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A child's dream becomes a rare exchange between two cultures

SANTEE, Neb. - A welcome dinner gave some 20 exchange students from Aschau, Germany, an opportunity to get reacquainted with their Santee hosts late last month.

Their trip is part of a two-year cultural exchange between the Pathfinders, a scouting organization, and students at the Santee Tribal School. They arrived here July 28.

Two years ago, Peter Pfaffinger, a 41-year-old dental technician from Aschau, wrote to more than 50 tribes hoping to establish a partnership for his scouts. The Santee, a tribe with few resources, was the only one to respond to his letters.

Twenty students from the Santee Tribal School were chosen to make a three-week trip to learn about the Bavarian culture in southern Germany. At the same time, the students shared their own culture by putting on a pow wow and telling people about their culture and their home.

On this side of the ocean, 17-year-old Kathy Spies, an 11th grader from Aschau, said this was her first trip to an American Indian reservation. She and 24 other youths, 12 to 20, had traveled nearly 24 hours including a five-hour bus trip from the Eppley International Airport in Omaha to Santee.

"We have met a lot of people and the country and cultures are different. It's a great chance because you don't see this every day," said the excited teen-ager, still recovering from jet lag.

Spies said she was amazed at the vastness of the nation and the amount of time it took to travel to meet her exchange family.

"It is very beautiful."

The remoteness of the Santee area was a contrast to her hometown, which has about 4,000 people living just about an hour away from Munich.

"We have a lot of things to do."

Spies said the group will see "Nebraska's big rodeo" in Burwell, a Sun Dance and a pow wow. They will be treated to a night in a tipi as part of their journey, sampling the Santee culture.

The trip to the rodeo ranked as a special treat for Spies who had never seen one because they are strictly a Western sport.

Simone Mueller, 18, said people from her church asked if she wanted to make the trip. Mueller, who speaks excellent English, found few barriers while traveling because she has studied the language since she was in the fifth grade.

"It's very interesting. I like traveling and meeting people. I'm excited and I'm not scared."

Mueller is staying with Leah Klug, a 15-year-old freshman from Santee. Leah and 19 other students from the Santee Sioux reservation went to Germany where they met their exchange partners.

Klug said her teachers asked if she was interested in going to Germany. Klug admitted she was excited, but a little frightened at the prospect of staying in someone else's home.

It was the first time Klug and classmate Ronette Henry, a 10th grader, had flown in an airplane.

Henry said there were few barriers during her trip since interpreters helped translate signs into English. One of the students from Germany is staying in her home on the reservation.

Janelle Whipple, a 16-year-old junior, also was one of the Santee students, ages 13 to 18, who spent nearly three weeks in Bavaria. She said it took weeks and months for her classmates to get their passports.

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"Some of us had to rush order them."

The Santee teens found themselves in a Bavarian village that is more than 1,000 years old with the chance to hike the Alps, see a 500-year-old farmhouse converted into a museum, take a tour of a castle, and a ride on the rail.

"We went hiking in the Alps. It took us five hours to climb the littlest Alp," Henry said.

She regarded horseback riding with an English saddle as a rare treat and a challenge because they are very different from western saddles. Whipple said she went to a disco and a concert.

They were greeted by the Bavarian state minister Reinhold Bocklet during a trip to Munich. The Santee group gave a performance with singers, drummers and dancers for the head of state.

That visit to the state minister was a heady experience for a group of teens from a small reservation "They treated us like movie stars over there," Whipple said.

The Santee youths received a greeting usually reserved for heads of state. Most Americans wouldn't receive the same courtesies," Pfaffinger said.

Henry, Klug and Whipple said they want to return to Germany some day. Henry said she is hoping her return will be during a senior trip.

Pfaffinger, whose family has lived in the Bavarian region for nearly 650 years, said the organization chose youths willing to spend two years on a project, willing to learn more about their own culture and the culture of their exchange partners.

The youngsters said they learned a few new things about their own culture such as making a traditional Bavarian belt while learning the songs and dances that are part of the tradition.

The Santee Sioux Tribe paid for part of the Santee students' trip and student fund-raisers helped pay expenses.

The Santee Sioux pow wow in Germany drew more than 7,000 people and helped fund part of the exchange expenses, the Pathfinder leader said.

He added that the German government paid for the Pathfinders' trip which cost $50,000 German marks or about $25,000 in U.S. currency.

Studying the history of the American Indians lead Pfaffinger to want to find out more.

"The German people have a very special relationship with the Indians. The only real Americans are the Indians. I can't understand why they were treated the way they were," he said.

Part of that love for the Germans have for the American Indian people is tied to the romance of the culture, perhaps the last bastion of the "Old West," Pfaffinger said.

"Maybe it is a dream of ours to ride on the back of a horse, have a tipi and be free."

For the Pathfinder leader, visiting the Santee Sioux reservation is the fulfillment of a child's dream. Fulfilling it meant Pfaffinger had to take two years of his vacation time to work with the exchange program and countless hours writing letters to tribal governments from the Canadian border to Oklahoma to find an exchange partner.

"To have a Sioux as my friend ... I can't explain how much it means," he said.

The German exchange students will spend three weeks on the reservation and were hosts a Bavarian Night Aug. 4, giving tribal members a glimpse of the traditions in their culture.