How Lakota Culture Is Helping Treat Child Trauma
Greg Grey Cloud is combining traditional Lakota horse rituals with equine therapy to treat PTSD—and much more.
Greg Grey Cloud stands in the middle of the arena, thumbs in his hip pockets, beside a black-and-white Paint who wanders and roots aimlessly in the dry sand. The space is slightly smaller than a high-school basketball court, walled in particle board with an arched roof of white plastic that seals in the warmth from the overworked radiant heaters on this chilly northern prairie morning.
Mud from the pens outside clings to Grey Cloud’s boots and to the bottoms of his jeans. He closes his eyes and inhales. The air smells of coffee and manure and the smoke of burnt sage from the smudging—a ritual that cleanses the energies of the place, and those of the handful of people seated in dusty folding chairs.
Grey Cloud releases a nasal cry, a monophony in Lakota. The Paint raises her head and turns to attention. In English, the prayer song roughly translates to:
The horse nation is here
The horse nation is here for us
It is time for us to look upon them
The horse nation is here
The high-pitched voice rings out across this remote ranch, down the gravel road that cuts through the plains just west of Mission, the closest thing to a city on the Rosebud Indian Reservation of south-central South Dakota. The audience comprises about two dozen social workers, caregivers, students, and community members, some Native, some white. They’re all here to learn how Grey Cloud and his compatriots are using traditional Lakota horse culture to help area children suffering from mental trauma.
Today, volunteers will step out onto the arena floor and learn to groom and lead and even speak to the animals, bonding with them as the Lakota ancestors believed they could do with their fellow creatures. The people will learn to trust the horses, not as pets, but as companions, reliable confidants, and kinfolk.
But first, the invocation. Grey Cloud is only 32 years old, but his song reaches back generations, deep into the earth beneath this sea of pale grass. His words are meant to connect the energies of the audience with those of the horses, whom Grey Cloud refers to as “relatives.”
“We use the term ‘relatives’ a lot,” he tells me later, “because the primary part of Lakota culture is that everything is related. There is a giant benefit in believing that we have a connection. They’ll take care of us and heal us.”
Grey Cloud is not a licensed therapist or caregiver, nor is he a certified educator. In fact, he’s not even Lakota. He is an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, born on a family-run horse ranch on the Crow Creek Reservation just northeast of here, on the other side of the river. He was 14 when one of his tribe’s medicine men recruited and trained him to help administer to his people’s needs.
He learned to conduct a sun dance, a ceremony where the community prays and pledges sacrifices in exchange for healing. In 2012, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and his two sisters were plagued with diseases—one with lupus and one with rheumatoid arthritis. During a sun dance, he sang, played a drum, stepped in time to a beat he believed to be connected to the tree of life, and promised to dedicate his life to helping his community in return for their health. His mother and the sister with arthritis both recovered.
In February of 2012, Grey Cloud was invited by the Sicangu Oyate Nation to help out on this side of the Missouri River. When Grey Cloud arrived in Todd County, where Mission is located, the area was (and still is) among the poorest in the country. Unemployment on the Rosebud Reservation, itself, was above 80 percent, and 76 percent of people with jobs lived below the poverty line. Grey Cloud established Wica Agli, a non-profit that combats sexual violence and domestic abuse, and mentored boys in the community.
Then, in 2013, faculty at Sinte Gleska University reached out to him about returning to his family ranching roots and starting this program, called Tiwahe Glu Kini Pi (“Bringing the Family Back to Life”), with some horses donated by local ranchers. Grey Cloud says being raised around the animals not only provided him with the skill to handle and to care for the beasts—but it also imbued him with an almost preternatural understanding of them. “When you grow up around horses,” he says, “you’re just … different.”