for Fashion Event. Two students worked with KIPI radio for the week. Three worked with the Tribal Office of Support Services assisting with administrative tasks. Five science majors worked with Native Bio Data. Six worked with the Game, Fish and Parks office, including 3 who worked in their Youth Horsemanship Program.  Four students were assigned to the 100 Horses Women’s Society and contributed significantly to building out the kitchen in the Society’s meeting space.

Two students attended a Tribal Council meeting and learned about the Lakota way to address conflict resolution. While in the area, the group also had the opportunity to enjoy a hoop dance performance and local hospitality provided by Sandy LeBeau and Cynthia Cook and family. They played Bingo and enjoyed Taco Tuesday.

Overall, the 2024 pilot program was a great success. Rittenhouse has thoughts about future Immersion programs and larger career goals. She would prefer to do the Immersion programming in the summer months to avoid the challenges of winter travel. In addition to preparing for professional licensure, she has a special interest in equine therapy and hopes to develop knowledge and skill in working therapeutically with horses and special needs clients.

The community in Pennsylvania where she lives and works full time has become more diverse in recent years with residents relocating from many remote areas around the globe. Again, exemplifying the theme of “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” Rittenhouse likes to reach out and extend welcome to newcomers and learn about the various cultures represented. “In my Lakota value system,” she says, “we are all related.”

(Contact Grace Terry at grace@angelsabide.com)

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