Life and Death on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Badlands National Park, South Dakota, image taken by author

4/8/15 - Pine Ridge, South Dakota
When I stepped out of the tiny airport in Rapid City, I felt culture shock; 
I’ve never seen so much nothing. Now in the car, the yellow grasses fly by 
in a blur as rock formations roll on like waves. This place is unlike any I’ve 
experienced, but it does hold its own beauty. As the mist settles on the black hills, 
there’s this quality about the plains that reminds me of water, a familiar stillness, 
not unlike the ocean at dawn.

It’s 6:30 am. Seven dusty girls from Washington, DC pile into a dim gymnasium in the heart of the Great Plains along with 50 or so children and teachers. The seven of us decided to spend our Spring Break volunteering on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, teaching at Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School. We were dusty because our accommodations consisted of sleeping bags in the basement of an old priest’s home on the reservation. Plus, we hadn’t taken proper showers since we left home. But, we didn’t mind the dirt; we were on an adventure. It was day one, but we felt we prepared. Each of us had volunteered before in inner city DC, Camden, and other impoverished places. We foolishly thought that prepared us for what we were about to experience.

It was 6:30 am.

Tired teachers attempted to settle rowdy kids who anxiously awaited their first meal of the day. (Their second would also be a school-subsidized lunch, and for many, their last meal until breakfast at school tomorrow.) The bell rang and 50 pairs of hungry eyes turned towards the meal station. We hopped in the breakfast line behind the kids, our grumbling stomachs also wondering what our meal would be. As the line inched forward, children stood on their tiptoes, shouting at kids in the front to “hurry it up.” We received our trays and glanced at each other, surprised that our meal like every other child’s meal, consisted of six grapes, a carton of prepackaged orange juice, and a Twinkie. It would be fair to say that the majority of us had never eaten a Twinkie before, a far cry from the fresh, healthy breakfasts at home.

Though we previously learned that the reservation is what experts term a “food desert,” we quickly realized what that term really meant– a region vapid of fresh fruit and vegetables, with only heavily processed foods available at corner stores. We bought our greens and fruits at the Wal-Mart by the tiny airport two hours away. We were shocked to hear that the Wal-Mart was one of the closest locations to buy fruits and vegetables to the reservation. Finding fresh, healthy food is only one of the many problems that plague the Oglala Lakota people on Pine Ridge.

The Oglala Lakota, or Oglala Sioux, are one of the seven subtribes of the Lakota people, who, along with the Nakota and Dakota, comprise the Great Sioux Nation. The majority of the Oglala people live on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the eighth-largest Native American reservation in the United States.

The Oglala are a federally recognized tribe, but they live in third world conditions.

That morning, as we drove onto the “Rez,” as locals call the reservation, we passed a dilapidated trailer home after trailer home. Small, run-down houses dotted the few main roads in town. The population on the reservation is 29,000 people, but due to the lack of money, 17 people have to share a 2-3 room home. 33% of these homes have no electricity or running water. A whopping 97% of the population lives below the U.S. Federal Poverty Line, with an average household income between just $2,600-$3,500 per year. Although the United States is a first world country, the reservation is the third world. (http://www.truesiouxhope.org/blog)

I didn’t truly comprehend how bleak conditions were until I was sitting in a room with Native American teenagers, watching them shudder as they told us 12 teens committed suicide in the past year. Between December and March 2015 alone, there were 103 known suicide attempts. The situation on the reservation is dire, and it’s getting worse.

A 2015 article in the New York Times quotes a young girl’s observation: “It’s just a common thing,” said Myra Slow Bear, 15, of suicide attempts on the reservation.

In an interview for an article in Huffington Post, Ted Hamilton, the superintendent of the Red Cloud Indian School, a Jesuit school on the reservation (that I visited), observes: “To be Lakota (Sioux) in this world is a challenge because they want to maintain their own culture, but they’re being told their culture is not successful.” They live with “the legacy of oppression and forced removals, the lack of jobs…the high levels of drug and alcohol use around them…The federal government dropped the ball in terms of mental health resources,” and “the system is overwhelmed” on all reservations.

One ­quarter of Indian children live in poverty, versus 13 percent of children in the United States. They graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average. Their substance ­abuse rates are higher. They’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24. They have twice the rate of abuse and neglect. Their experience with post ­traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan.

