Friday, August 22, 2008

Back home again

Being back home isn't quite so different as I thought it'd be. For one thing, I'm still cooking with fresh garden vegetables: my mom and I just made some amazing bruschetta with some basil and ripe tomatoes from her garden.

And here we are: my mother/cooking mentor and myself just about to dig into our meal.

For another thing, if I get a toothache I can still harvest some toothache medicine (echinacea, or purple coneflower) since my mom has it planted in her wildflower garden.

And yes I have tried it out, a couple of weeks into my stay at Mike's house near Wounded Knee. Allison and I had gathered a bunch of roots, washed them and dried them, and I was curious exactly how it would numb my mouth if I tried chewing on the root. Mike later told me I probably took about four times as much as I should have, so the result was a bit interesting:

The summer comes to a close

6:00 am this morning I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin. That's pretty much exactly 24 hour after I left Lonesome Valley, with the sun just beginning to rise and bathe the rolling hills in warm yellow light. I knew then just how much I'd miss the place.

My last weeks on Pine Ridge Reservation were quite amazing; things seem to have a way of coming together at the last minute. Literally on my last day at work, Wednesday, Bob and I were able to meet with some of the administrative leadership at Oglala Lakota College and everyone was very supportive of working to get the college lab certified to run water quality tests for the tribal and federal programs on the reservation. Now the lab staff will be able to move forward, hopefully with the help of some chemistry-inclined MIT students in the future. [Photo is of me wearing a random pair of sunglasses we found while inventorying the lab storeroom].

Things also seemed to fall into a good place with the watershed management project. On two separate days I went out and visited Wounded Knee and Porcupine Creeks with a couple of staff members from the Environmental Protection Program -- we took samples, photos, video, and talked about the various natural and human impacts on the creeks, as well as a fair bit about music and life. One thing that the long driving distances are good for is conversation time. Later, we played with maps and video and sound back at the office in Windows Media Maker (first time I learned Windows had a pretty decent equivalent for iMovie on a mac). All in all I felt like I really did help out with the watershed management plan, mostly by contributing some legwork but also with some ideas for how to move forward on such a large undertaking. It was really rewarding to be working collaboratively with people rather than endlessly pounding away on my computer.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The marvels of radio and buffalo tongue

Here are two fun stories that happened a few weeks back, but I still think they are worth sharing.

When we first moved in with Norma in Pine Ridge, we wanted to keep listening to Kili radio so we moved a boom box from a bedroom into the kitchen. We plugged everything back in and discovered that it was only working on and off... Some further experimentation revealed that the problem was the antenna -- if one of us was touching it, or even had our hand near it, it worked perfectly. If we took our hand away, it cut out. Check it out in the following video:

I was quite impressed, first that the human body makes such a good antenna, and second by how far the electric field could travel from us to the actual antenna through air.

Obviously, though, we needed a larger antenna, preferably something other than ourselves, since it would get rather tedious to stand next to the radio all evening. We proceeded to try larger and larger metal objects -- a clotheshanger, a piece of aluminum, a deep frying basket, with no success until finally we got a long metal pole, which seemed to do the trick [see photo]. Of course, now the only problem are the dogs who routinely knock it over.

Buffalo Tongue
The other fun story is when we went over to Mike Her Many Horses house to eat buffalo tongue. He had boiled two tongues and let us watch him prepare them. First you boil them, then peel off the top layer of skin with a knife, then slice the meat. You eat it by itself like a steak or with mustard.

The meat was absolutely amazing. And this coming from someone who is a vegetarian at home. It was definitely the best meat I have ever had in my life -- imagine the most tender steak you have ever eaten and make it three times as tender with just as much flavor.

