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RITES OF PASAGE; How Sarah set off on a sacred trek.


SARAH PENMAN surveys the ragged landscape around her. She has waited 30 years and crossed an ocean to be here, on the bleak South Dakota "Badlands" with the Native American community.

The scenery is barren and as desolate as Wuthering Heights. And it seems a million miles away from the Scottish town where she was born.

But it is also eerily beautiful and breathtaking. There are no cars, no skyscrapers, nothing. And the land looks like it goes on forever.

The only noise she hears is the sound of her horse's hooves on the grass. And Lakota Indians laughing.

More than 250 riders stretch out across the empty grasslands on the Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride to commemorate the genocide of millions of the Lakota Indian nation in the 19th century.

On December 15, 1990, the Si Tanka Wokiksuye Kin (Big Foot Memorial Riders), as they have come to be known, set out on the 250-mile trek from the Standing Rock Reservation, through the Badlands, and across the Pine Ridge Reservation - the second biggest Indian reservation in the United States - on their journey to the ancient site of Wounded Knee.

The area marked the last bloodbath of the Indian wars waged by the US government. And since 1986, the memorial ride has grown every year.

Sarah is the only outsider allowed to take part in this sacred journey. The days would be long and the pace fast. And the rest periods were few and far between.

They can do little to make the ride itself more comfortable, but the shared hardships of the ride help build a community among the riders.

"Kiktapo! Kiktapo! Everybody up," is Sarah's early morning alarm call.

She and the other riders emerge from their sleeping bags before dawn to brave the freezing morning air.

A radio crackles with the day's weather forecast as they gather around the smouldering fire preparing for the eight-hour trek ahead of them.

There is a storm brewing in eastern South Dakota and it is -12F.

When they set up camp, the horses, thick with ice, will be led to pasture while the Lakota gather around the blazing campfire to drink coffee, eat fried bread and share stories.Every rider has his or her own reasons for taking part in one of the nation's most sacred traditions. Some have ancestors who died in the massacre. But for all the riders, the trip is a spiritual journey.

"There I'm removed from all my cares in the world." says Sarah. "It's just fabulous. There is a real sense of community on the journey. And the only other place I found that was Scotland.

"Some people consider my relationship with the Lakota to be unusual, but it's really no different than if you had friends from another country who lived in Scotland. And there is no magic formula for relating to the Lakota.

"They are like people anywhere in the world and I have tried to be respectful of them as individuals and their culture and traditions. I also think that the shared experience of the rides has helped forge bonds between us."

Thirteen years ago, artist and film-maker Sarah, 51, swapped her ordinary existence in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, for life with the Lakota Indians in the United States.

Today she revels in the ramshackle existence of the Native Americans. But in September, the Emmy-nominated documentary maker will return to the West of Scotland to exhibit the photographic diary she has kept of her time - and friendship - with the Lakota Indians. It will be the first time in more than two decades that she has visited Scotland and she is looking forward to catching up with her relatives in Dundee.

"I'm trying to bring together two communities that mean so much to me," she says. "They are both tribal nations and they have a lot of similarities. Part of my mission is to remind people that Indians still exist."

Sarah was invited into the tribe by the leader of the Indian nation in 1988.

Before then she lived a nomadic lifestyle, leaving the safety of her Scots home to travel the world. "When I was growing up your future was very limited," she says. "You were expected to get married, have kids and live in the same street, but that never appealed to me.

"I was interested in other cultures and I just wanted to broaden my horizons. I think it's in my blood, because according to my relatives, my great-grandmother told the family she was going out for a walk and they only heard from her a week later, from the other side of the country."

Sarah moved to Paris at 18 and worked as an au pair for 12 months before leaving for London. She spent three months living with her late sister, Jane. But the United States still beckoned.

"I met a lot of Americans in Paris and I never forgot them," she says.

"They had this sort of brashness about them which I found refreshing. I know it generally turns people off, but I liked their openness. They asked you the most personal questions."

Within a few months, she moved to the States. But it was daunting, trying to adjust to a different culture.

She said: "It was a shock, moving from Paris to London and to America within the space of three months. Everything was bigger and larger than life in America and it took a while for me to feel at home. But while I came to America for three months, I have lingered for 30 years."Sarah moved to Minnesota, married - and divorced - an American and gave birth to two daughters, Stephanie, now 29, and 25-year-old Alethea before being sucked into the Native American community. Her life, as a writer for the Circle, Minnesota's biggest Native American newspaper, was turned upside down when she was invited to a ceremony at the Greengrass Reservation, South Dakota.

There she met chief Arvol Looking Horse, the Spiritual Leader of the Lakota nation and Keeper of the Sacred Calf Pipe, the tribe's most prized possession.

He told her about Birgil Kills Straight, the Lakota tribal leader who inspired his people to carry out a 250-mile journey across the Dakota plains to honour the 300 men, women and children who were slaughtered during a massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

And she heard how, in 1986, Kills Straight made the journey along the Big Foot Trail, on horseback.

That first year, 19 riders made the trek from Bridger, South Dakota, following the trail taken by Big Foot's band after the murder of Sitting Bull by Indian police, on December 15, 1890.

The Band were arrested and escorted to Wounded Knee when they met the 7th Cavalry Division 13 days later. But when a skirmish broke out while the Cavalry was disarming them, the result was slaughter.

Sarah says: "I felt as though I had finally come home. I'd never been a particularly spiritual person until then, but it was just a very peaceful and loving feeling." Sarah joined the pilgrimage across the plains in December 1990. And she recorded her experience.

Since then she has continued to ride down the Big Foot Trail in South Dakota every December on the Future Generations Ride, a journey led and organised by the Indians' younger generations to not only honour the dead at Wounded Knee, but to promote a pride in Indian history and culture.

Although initially her daughters stayed with their dad while Sarah went trekking across the plains, her eldest daughter, Stephanie, an aspiring zoologist, took part in last year's walk.

"I took four riding lessons and got a saddle and that was me," says Sarah. "And it was the most humbling experience. It was winter time and it was freezing. You're hungry and you have no idea where you're going to be sleeping at night. But there's a lot of laughter and sharing when you're in the middle of nowhere."

Sarah returned to work for the Circle. But as she studied the photos from her journey, she was inspired to put her experience to use. In 1991 she received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.

She began producing video and radio documentaries and she was nominated for an Emmy award for her documentary about Native American women, Voices of Anishinabe Grandmothers.

But photography remains her first passion and she is looking forward to the opening of her exhibition, Mending the Sacred Hoop, at Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum.

She says: "My goal is to continue working with indigenous nations and respect them. They have shown me that there is another way of viewing the world."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 28, 2001
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