I can list the facts about Pine Ridge, but still the horror of the situation will not strike you. It will not make you feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach until you look into the eyes of the nine-years olds you’re working with, and realize that this is potentially the final year that they are truly happy, innocent, and carefree. For some, that ship sailed years ago. It is not until one tiny girl with wide brown eyes and a mischievous smile, looks you in the eye as you are helping her decide whether the bee “flew” or “flied,” and matter-of-factly tells you that her brother was stabbed a week ago. You don’t cry until you share a book with the boy who sits by himself in the corner, wrapped in his torn, black fleece, and later the teacher tells you he will never see his big brother again, who took his own life. Then you feel how grave the situation is, and you are so sad and angry that you can’t breathe. You start to feel a tiny portion of their pain, and you can’t handle it. The sight of innocence torn away from children is revolting. You want to act, but you feel powerless.

You have to stop, take a breath, and remember that you are not helpless. You sit down next to the boy and crack a joke; for the first time, he smirks. You creatively explain the question to the frustrated girl, who almost gave up on her worksheet. She gets the correct answer, and looks at you, eyes shining and incredibly proud. You grab a dodgeball, heading to recess with the kids, and end up chasing the kickball down the street as the kids howl with laughter because they are destroying you at four square. You visit them in their Lakota language class, and they giggle as the wise, elderly lady teacher tries very hard to teach you how to correctly pronounce the Lakota word for “sun.” Remember how they bent over with laughter when you accidentally shot an arrow at the basketball hoop during archery lessons? You gave them that joy.

Yes, there is an incredible amount of work to be done on the reservation, and that still weighs on me. I wasn’t there nearly long enough to make any sort of lasting difference. But, for that one-hour, one day, one week, I made life for those kids a couple hundred smiles better. Plus I made friends with about 15 nine-year olds.

It is important that I tell you about the struggle, but it is also important that you hear about the joy.

So, as much as it is important that I tell you about the struggle, it is also important that you hear about the joy. I need to convey to you the pride of a high school junior on the reservation when she declared that the senior class valedictorian was wait-listed at Yale. (Side note: what the heck, Yale?) I wish you could see the smile on the shop owner’s face when seven girls from Washington, DC strolled into his store and bought necklaces and dream catchers because the artistry was too beautiful to not. Every time I wear the arrowhead necklace, created by Native American women at Pine Ridge, I feel an oddly calming sense of pride mixed with a twinge of sadness. I am proud to be one of the few who remembers Pine Ridge, knowing that every time I am complimented on the necklace and tell the story, that I am spreading awareness. Still, I am painfully aware of the struggle that still continues. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Perhaps the most ironic fact about Pine Ridge lies in the history. We are living on stolen land. The Native American people were cheated out of their land. Today, living in such conditions, they are still being cheated. A major issue today concerns the Dakota Access Pipeline. Protests have erupted across the Dakotas against the installment of an oil pipeline. The main argument against the oil pipeline is that it will contaminate water and put the lives and livelihoods of many on the Sioux reservations in the Dakotas in jeopardy. Also, to the protestors, it appears that federal agencies have not considered environmental risks and the protection of historic and sacred Native American sites. It is another problem the Native American people face.

It may (or may not) surprise you to read that when it was time for the seven of us to depart from Pine Ridge, we were sad to go. This is because while we saw the suffering, we chose to focus on the beauty. When thinking about Pine Ridge, I mostly remember the beauty of the people I met and the natural, rustic beauty of the reservation and the badlands.

4/14/15 - Pine Ridge, South Dakota
I’m sitting on the porch of the old priest’s home, admiring the silence. 
A stray dog runs across the powdery, dirt road in front of me, his shadow bobbing 
in the swaying street light. Not a person in sight. A cool breeze blows; I inhale. 
The spirit of the plains rushes through me. I can almost feel the pulse of the 
ancient Native American tribes that hunted, worshipped, and lived on these lands. 
In this moment, oppression and suffering are obsolete. Only the faint sound of 
tribal drums remains, a pulse that, though hindered today, still beats on.

I remember hope. I remember that if we stand with Native American people to fight poverty, corruption, and oppression, we can eliminate it. It starts with the littlest things. It starts with one girl in the same dusty jeans she wore yesterday on the reservation, joyously accepting the gift of a paper flower from a young Native American girl, making that third grader smile for miles beyond the reservation.

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A paper flower

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