Service Week 1: Pine Ridge, SD

Working with RE-MEMBER was truly a unique experience that I don’t believe I could have had anywhere else.  The poverty and overall harshness of the living conditions of the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation was shocking and unsettling.  The long days of intense physical labor, combined with the emotional effect of our surrounding environment, left the group exhausted at the end of every day that we spent on the reservation.  Pine Ridge2No matter how tired we were though, I was encouraged to see the amount of active listeners that were engaged in the phenomenal speakers that we were fortunate enough to hear from.  Even with all of this in mind, the most memorable moment came from The Porcupine School.  One of the little girls in my second grade class, named Lynsey, approached me during our lunch time with a series of statements that have since changed my life and my outlook on such.  She looked up at me and said, “You are perfect.”  Not understanding what she meant by this I asked her if she could clarify.  Her response to this request was that people on the reservation say that “the white man is perfect.”  I was completely and utterly shocked.  In the moment, I experienced a brief moment of extreme dissonance.  I was unsure of how to respond to this assertion from such an innocent, eight-year old girl.  I told her that her statement was extremely far from the truth and that the color of your skin does not determine how good or bad you are.

I will always RE-MEMBER the experience I had on the Pine Ridge Reservation and all the people I helped. What I remember most about the experience was seeing the poverty and the houses that were broken down and small. Multiple families had to sleep in one house which was concerning to me because there was no space for them to live. This experience has made me want to go back and help the people of Pine Ridge so they can have better lives and futures. The work we did ranged from helping fourth graders to painting lockers and digging holes. Even though this work was hard, we made it through and I am proud of what we accomplished. The people who see our work will look back and be proud of the work we did. I plan to return to RE-MEMBER to help out the Pine Ridge Reservation in the future and raise awareness of the problems they face daily.

One moment that sticks out to me the most after staying on the Pine Ridge Reservation was at our visit to Wounded Knee. After we listened to a speaker educate us about more of what happened during the massacre, we were free to roam around the art venders or the memorial. I browsed through all the vendors before going over to the cemetery, or so I thought. On the way back towards the vans, a family started setting up their goods for us to see, so I headed over with another student. The table they were using was filled with hand carved key chains, hand strung necklaces and bracelets, and beaded pen covers. As we were admiring what they had made, we got into easy conversation about how they made the treasures or how long it took. One thing led into another and we were quickly talking about what happened at Wounded Knee. This began the personal conversations we would have with the couple. Wounded KneeAs we shared our thoughts, they shared their personal stories of what happened to their tribe. They brought out a newspaper of one of the ‘anniversaries’ of Wounded Knee and we read together significant facts and looked at vivid images. This prompted the wife to tell us of how her husband was bitter before she met him. The reasoning being mostly because of what occurred at Wounded Knee. She explained that he had gone fasting at Bear’s Butte for 4 days as recent as three years ago. That is when he took over the conversation, these days of fasting seemed as though it was the most pivotal part of his life. This is what changed his outlook and perspective to a more positive view, as well as what helped him find his soul mate. This surprised us at first that this couple had only been together for a few years as we watched them speak for one another and finish each other’s sentences. Soon we understood it all. During his days fasting on the mountain he felt cleansing as well as peace upon him. He saw spirits, which pointed him in positive directions that he chose to take on for the rest of his life. Spirits also showed him visions of his soon to be wife particularly focusing on her face. They were calling him to her. A year later, they did meet and of course he shared the experience he had at Bear’s Butte with her. What he wasn’t expecting was her response- all her life spirits brought images of him into her mind. They were meant to find each other.  This story stood out because it is a great representation of the culture and beliefs of the Lakota Tribe. They are very spiritual persons and have practiced that for decades. This was the most memorable part of my experience on Pine Ridge Reservation, leading to my understanding of the Lakota culture and the power that spiritual forces have on all of mankind.

This morning I was woken up by blinding sunlight that shone through the window of our bunk bed rooms at Re-Member. It was a lovely sight, and I had a prime view from my pillow. Each morning after breakfast, the Director at Re-Member shares “words of wisdom” from Lakota and other indigenous elders. This morning he read a quote from Crazy Horse. It reminded us of the settlers’ role in Lakota History and the painful influence they had upon his people. After, we went to a Renewable Energy School. The school itself will open for the first time in October. In addition to this, the site functions as a resource to the community, auditing energy to individuals in need. Before the school can be opened, much work must be done on the site. Our group assisted workers with projects such as digging septic pipelines, making adobe bricks, and preparing housing facilities. It was a long day but it felt great to give back to a community that I had already learned so much from. Then we went back to Re-Member and heard an influential Lakota  speak about the importance of youth and the potential we all have to change the world. Afterwards, I made a point to thank him for nurturing a new confidence within my peers and myself. I went to bed later that night exhausted and satisfied with the fulfilling day.  