As Mike mentions in the video, the sad thing is that historically huge quantities of buffalo were hunted and killed just for their tongues, others for hides, and others just to deprive various American Indian tribes of their source of sustenance and force them to surrender. It is hard to overstate the tragedy and injustice of the slaughter of buffalo by white Americans, especially when contrasted with the tribes' practice of killing only what they needed using every part of the animal. [Photo: Allison tries out the very tip of the buffalo tongue]

There are some free range buffalo farms out here, and we've been told that buffalo are much easier on the land and creeks than cattle -- they don't trample through and destroy the same stream bank the way cattle do. [If you are interested in the history of Buffalo, see this page]. It is as if bison still have the knowledge of how to live in harmony with their environment, in a way that cows (imported from Europe) do not. Of course there are many ways to make cattle farming easier on the land as well, which is something that many groups are working on promoting.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Watershed management

The project that I have been working on for the last couple of weeks, and will continue to work on for the next two weeks, is assisting the stream quality personnel in the tribe's Environmental Protection Program with the preparation of a watershed-based management plans for two small creeks: Wounded Knee Creek and Porcupine Creek.

They are both two little prairie creeks that run north to join the White River. In general, they have very good quality water, although the levels of some nutrients and minerals exceed state water quality guidelines for surface waters. They are beautiful little streams, with a healthy border of shrubs and trees running alongside the creek on either side as they meander through a mostly grassy region, then into the badlands, and finally into the White River.

The idea behind the watershed based plan is to focus on a geographical area that is small enough that efforts to improve management practices (such as fencing and watering stations to keep cattle out of the creek beds) will have a real impact and improve the quality of the creek -- making the water clearer, allow it to support more fish, etc. Here are some photos of different types of land use in the watersheds with more information about the project and my role.

I have been helping to pull all of the existing data into one place so this week we can sit down and look at trends in the water quality parameters over time and over the course of the stream. The next step will be matching that to the likely sources of contaminants in the watershed. Because of how sparsely populated this land is, relatively speaking the watershed is in very good condition.
Communities are so small here that many have a total retention pond as their wastewater treatment system, some of which are very near the creeks. The Environmental Protection Program monitors the water in the creeks before and after these ponds to find out how much of an impact they are having on the creeks.

The other big thing I am helping with is generating a list of potential community partners and helping the staff develop outreach information and materials for getting community input and forming partnerships.

I just made this video as an example of what they can do with a digital camera and imovie. I would love to work with them to make a slightly longer video with their voices, videos, photos, and comments that they could use to initiate and focus the conversation at community meetings.

A new car & hiking in the hills

We've got a new "rig" that we are driving around these days, and it is quite a good one. Automatic, good engine, good breaks -- we're quite happy with it!

But, being a reservation car, it has to have some quirks, right? Well, all of the doors on this car are one-way. All of the inside handles are broken off. With a little finesse, the front passenger door can be open from the inside, but that one also happens to be the one where the outside handle is broken off -- making it a one-way door as well. The other three must be opened from the outside or by rolling down the window and reaching over.

The other quirk is a fun one -- the key got stuck inside so it requires a pliers to be started, as seen in this video. Also in the video are some shots of our drive through the black hills around the twisting turns and one-way tunnels on "iron mountain road" on the way to our hiking spot.

We ended up climbing up a rather spectacular rock face. Here is the view from the top. During my day in the hills I couldn't help but be reminded how the Black Hills were a spiritual haven for the Lakota people. The hills and rockfaces covered in ponderosa pine forest are truly spectacular. Along with the massacre at Wounded Knee, the sale of the Black Hills in violation of the 1868 treaty is still very much in the minds of people on Pine Ridge Reservation as a symbol of the historic oppression of their people at the hands of the US government.

And to close, here's a nice picture of the four of us who climbed it (left to right): Stephan, Allison, me, and Al.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Cars on PIne Ridge Reservation

I promised to write the next post about cars, so here it goes.

The take-home message here is really that people are extremely generous with their cars -- so many people have lent them to us on the spur of the moment and it's hard to imagine that happening in many other places in this country. The other take-home is that it really is true that people out here generally have some 3-4 cars just so they can keep one working. Stephan claims that most of the cars here would never be allowed on the roads in Germany...

