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••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Minnesota

• Tyrel Nelson
A week with Xperitas
in White Earth


My head is still in White Earth. No matter how hard I try to get back in the swing of things, I often find myself reflecting upon our daze together. The strong pull of the res lures me back into the van and onto those long stretches of lonely highways—some paved, others powdery, one a skunky dead end. A set of headlights manages to follow me while I furiously zigzag through thick forests and speed across vast farmlands. But I don’t know where I am going. Like dancers in a powwow, I just keep circling around. I am stuck in time, always an hour away from my destination … give or take an hour.

I am not alone in my daydreams though. You are all with me. The winding roads eventually straighten, and we revisit those hidden gems tucked away in northwestern Minnesota. I hear you chatting it up with the gals of the Mahnomen County Historical Museum. I see your quiet chemistry growing, your group photos getting friendlier from one bank of the Mississippi Headwaters to the other. I feel my stomach turn at the wobbly top and my quads burn at the bottom of the Aiton Heights Fire Tower. (Image: View from the fire tower)
Aiton Heights

Part of me remains with you amongst the greenery of the White Earth Tribal and Community College, tasting dandelions, leeks and Tammy’s phenomenal cooking. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to shake those smells: chicken poop, peat moss, Vicks VapoRub, wet buck hide and whatever was burning in the community center.

I also remember how you dug into everything you did. You climbed atop counters to wipe them down. You mopped floors in record fashion. You woke up early to prepare team breakfasts and stayed late to clean the kitchen after group dinners. Whether it was gardening in hot weather, planting cedar trees on your knees, hauling buckets three-quarters full or dehairing deer dermas one strand at a time, you took on every task without hesitation. Your strong work ethic never wavered.

Giving each other a hard time is another memory I have about this team. Sarcasm steadily flowed across our project sites. Nicknames pervaded the passenger van. Movie lines accompanied our meals. Trash talk took over the basketball court. You were fun to be around no doubt, and I continue to catch myself chuckling about a lot of the things you said. On a scale of 1 to 10, your sense of humor was thirteen!


While I loved to listen to your laughter fill the halls of the community center, I appreciated the rare instances of comfortable silence we shared even more. Touring the Jingle Dress Exhibit at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, passing burning sage clockwise in a circle to start the work day, and the countless unspoken acknowledgements made to the land with tobacco in hand are moments I will fondly remember. And the water ceremony is certainly an occasion I will never forget.

Lake Itasca

Even as I type these words a few days later, that image of us side by side at the Wild Rice River remains at the forefront of my mind. I can’t count how many times I have replayed that scene. Lisa sings while preparing the gift of tobacco. You ladies proudly don the colorful wraps around your waists. Out of respect, I remove the cap which blocks the midday sun from my face. There is magic in the air. A peaceful feeling calms me to my core as we watch the water accept our offering, gently taking it around a distant bend. The stillness is soothing. We are the only ones on the planet, and we have become one with it. I’ve never been so present.

Clinging to that connectedness with White Earth, I regularly scroll through pictures and talk to anyone who is willing to listen about our eight days together. I mentioned to a few of you at our first lunch that the week would fly by, and indeed it did. It seems like forever ago when we stood in the rain to watch the Memorial Day Powwow in Mille Lacs, for example. Moreover, I recall telling all of you how fast the week had gone after our final group dinner. That’s when I realized I wasn’t ready for it to end.

Having led many trips, I know that saying goodbye is always going to be difficult for me. Not only do I get attached to beautiful places like White Earth, but I also form bonds with individuals—community and team members alike. The program locations are one-of-a-kind, but it’s the people who truly make this type of travel extraordinary. Like the community partners we’ve grown to admire, each one of you made this experience special for me in your own way. That’s why my head is still in White Earth.

© Tyrel Nelson June 2019
tyreln at

Tyrel Nelson
Xperitas Team Leader
White Earth, Minnesota
May 25 – June 1, 2019

Tyrel Nelson

Saying goodbye to Hotel Taselotzin - Year after year I lead volunteer trips to attempt to do some good in the world.

*For more information on how to join an Xperitas Community Partnership Program visit their website here.

Headed for the Devil’s Nose
Tyrel Nelson

The northbound coach charges into the night. Not a word can be heard; the roaring of the motor provides the soundtrack to an otherwise silent ride.

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