Air Force, Native American community learn together

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Daniel Rosenfield
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

For the first time, the Ellsworth Air Force Base Diversity Council worked with Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors, a local organization, to build bridges between the native and non-native communities of Rapid City.

“We welcome [Airmen] to Rapid City and we want [them] to come in and enjoy what we have to offer here,” said Karen Mortimer, director of MOA. “One of the things we have to offer is a rich cultural experience. We want it to be one that is not only enjoyable for [Airmen], but one that [they] are knowledgeable about.”

The Diversity Council built upon this community partnership by putting on two events to celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month and raise awareness about the multiple cultures.

The Diversity Council’s biggest project for the month brought more than 100 members of the community together on Nov. 15 at the Individual Deployment Readiness Center on Ellsworth.

The event began with a presentation from Sergeant Chris Hall, training administrator with the Rapid City Police Department and member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, who showed off the Department’s newest addition to the fleet – a police cruiser decked-out in local Native American artwork.

“[The cruiser] represents the Lakota culture and the history of the area,” Hall said “It is our way of giving back to the area and letting them know we’re there.”

As Airmen and families from all walks of life viewed Native American exhibits and dined on Native American cuisine, Nique High Hawk, a sophomore at Douglas High School in Box Elder performed a healing dance for attendees. Additionally, Native American elders told stories of their experiences in South Dakota, immersing attendees in the rich history local tribes offer.

To engage Team Ellsworth’s youngest members, the council invited children to make dreamcatchers, a traditional Native American symbol on Nov. 7 at the base’s Youth Center. Attendees heard the story of the dreamcatcher and learned about the dreamcatcher’s significance to the Native American community.

“It opens [children] up to different cultures and gets them thinking about others,” said Airman 1st Class Wandy Griggs, a cybersecurity technician assigned to the 28th Communications Squadron. “It is a great way to bring people together.”

Although Native American Indian Heritage Month is a national observance, the month holds a special significance at Ellsworth.

“The reason it is important for us here at Ellsworth is because of the Lakota community,” said Staff Sgt. Natasha Wohlwend, NCOIC of diagnostic imaging assigned to the 28th Medical Group and Diversity Council project officer. “Specifically in the state of South Dakota, we have the largest reservation in the nation, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”

Wohlwend hopes Airmen came away from the event with more than just full stomachs.

“What I want Airmen coming away with is just them being able to grasp the knowledge of the local Black Hills community, the local Native American community [and] them actually knowing these Native Americans have a past here, they have a history,” she said.

Wohlwend is not alone in hoping Airmen left with a greater appreciation for our Native American neighbors.

“We think education breaks down any barriers and any differences that we may encounter,” said Whitney Rencountre, Ateyapi Program Director of Rural America Initiatives in Rapid City. “I think by sharing our culture, people have a better understanding and can start to view each other as fellow human beings and we are all created by the same creator. We are all here for a reason.”

Mortimer wants Airmen and their families come away from both events more knowledgeable about Native American culture.

“We hope that [Airmen] can learn about the culture and the history so when [they] encounter people in Rapid City who are Native American, [they will]…understand who they are.”

Humphrey Long, an elder in the Native American community, was thankful for the Ellsworth Diversity Council for putting on the events. “I was proud to actually talk about my heritage, my lineage, what happened to my people, my family,” he said. “[The Diversity Council] gave me the opportunity to do that.”