Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to many cultures and people from various backgrounds and faiths. However when it came to understanding the history and culture of Native Americans, my knowledge was limited. When I arrived in Pine Ridge, South Dakota in the summer of 2018, my preconception of Native Americans was decimated as I realized that the Native American’s rich culture and language was alive, but there was also immense poverty present within the Pine Ridge Reservation. With the unemployment rate wavering between eighty and ninety percent and the area holding the lowest life expectancy in the United States, I had to pinch myself to remember I was not in a third world country. When presented with the opportunity to apply for the Haney fellowship, I immediately knew I wanted to pursue a project on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty placed the Lakota on one large reservation that stretched across North Dakota, South Dakota, and four other states. Years later in 1889, the United States government confiscated 7.7 million acres of the sacred Black Hills and placed the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Located in Southwestern South Dakota, the Lakota people face daily challenges on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Burdened by constant natural disasters, prevalent addiction and obesity rates, and lack of food sovereignty, residents live in stark poverty.
For my Haney fellowship, I spent my time volunteering with the non-profit organization Re-Member and the Pine Ridge Girls’ School, both located on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Through a rigorous academic curriculum which incorporates Lakota language, culture, and values, the Pine Ridge Girls’ School seeks to help young women on the Reservation better serve their community by way of education. The PRGS serves as a safe haven for girls; it is a place where they can be free to learn and explore their culture and education.The first weeks of my time were spent at the first all-girls school on the Reservation, the Pine Ridge Girls’ School (PRGS). Through a rigorous academic curriculum which incorporates Lakota language, culture, and values, the Pine Ridge Girls’ School seeks to help young women on the Reservation better serve their community by way of education. The PRGS serves as a safe haven for girls; it is a place where they can be free to learn and explore their culture and education.
I spent my time at the Girls’ School in many different ways. The first few days, I was given an introduction which covered everything from the history of the Reservation to the injustices within the current education system. Following my orientation, I dove right into my tasks. Over two weeks, I sorted the massive amounts of donations, painted a few classrooms, reorganized the library, and hosted a health-conscious cooking class for the sixth graders attending the Lakota language summer course. In addition to my tasks, I was fortunate enough to learn from the young women attending the summer school through sitting in on some of their lessons. The girls taught me how to harvest wild sage and timsula (wild turnips used to make medicine), how to make a traditional ribbon skirt and medicine bag.
I spent much of my time with the head of school, April Johnston, in order to understand the challenges that Pine Ridge presents for education, especially regarding young women. I came to understand that several different factors contribute to a student’s success in school. The Pine Ridge Girls’ School emphasizes the need for a small, tight-knit community in order to give special attention to every student. On the reservation, maintaining such a community is critical to the survival of young people. It becomes easy for a student to slip through the cracks when nobody is paying attention, but when students are supported and encouraged, they succeed.
Working at the Girls’ School was empowering. It was simply incredible to be surrounded by young women who were already catalysts for change within their community at such a young age. Although I enjoyed all of my tasks at the school, my favorite experience was having conversations with the girls. The “poverty mentality” is incredibly prevalent throughout Pine Ridge; however, the students had big dreams: plans for college, a career, and a genuine dedication to bettering their community. The girls are educated in such a way that they want to learn in order to help others. Working at the Girls’ School was empowering. It was simply incredible to be surrounded by young women who were already catalysts for change within their community at such a young age.
Following my work at the Pine Ridge Girls’ School, I transitioned into a different setting with the non-profit organization, Re-Member. Re-Member seeks to improve the quality of life for the Oglala Lakota people through numerous educational programs, aiding in construction projects and delivering beds across the Reservation. A new Re-Member initiative, in which I became particularly interested in, is their garden and food education program. It addresses the prominent obesity rates on the Reservation and fosters a more health-conscious environment. Volunteers are encouraged to build relationships with the Oglala Lakota people and become educated about the history of the Reservation and the injustices that still occur today. Pine Ridge attracts many church youth groups participating in mission trips due to the immense need for housing and other resources. While Re-Member does not denounce faith-based service, the organization emphasizes the need for building relationships with the Lakota people and advocating for them on and off the Reservation. The stark poverty on Pine Ridge epitomizes a part of our world that is broken, a part that Re-Member seeks to put back together. Re-Member takes its name from the ancient definition, to “put back that which is broken; to re-member.”
For the three weeks, I enjoyed hearing from the nightly speakers while staying at Re-Member. The main idea that I gleaned out of the speakers each night were the words “Mituyake Oyasin,” which means “we are all related.” The Lakota people believe that everything in life must be based on this phrase, so much so that the speakers always greeted us as “relatives” not as outsiders.
Throughout the week, we traveled as a volunteer group to the site of the Massacre of Wounded Knee. Our guide told us the story of his people and the senseless tragedies that occurred on the site in 1890. I began to understand the deep wounds that the Lakota people have experienced in the past and how they still affect their culture today. In addition, I participated in two Pow Wows, a shared community gathering; the Pow Wows include ceremonial dancing, drumming, and music. A Pow Wow gathers a community together in order to celebrate their culture. In one of the Pow Wows, I was invited to participate in the inter-tribal dance as a non-Lakota. This experience was especially meaningful to me as the community displayed their openness and welcoming nature to outsiders, a value that holds throughout Oglala Lakota teachings and spirituality.
We drove through a scenic road to the Badlands National Park and learned about the history of the park itself concerning the Reservation. Later in the week, we visited the Chamber of Commerce, the Oglala Lakota College, and walked around downtown Pine Ridge; poking our heads into the local coffee shop run by the Baptist church, the post office, and the gas station.
On each construction day, my crew and I traveled near and far to service homes throughout the Reservation. We accomplished a trailer skirting job (siding is placed around the bottom of the trailer to reduce heating and cooling costs), a deck, and a ramp for a family. On the last workday, we traveled to a remote part of the reservation about an hour and a half from the Re-Member headquarters. Our pickup truck bumped down the rocky dirt road to the home, tossing my crew up and down. The trailer home which we were working on housed a grandmother and five of her grandchildren. These circumstances are not uncommon on the Rez. The children at the site were excited to help us, filling the pockets of their work aprons with an array of screws as they eagerly showed us their three new kittens and their dogs.
I spoke with the grandmother after we had finished up the job for the day. She told me about the destruction the recent floods caused which left her and her family trapped in her home for two weeks with limited food and water due to her remote location. I began to understand that many of the issues the Reservation experiences stems from the remote locations of most of the residents. The size of the Reservation creates a cycle in which residents are trapped within the confinements of their town. For many of the residents, things as simple as basic healthcare and grocery stores are hard to come by. This encounter seemed to encompass my entire time on the Reservation as it showed me the stark effects of the reservation system and the cycle of poverty that is so prevalent on Pine Ridge.
For many of the residents, things as simple as basic healthcare and grocery stores are hard to come by. This encounter seemed to encompass my entire time on the Reservation as it showed me the stark effects of the reservation system and the cycle of poverty that is so prevalent on Pine Ridge. My time on the Pine Ridge Reservation was a powerful and demanding experience. I could not be more grateful for Mr. Haney, his family, Mrs. Haney, Ms. Brzys, and the Portsmouth Abbey community for giving me this incredible opportunity. Over three weeks, I encountered heart-wrenching poverty, leading me to understand the injustices of the Reservation system and the hardships and discrimination Native communities face within the United States. I am so thankful for this genuinely eye-opening experience, and I could not imagine a better way to spend the summer.