After COVID-19 grounded the event last year, the people who have been involved in the annual River Appreciation Day for over a decade now were glad to return to the Missouri River near Clay County Park to offer a day of learning there.

This fall’s event, held Sept. 14, was unique. River Appreciation Day has traditionally been designed for sixth graders from schools throughout Clay County. This year, high school students also took part.

The topics ranged from scientific, including lessons on how ground water moves through soil near rivers, from artistic, with Norma Wilson’s Poetry Camp, to the role that the Missouri River played as indigenous tribes who lived along its channel formed relationships with white settlers.

“We’re talking about our relationship; how we became friends many years ago and how we’re working together to learn about each other and our cultures and the differences in the way we were raised and how we can combine those,” said Rich Boyd, who is originally from the Rosebud Reservation but now calls Vermillion home.

Boyd and Steve Miller, a pastor from Vermillion, manned one of many stations set up in the Clay County Park area to teach students different topics related to the river.

“We’ve been friends – Lakota and Christian – together for 25 years and we’re helping students look at the river and the earth,” Miller said, “and how the different traditions and cultures come together to work together and help take care of the earth and the river,” Miller said.

“Our main message is that we are all related,” Boyd said. “We are relatives to one another and that’s what we try to relate to the students.”

River Appreciation Day began 14 years ago after Grace Freeman of Vermillion was inspired by an event held in Montana when she lived there.

A similar, week-long activity was held at the Missouri River there and 4,000 fourth graders would take part.

There wasn’t close to 4,000 students at the Missouri near Vermillion Sept. 14, but the Clay County Park area was busier than it has been during past River Appreciation Day events.

“This year, we decided to have all of the schools here at the same time, so we have 150 students here right now,” Freeman said. “It’s working out; I’m already getting feedback from the schools that they like it.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing despite the added protections enjoyed from vaccines this year, special mitigation steps were taken this year to ensure students’ safety.

Traditionally, for example, the appreciation day always ended with a big lesson involving Native American songs and drumming that brought all of the students together. This year, a small Lakota and drum lesson was presented.

“It’s all working,” she said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever done anything like this, so there’s been a little bit of touch-and-go, but everyone seems to like it,” Freeman said.

Helping to make the day run smoothly were USD students and several community volunteers.

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