There was so much to be done at Pine Ridge. When we drove in a few days ago, my eyes were glued to the ramshackle mobile homes with roofs being held down by tires and blankets hanging in place of where window panes should be. There was just so much to be done. Yesterday we met a man who told us about how his plans for improving the use of renewable energy sources on the reservation. We then spent the rest of the day working on minor construction projects for the on-site school being built for reservation students. Earlier in the week we got to visit an elementary school on the reservation. The third grade class I was assigned to was just like any other nine year olds, groaning at the prospect of more math lessons and begging for more snack time. Despite all of the hardships the Lakota have, there is an undeniable sense of hope among the children and seeing their hope unearths the hope I have for Pine Ridge. I truly believe that as a team we ca   n work together to really make a difference at Pine Ridge.

Today we went on a tour to see the rest of the reservation.  We visited KILI Radio Station, Oglala Lakota College, Red Cloud Indian School, and had lunch at Bette’s Kitchen.  I loved getting a tour of the Indian School because I learned a lot about what they value in education, such as keeping their culture alive, and how they offer a variety of great opportunities to their students.  Pine RidgeThe school has a large campus because it is Kindergarten through 12th grade. I also loved getting to eat at Bette’s kitchen; the food was so delicious and she had awesome cupcakes.  When we got back to the RE-MEMBER site later that afternoon, there was a vow renewal ceremony getting ready to begin for some of the other volunteers.  I decided to go and see what it would be like, and boy am I glad I did.  I had never seen anything like it!  They first renewed their vows in a Christian manner, and then begun the Lakota traditions.  They were smudged (have smoke from a ceremonial plant waved around one’s body), wrapped in a blanket, and had their hands tied together as a Lakota Native played traditional songs on a drum and sang.  Then, everyone that was at the ceremony was given dried meat and juice as they shook the couple’s hands and congratulated them.

Pine Ridge, South Dakota will forever have a place in my heart. It will forever stick out to me as being totally unique; unlike any other place that I’ve ever been, or may ever travel to. Statistically speaking, it is one of the most depressing and desolate locations on earth. With an 85% poverty rate, nearly ubiquitous alcohol abuse among adults, and the second lowest life-expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, it’s difficult to imagine that one could leave with a lighter heart. Yet my experiences with the Oglala Lakota people that I met outweighed all of the depressing statistics. I was welcomed by a culture that exemplifies the values of hospitality, dignity, and equality. From the very beginning I never felt judged for my socioeconomic class, my race, or how I appeared. People judged me based on my intentions, what I spoke of and what I did, nothing else mattered to them. To them, all people are just people, and always have been. Despite having barely any material possessions, everyone from Pine Ridge who I met gave me so much. Their generosity with love was overwhelming. The many times I was thanked were so genuine, and the stories I was told were cathartic and heartfelt. Yes, the conditions on Pine Ridge are absolutely terrible, and their situation is in dire need of support. However, the hope that I felt after hearing a class full of 7th graders’ dreams, or how a young man my age chooses not to drink so that he can make money for his family, managed to outweigh any feelings of despair that I walked in with. Gratitude was always expressed for the help that my peers and I were giving, and none of us were ever treated as an outsider. For these reasons, along with the intimate relationships that I developed with so many individuals, I plan to come back to give what I can next year, and the year after that. I also plan to help in any way that I can while I’m not there, such as encourage you reading this right now to look up some statistics about Pine Ridge. Take 15 minutes and watch Aaron Huey’s Ted Talk about it. Listen, and absorb. Share what resonates with you to your friends, and assist with giving these silenced people their voice back.

At the beginning of this experience my intended major was business with a minor in marketing. If you were to ask me now, I would give you a different answer.  I would now say I am undecided, because of one day spent on this journey. I have always loved working with kids, but never had put any serious thought into being an elementary educator. Our first day on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation was spent at The Porcupine School, which houses grades K through eighth. We were broken into groups of two and got to pick a grade to work with. For me, the choice was very simple. Second grade is my favorite age to work with, so naturally, that’s what I picked. The students were having recess when we arrived, so we immediately got to go outside and play with them. From the moment we walked up they were giving us hugs, asking for piggyback rides, and initiating intense games of freeze tag. Their energy was absolutely incredible; the looks on their faces beamed with pure joy. We spent the day teaching them how to use greater than or less than symbols, then taught them aboutPine Ridge 3 minerals, soil and plants. They also had several recesses and lunch scattered in between. Needless to say, at the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted, but I felt like I had made a difference in our second grade class that day, even if it was just by letting a little girl braid my hair.  My major is now undecided because of the day I spent with the Lakota children of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. I am now considering becoming an elementary educator because the life of a child can easily be shaped with the help of just one influential person.

Of our week stay at RE-MEMBER and the Pine Ridge reservation the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center was probably my favorite experience. While we were there we did work that left me with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. We did everything from digging out holes for water faucets to digging the foundations of homes to even making home-made bricks. My group was able to make 200 bricks in a single day. We spent two days at this location and it was where I felt I gave the most to the Lakota people, who I learned we owe so much to. If anything I wish we could have had more time to give to the center as everything accomplished there helps someone in need in the reservation. And that was another thing, it was cool to see just what this place was doing for the community. They made solar panels, bricks, and taught us how to make houses from straw. They also host learning experiences in which people come to learn and stay onsite in buildings made by the workers. I felt like this center was a shining example of hope and promise in a place where those two things are all but lost.

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