Renee Sans Souci grew up in Lincoln, hearing stories of sweat lodges, sun dances, and vision quests from her parents and grandparents. But she never got to see any of her family’s Omaha traditions as a kid. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she finally got a chance to see her tribe’s ceremonies. And that ended up setting her on the path she’s on now.
It wasn’t my intention to work with education and with water. When I began on this path, it was all about reconnecting.
Growing up, I’d hear my grandparents and my parents talk about our way of life but I wasn’t seeing it. I didn’t see the connection. And I wanted to know, what is that way of life that they’re talking about? I didn’t know that it was illegal for us to practice our traditional way of life until I got older.
In 1978, they had the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. And when that came about, it opened everything up. So in the 80s once I moved home with my family, to our reservation, which is the Omaha Indian Reservation, I was desperate to take everything in.
I was 23 when I began to participate in the ceremonies. I began by taking in the rocks to the sweat lodge. Which is no easy job at all! The hot rocks — we call them the grandfathers. Inside the sweat lodge, they’re using the water to pour over the rocks to create that steam, which is the medicine that is purifying our mind, our body, our spirit. Once I began going to more of the sweats and participating the sweats myself then receiving the teachings while we’re in there, then it began to come together for me in my mind.
When you’re participating in these sacred ceremonies, as you’re fasting, the one thing that you come to understand right away is that the lack of water is what you miss the most. It’s not food, it’s not anything else but water. This transformation occurs within your being. You realize just how important water is.
That’s what it was like for me. And I realized, from this point on I’m going to interact with water as a sacred entity.
One of the things I do is I’m a teaching artist. I’m usually working with elementary students. Often times what I’m engaging them with is about the environment. And I do that through a cultural base. I share a number of stories with them. And I’m teaching them about using words and developing poetry. But in that process of helping them to learn how they can write better and how they can write poetry, I’m teaching them about the environment.
You know, the message that I want them to receive is understanding their connection to the earth.
ABOVE: The confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers near Plattsmouth, Neb. (Michael Forsberg)
When I go home my favorite place is to go down to the river. And the spot in particular is closest to the river so I get right there. I go down there and I offer my tobacco to the water, and I say a prayer to the water. And for me that’s one way that I connect back. This is where my ancestors did the same things of petitioning the water.
So you know whether it is through the spirituality or through environmental education, through teaching or as a storyteller, to me it all has the same purpose. I’m reclaiming my grandmother’s way of life, which is taking care of the water. So that I can stand here with confidence, and say I’m serving my purpose here.
Music excerpted in this piece is “Oxygen Garden” by Chris Zabriskie. (Creative Commons license)
Voices of the Platte is a collaboration between Platte Basin Timelapse and NET Radio’s Humanities Desk. These audio essays have been edited for length and clarity.