And now, here's the story...

First we were supposed to borrow a car from the tribal government for the summer, but since we are not tribal memebers we couldn't use their insurance so that plan fell through. But, alas, you can't get anywhere around here without a car so we started borrowing various cars from our different host families and extended families.

Car #1: Mike's old red truck

The first one was an old red truck, featured in our last video. I have no picture of it, unfortunately. We drove it for the first time when we were still very unfamiliar with directions and made some wrong turns, mooing all the way...

-> Makes a distinct mooing noise with every turn
-> Blinker does not click in and out, you just have to guess whether or not you have the blinker on or not
-> Automatic, which means I can drive it
-> Does not indicate on the dashboard whether you are in Neutral, Drive, or Reverse, etc (you just count, like I do in the video)
-> Seat cannot move forward far enough for Allison to reach the pedals, so I was the exclusive driver of this vehicle
-> A good 30 degrees of free play at the top of the wheel (you turn the wheel 15 degrees in either direction and the wheels stay straight)
-> Fuel gauge reportedly bounces around once it gets below 1/4 tank, so you don't know when you'll run out of gas

And we discovered a new one when we were proactive in dealing with the last of these 'features' and took it to a gas station. The entrance to the gas tanks has been dented so it only takes gas if you feed it in a little bit at a time.

Car #2: Mike's new red truck

We borrowed this one for a week or two, and it is by far the nicest car we have had out here. Thankfully it was the one we drove up to Rapid City to pick up Stephan and visit Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

I have no picture of this one either, but here's a neat one of it's tailgate after we just passed under a pretty bridge.

-> Manual (but the seat moved forward!) so Allison drove it
-> In great condition
-> It takes $80 to fill up the tank and we sure burned through it in a hurry
-> Stephan was so shocked when we picked him up in this vehicle, since it is about three times the size of most cars in Germany

The surprise feature that we only found out after Mike got back from a week trip to Kansas City is that the oil leaks and we were supposed to check it every few days. Oops. Luckily it kept running fine. I guess no car can be perfect out here.

Car #3: Bob's white station wagon
Once we moved into Pine Ridge with Bob's mom, we started borrowing a small white station wagon Bob had recently gotten up and running again. Apparently he bought it for $100 a while back and has put some $300 of parts into it. In the video, notice the difference in how Bob handles the cows compared to how we did...

-> Automatic, so both Allison and I can drive it. Stephan has never driven an automatic before, so he preferred not to drive it.
-> The brakes are really delayed and weak. One must drive very cautiously.
-> Does not accelerate well when going up hills
-> The battery doesn't disconnect when the car is off so you have to manually open the hood and pull it off each time you park, then fiddle with it until it can start the motor when you want to go again.
-> The air conditioner gave out while we were driving. We were advised to drive fast over speed bumps to try to knock the wire back into place
-> There is no dipstick for the oil

It started making weird noises one day, so we put in a quart of oil. The noises went away but we started spewing blueish smoke. Turns out we were burning oil. This cycle repeated until we realized we were buring oil faster than we could put it in and we left the car at a guy named Tim's house. This was probably a good thing since we later found out that the break lines were filled with power steering fluid rather than brake fluid and that this supposedly eats away at the rubber in the breaks and destroys them...

Car #4: Tim's "trash truck"
Ditching the white car at Tim's house left us without a way to get back to town, so Tim lent us his "trash truck." It is called the trash truck only because they use it to take trash to town, but it is definitely the oldest car I have ever driven.

-> No blinker
-> Automatic, but also doesn't tell you what gear you are in, although I have gotten rather used to that by now!
-> No key required to start the car. It must be started by flipping a switch that Tim wired into the car himself
-> No key required to open the door. You don't even need to push down the button, just pull on the handle and it opens
-> A good engine and good brakes!
-> It leaks power steering fluid, so you have to keep filling it up with that
-> It has the loosest wheel I've every touched -- not free play like the other truck. I turn it all the way around when making right and left turns at stop signs.

