Natalie Pearlman (PitP)

Missouri National Recreational River: Ponca State Park and Niobrara State Park

Solstice sunset

As I began my eight-hour journey from Seattle, Washington to Sioux City, Iowa, I had no idea what to expect. I certainty did not expect a gnarly tick bite, a reaction to poison ivy so bad that I would have to go to the medical clinic, or a sunburn that lasted for several weeks, but with every adventure comes a few challenges, right? And what an adventure it was….

group photo

There truly is not another way to classify my time in the Midwest. As I looked out the airplane window during descent, I saw what could only be described as a patchwork quilt in hues of browns and greens. It was oddly mesmerizing. My awe at the beauty around me would only increase throughout the week as I trekked through restored prairies and slept alongside the majestic Missouri River. I watched the sun set behind rolling hills on the Summer Solstice in a field of wildflowers and gazed at the Milky Way on a warm June night. I came to find that the Midwest, specifically Nebraska, offered a plethora of beauty protected by the National Park System and unmarred by the rest of the world.

aerial photo

While the nature that surrounded me was certainly a highlight of my trip, I could not accurately describe my time in Nebraska without mentioning the incredible people also along on this adventure. I had the opportunity to get to know five unique individuals from honors programs in Tennessee, Kansas, and Nebraska. We were all at different points in our college careers and studying various majors but we all truly embodied the ideals of the UW Interdisciplinary Honors Program. We spent our long car rides and time around the campfire debating current elections, physician assisted suicide, the concept of race, and whether Tom Brady was a cheater. My time with these other students reminded me why I am an Honors student. My week with them reminded me that Honors is about questions, stories, and self-discovery, not about the requirements, as stressful as they may be. It was fun being the only West Coast student on this trip as I was able to provide endless entertainment for them with my ridiculously excited reactions to seeing fireflies and buffalo for the first time. I reminded them how beautiful a place they lived in, and they shared with me their stories and knowledge about the places we were visiting.

Natalie Pearlman, field at sunset

Our group spent a significant amount time discussing the past. We had several Park Rangers tell us the story of Lewis and Clark, but not the shiny version in history textbooks. We learned about the real role people like Sacagawea, York (an African Slave), and countless Native American tribes played on the expedition. As we sat at our campsite overlooking the river and rugged bluffs along the shore, you could almost imagine the keelboat and hundreds of men trudging through the water. What does it mean that we have changed the story of Lewis and Clark so much? What was the aftermath of this expedition; what did it put in motion? These were among the many questions we discussed as we were forced to realize how little of our country’s true history we knew. We had the opportunity to ponder these questions as we visited many of the sites that Lewis, Clark, and their expedition had been in awe of, like Mulberry Bend, Spirit Mound, and the Niobrara River. Being able to physically stand in these places and see, for the most part, what those on the expedition saw allowed for truly deep conversations. Throughout the week we pondered the question of why it is so important for the National Park to preserve all of these places; what do they offer to our society?


Much of our time on this trip was about stories, whether from the Park Rangers or people in the community. Some of the most powerful stories I listened to were from members of the Ponca Tribe, a Native American tribe in Nebraska. Members from the tribe shared with us their history, cultures, and traditions. As I sat in the Ponca Tribal center surrounded by beautiful paintings and symbols on buffalo hides, I was struck by a question that Randy Teboe, the Director of Ponca Cultural Affairs, asked: what do you do when you do not know your people’s story, their identity? How do you find your way when the language, stories, and lessons of your people is trapped in the past, trapped in people who were forced to assimilate to a culture they wanted no part of? I was speechless. My grandparents, cousins, and other relatives kept my family’s stories alive, our traditions went back several generations, and while they may have been adapted, they were not in danger of being lost. I cannot imagine what it would be like to not be able to ask my grandparents about my family’s history, but many Native Americans my own age cannot do that, because their grandparents were forced into boarding schools, forced to “lose their Indianess”.

Ponca Tribal Center visit

As I grappled with this question I found myself in awe of the tenacity and persistence of the tribe as they seek to reclaim and reawaken their people’s story. Native American tribes are so often spoken about in our country in the context of casinos, reservations, and history lessons. I had the opportunity to learn about the beauty of the culture but also about the current challenges many of the reservations are facing like alcoholism, obesity, domestic violence, and teen suicide. Hearing about the reality of the Native American tribes put a lot into perspective for me. I have always wanted to go into rural medicine, a big component of which is serving Native American communities. From listening to Randy I realized that much of the healing the Native American communities need is not just from western medicine practices: a lot of this healing is through reclaiming their identity and for those of us who are not Native American, our role is to be supporters and allies while the communities do this.


I was so in awe of the graciousness with which members of the Ponca tribe welcomed our group. They took the time to tell us their personal stories, recount painful pasts, and share with us things that were important to them. As I sat in the bed of an elder tribal member’s pick-up truck in the middle of a buffalo herd owned and cared for by the tribe, I was humbled by the opportunity I had been given.

Group on horseback

I could continue writing about my experience for at least ten more pages. I had so many opportunities to do new and exciting things, like search for invertebrates in the Missouri River with a biologist, float down the Niobrara River, ride horses, search for the near-endangered monarch butterflies in the prairies, and so much more. All in all, the Partners in the Park program gave me an opportunity to explore a National Park and a place in the United States that I had not had the chance to visit. I challenged myself to embrace the unexpected on this trip and to set aside my preconceived notions of what Nebraska has to offer, and I’m so glad I did.

So, if you are looking for an adventure, to be in awe of the world around you, to meet incredible individuals, and to immerse yourself in discovery, Partners in the Park is for you. Grab your Chacos and bug spray; you’re in for an experience of a lifetime.