Carolyn Rittenhouse is a first-generation college student, Millersville University alumna (‘12, M’18), the department secretary in the Department of Educational Foundations, and she is also an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.
Rittenhouse, who is Lakota Sioux, grew up on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation as a member of the Wakinyan Maza (Iron Lightning) family and community.
In honor of November being National American Indian Heritage Month, Rittenhouse shares her experiences growing up and her fond memories of childhood and her time at Millersville and of raising her children in Lancaster, who also attended and graduated from the University.
What was your experience like growing up?
I lived on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in a community started by my three-greats grandfather, Chief Iron Lightning around 1905. I was raised by my maternal grandparents along with my aunts and uncles. In the Lakota culture kinship system, it is very common for extended family and relatives to take an active part in raising children. My mother was the eldest of 10 children and when she went away to trade school, I became my maternal grandmother’s eleventh child.
We didn’t have material wealth, but we had a wealth of love, family support, culture, traditions and Lakota humor. In a matrilineal society, I was raised and surrounded by many strong and loving Lakota women who worked to uphold and instill the Lakota values (e.g., honesty, generosity, charity, integrity, humility, prayer, etc.) into the family’s everyday lives. I spent my days riding my bike, playing outdoors, horseback riding, playing baseball and basketball, gathering wild fruits and vegetables, attending vacation bible schools, cultural ceremonies, powwows, rodeos, visiting the grandmothers, aunties and playing with numerous cousins and relatives.
Life on the reservation had its challenges due to poverty, historical trauma and oppression, but love, laughter, hope and community helped to counterbalance their effects.
Why is it important to acknowledge the Native Americans who lived here before us?
Due to a difficult history, it’s still important to know that a proud and thriving people lived on this land before us and played an important part in the survival and success of the first English who came to Pennsylvania. They welcomed settlers with gifts of corn, venison and skins and showed them how to live and prosper on the land. Learning about the people who came before us helps us to gain a better understanding of the challenges they faced, inspires us to learn from their experiences and allows us an opportunity to pay respect to their contributions to the greater and collective knowledge that we benefit from today.
How can we show respect and honor to the Native Americans who live/lived on this land before us?
We can show respect by taking the time to research and learn about the ways in which the Indigenous people cared for Ina Maka (Mother Earth) and contributed to American society today. Indigenous people cultivated and developed many plants used for food, dyes, medicines, soap, clothes, shelters and baskets.
Unfortunately, our K-12 educational experience does not teach us much about the Indigenous of North America. In higher education, it’s imperative that students know the correct narrative about Native Americans and learn about the unique and ongoing contributions of this country’s original inhabitants. I have presented in Foundations of Modern Education courses since 2004 about my educational experiences as a Native American. This opportunity allows MU students insights into political, sociological, and historical foundations that led to the education of Native Americans in the United States and gives voice to my story, allowing for healing and empowerment.
A greater understanding provides for a healing aspect and better outcomes for students, communities and our nation. Acknowledging the truth about Indigenous people with tragic histories still navigating the effects of colonialism today is vital for the healing of all people.
What is Friends of Advocates for Native Nations?
The idea of the first Native American club at MU initially was a way for me to stay connected to my people and really began back in 2000. Even though my upbringing included acculturation and indoctrination into white society, my Lakota traditions, beliefs, culture, and connection to ancestors still resonated deep within me and provided a sense of identity and belonging.
I wanted to find a way for others indigenous and non-indigenous to learn about each other because there is beauty and strength in all cultures. Over time, I learned to navigate the greater society while holding onto my culture and traditions.
With help and support, I developed and coordinated a Lakota Immersion Program at Millersville University. I took faculty, staff, and students to my home reservation in South Dakota for a service-learning experience in the summers. My Lakota family and relatives in South Dakota were gracious hosts and helped me create volunteer sites throughout the community. Over 100 Lakota children ages seven to 17 attended each day. It was a life-changing experience for all.
Then in 2011, the creation of the first Native American club became a reality. My eldest daughter, Danielle Rittenhouse Carr ’15, and I created Advocates for Native Nations, a non-profit organization. Together with anthropology students, we formed the FANN Club and partnered with ANN, each having a similar purpose and mission to promote and preserve Native culture and create ways to engage students and communities. The student organization is open to all students and majors interested in Native American and Indigenous cultures.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I recall fond and proud memories at MU, from setting up my senior anthropology project, a 20-foot-tall Plains Indians tipi in the SMC Atrium that paid tribute to my ancestors, to being selected for the Sarah Lindsley Person of the Year Award (2016-2017). I like to think that the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, has a hand in my life and especially in vulnerable times. Some may think coincidence, but I think not.
My work at MU helped me to fulfill a personal mission. In 1991, I received my Lakota name, Hwo Was’te Winyan (Good Voice Woman) and a Lakota Elder approached me and said, “Takoja, hihanni was’te” (Granddaughter, good day), you live a long way from home. Tell the people who we are and let them know that we are still here.” These words resonate within me and have guided my endeavors to educate and heal others while preserving stories and culture. In closing, the Lakota language does not have a word for “good-bye” instead we say, “Toksa Ake” (until we meet again).