One day the latch mechanism in the door suddenly started working again, so we had to break into the car with a butter knife (by unscrewing the triangular shaped window pane, rolling down the main window, and unlocking the door). Other than that we haven't had too many adventures with this car, which is a good thing.

Car #5: Bob's blue "boat"
We've never actually driven this car, but we have ridden in it. I is a huge old Chevrolet and really feels like a boat when you are riding in it, sailing over the waves of grasses blowing in the wind....

Car #6: Bob's green station wagon

Bob's almost got this one fixed up and we'll likely be using it soon so we can give Tim his trash truck back. He says it works great, it is just missing a door handle on the front passenger side. We'll take it : )

Lady, the great dane

Some fun pictures of lady, the Great Dane we are dog-sitting

She's a very large dog...

Lady always likes to sleep with her legs up in the air. It makes for some pretty awkward looking sleep positions.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pow-wow and Indian Rodeo

This weekend is Pow Wow weekend on Pine Ridge Reservation, which means the town of Pine Ridge has increased in population by many thousands who have come to join in on the carnival, pow-wow, and rodeo, along with basketball and baseball tournaments, lots of food, and plenty of traditional arts and crafts for sale. It has been a really neat time for me to see so many different people, especially all the young people, coming together to celebrate Lakota culture, both modern and traditional.

Here are a few videos I've captured to give you a taste. I'll try to edit up something nicer in the future:

First off, on Friday evening, we went to the "Indian Rodeo" where we witnessed a whole host of tricks involving horses, calves, steers, and bulls. Bull Riding was probably the most exciting and impressive, although I also like the racing events and Junior Bareback, where young boys and girls clung onto the backs of bucking horses. They call time after 6 seconds, which gives you an idea of how challenging it is to stay on!!

The particular video I included is of "Team Roping" where one cowboy has to secure the calf's head with his lasso and then the other one has to secure his hind legs. 5 seconds are added to your time if you only get one back leg instead of both.

Later on Friday evening, and Saturday evening as well, we went to the Pow-Wow. It is really something to experience -- a huge donut-shaped roof shelters onlookers and drummers from sun and rain while the dancers compete in the middle. The music is provided by a whole range of drumming groups that sit in circles intermixed with the crowd itself. Someone goes around with a microphone from group to group, and wow are those drums loud when they are played right next to you! This video should give you some idea of the experience. Although the lighting and quality are not that great, you can see the drumming/singing group in the beginning with one kind of dancing -- Men's fancy dancing. Just like in the rodeo, they have a whole bunch of different categories and judges to evaluate the dancers' performances. Later in the video there is a bit of hoop dancing and a shot of the very end of the pow-wow where young and old alike came forward and danced together.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Good news in Politics

I just thought I'd share some links to items of good news in politics that have come into my inbox in the last few days:

1) On Wednesday, the Massachusetts house passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (a brief news story can be found here). "The bill empowers the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to regulate green house gasses from all sources across the commonwealth" and "mandates a reduction of 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050." The senate already passed a different version of the bill and the governor is expected to sign it, so it is very likely that Massachusetts will become (at least) the sixth state to have such a bill (California, New Jersey, Hawaii, Washington, and Connecticut already have similar legislation, and there may be others I am not aware of.)

2) Today the MA Senate passed a "Green Jobs Bill," which had also previously passed the house. The bill creates a center and grant programs to support job creation and job training in green energy. Some aspects of the bill are along the lines of Van Jones' work of targeting low income and minority workers to get training in "green collar" jobs.

3) In other good news, the FCC ruled today that Comcast was in violation of Net Neutrality in disrupting users person to person file transfers and ordered them to stop this practice. I am not at all an expert on this issue, but as I understand it, the ruling was the first major test of whether the FCC could and would interfere when an internet provider selectively blocks or slows traffic. Here's an article about it for more information.