Community Spotlight: The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Nov 26,
Sub-Categorized in: Community

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in the southwest corner of South Dakota and has the dubious distinction of being the poorest county in the United States. It is the home of the Lakota, a Sioux Indian tribe, and covers a territory that is larger than my home state of Connecticut. My sister and I spent a week at Re-Member, a non-profit outreach organization, and have loved every minute of it. Before I get into the journey, I wanted to start by sharing a few facts about the Lakota tribe, information I gathered from various speakers, literature, and historical tours:

> Women are not seen as inferior or even equal to men; rather, they are viewed as superior (amen to that)! This is clearly different from our patriarchal society.
> The Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 in which 300 Lakota elders, women, and children were murdered is the battle in which the most Medals of Honor have ever been awarded in the history of the U.S. Army. (We do not understand why our government has never apologized for these killings).
> The U.S. government has broken every treaty with the Indians.
> Allegedly, Lakota women in the 1960’s and 70’s were required to meet with doctors for some medical testing in which the “white doctors” sterilized the young women without their knowledge (in hopes of stopping reproduction among the Indian communities).
> Unemployment is about 85%. That is not a function of laziness but rather a complete lack of opportunity.
> Adolescent suicide is four times the national average; annual income averages $6,143; and life expectancy for both males and females is under 55 years of age.
> Alcoholism runs rampant on the reservation — four million cans of beer a year are sold one mile from this “dry” reservation.

My sister and I were split-up during our time at Re-Member and put into separate crews. Although we were initially disappointed, it gave us the opportunity to broaden our exposure and share our experiences once back in our bunkhouse. I’d like to start with a little explanation about Re-Member. It is a non-profit organization on the reservation (the “Rez” as they like to call it) that gives volunteers the opportunity to get involved in the community. We arrived on Saturday along with over sixty other people. There was a group of fifty-five from Michigan volunteering. They were such a fantastic bonus! We were assigned a place to sleep – two different buildings based on gender. In ours, called Kiksuya, there were six rooms with six beds in each, along with four sinks, four showers, and four toilets. We would soon learn that we were living in luxury on Pine Ridge. Every morning at 6am we go to the dining hall for breakfast and do the same at 6pm for dinner.
During my first day at Re-Member, my crew was assigned to a “home” where we were putting up new siding. The walls of the home were falling apart, along with the doors and windows. Like every day there, we would leave at 8am and get to our site where we spent the day working until we ran out of supplies or it was time for dinner. Unlike some other trips I’ve been on, I was allowed to use every tool, including a table saw, and be a part of the entire building process. I measured, sawed and screwed in the wood with some occasional tips. It was so rewarding at the end of the day to look and see what we had accomplished. The sad part, however, was there is always SO much more to be done. I wish it wasn’t that way.Another day I was part of a crew that was building outhouses. Most of the homes on Pine Ridge don’t have indoor plumbing. Again, that same feeling of reward came after a hard day of putting nine outhouses together; yet I was so sad because there is still such a need for these in our country today.

The final day of work, I went with three crews to a woman named Jean’s house. Years ago she started taking in stray Rez dogs. There are stray dogs everywhere in Pine Ridge – everywhere! Five years ago, Jean’s husband passed away and left her with 4,000 acres where she has dogs constantly coming in and out, along with horses and cows. And the craziest part is that she does it all by herself. She doesn’t have any funding, any volunteers – nothing. She takes care of all these dogs by herself because she has a love for dogs. We got to play a bit with the little cuties but then it was time to work. We tore apart the inside of a small barn where Jean hopes to keep some of the incoming puppies. We needed to add new insulation and walls. By the end we were red and glistening with fiber glass. It burned! When we finished, Jean was overwhelmed with joy. What we did would have taken her months to accomplish. The week before, Mike (Re-Member staff) asked her if she needed help. Re-Member had never taken crews there prior to last week. That was a great feeling. To help soothe the itching fire we all felt, Jean let us swim in her creek. It was the perfect way to end the day, as well as the trip.

Earlier I mentioned that I constantly felt sadness about how much more there was to do at these different homes. I had never seen this kind of poverty. It is shocking that this exists in our country in the 21st century. On our last night, Phil thanked each volunteer and said that he hoped that we realized we made a difference. He said that, “Although there is still so much to be done, do not lose sight of the fact that by coming here, you made a difference. The work you did made a difference.” I won’t lie, I still feel that there is so much more we could have done, but it did make all of us smile. I would go back there in a heartbeat. It was a remarkable week – inspiring, emotional, challenging, tiring. I thoroughly loved it.

Just another reminder as Thanksgiving is coming up, how lucky we are, how much there is to be thankful for. We wish you safe travels and a lovely Holiday with your family or friends.