I gained a wide-range of knowledge while staying on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a week but what stood out the most to me was the Native Americans sense of generosity. The condition on the reservation is far from perfect. The people living there have very little by our standards; some have no beds, little money, few jobs, and fewer opportunities to better themselves. Through all of the despair they remain to be hopeful and give all that they can to their neighbors. As we worked on houses and delivered bunk beds, the people were always appreciative of our work. Many children on the reservation are not well taken care of due to the high rate of alcoholism, yet many of these children are taken in by grandmothers or neighbors so that they can have a better life. These grandmothers or neighbors who are taking in these children barely have the resources to live on their own but they still take in extra people out of kindness in their hearts. The Native Americans have a true sense of being a community and being a family together which I have rarely ever experienced anywhere else in my life. How often are we, as Americans, willing to take in our neighbor’s child or give something that we have to someone else in need? The Natives sense of giving and being generous in all that they do was truly outstanding.
On Tuesday my group went to work with an organization called Earth Tipi on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation and a kindergarten class from the reservation happened to be visiting Earth Tipi at the same time. At lunch time, we made them all sandwiches and taught some of them what a PB & J was. After seeing these kids vacuum the sandwiches down, I had a realization that this could be the biggest meal of the week for some of them. When we watched “20/20 Children of the Plains” about the reservation we had learned that many of the kids go to school on Monday and eat for the first time since Friday. I could not imagine that this might be the reality for these small innocent kids. They seemed like every other child that I have encountered. After lunch they taught me how to catch and hold chickens. They braided my hair, we played princess, jumped on the trampoline, all things that normal kids would play. Then I overheard one boy talking about how he got to sleep at his friend’s house who had a bed. We have heard all week that many of the families on the reservation do not have beds to sleep on but this was the first time I had encountered this face to face. A speaker who came to talk to us during the week discussed how children are the best teachers and that in Lakota the word “child“ translates to “sacred being.” I believe we can all learn from this. Many of these children didn’t have a meal or a bed to go home to, but they were still contagious with laugher and hope. We need to pay more attention to children in our western culture and hear what they have to say because they can give us insight on life that is not found anywhere else.
“Hi guys! These are my cousins!” yelled a very enthusiastic and beaming 6 year old Lakota kindergartner. Behind her was her class of 20 or so other Lakota children. While saying hello and giving them all hugs, I looked over at some of the other Re-member volunteers and shook my head in awe at what we had just heard. It was remarkable that this little girl had just introduced her classmates as “cousins.” It also showed the closeness and love that the Lakota people share with one another. It is a completely different culture and way of life on the reservation. The Lakota people see each other all as relatives that came from common ancestors and thus often refer to each other in this way and end prayers with “Mitakuye Oyasin” meaning “All Our Relatives.” Her class was on a field trip to her own house to see the sustainable living and housing that her parents had built using natural materials such as clay and wood collected within 90 miles of the build site.
After the introductions, we all ate lunch together. The kids were ecstatic to be eating chips and s’mores granola bars. Most of the class was very shy in the beginning though, barely speaking to us until after lunch where we all went on the playground in the backyard. I noticed that the boys were much shyer than the girls. While there may have been 1 boy that was very outgoing and friendly right away, there were at least 5 girls that were jumping all over us and asking for piggy back rides and to play. By the end of the day, it was great to see everyone having such a good time and being so friendly to our group during our break. It made my day to spend time with these kids and I still can’t stop smiling about it.
9:00am: time to start a new day, I put on my work shoes and head out the door to a beautiful sunny morning. That was the start to my first work day on the reservation of Pine Ridge. My first task was to repair and paint an old house where a nice elderly couple lived, so I expected to have to cover one or two little holes in their wall and paint over the repairs and be off for the day. When I arrived at the house though I realized how wrong I was. The house was an old white house where all the outside walls made of wood had started to mold and broke as soon as u would put a little pressure on it. Seeing that house still standing was a shocker and it made me understand to what extent this community needed our help. If this one houses’ condition didn’t seem to shock our driver, then that meant that he had seen worse in the community. That made me wonder about how many families on Pine Ridge had to live in a house that is crumbling like this one and how much more help was needed from us and all the volunteers that come to the reservation.
Woosh! The last stroke of the paintbrush against the fresh wall, I looked back to see john’s wife bringing our group some chocolate cake. Behind her the beautiful view of their 5,000 acre farm full of rolling hills and grasslands. I handed down the brush to a member of our group and said, “Looks good!” The best part of my trip so far was siding, painting, and completing our work on the black feathers’ house. We started the day caulking all the seams and cracks around the house. After the caulking was finished we moved on to screwing in the side panels over the old boards, which acted as a double insulation for the house. We finished off by painting over the whole house with a fresh coat of white paint. When we first showed up on the site the house looked practically unlivable. Driving away I looked back at a house that I was proud to say I helped fix. Even though the house looked amazing fixing it was not the best part of the day, for the best part of the day was receiving a warm “thank you so much” from the woman that made us cake. I am glad that because of our group they will have a warm house to sleep in this winter.
On our second day doing service work at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation my work crew was assigned to the workshop. I was so excited to grab a screw gun, some two by fours and help piece together a bunk bed. As Jerry, the work shop boss, stood in front of us delivering the workshop orientation speech I felt like an elementary school student waiting to be picked for the recess kickball game. Finishing up, Jerry asked if anyone considered themselves to be Type A. I raised my hand thinking about how perfectly I would line up each board when Jerry told me my job. “You’re in charge of sanding for the day.” Oh. I tried my best to hide my disappointment as I began to gather the supplies with the rest of the sanding crew. As we set up shop outside I began to think about how soft and smooth I would make each two by four and plywood flat that was sent my way. I thought that if we could fly through all of the pieces that we needed to sand I would be able to build at least one bed before the day ended. Just as I was finishing up my first piece Jerry came outside. I proudly presented him my plywood triangle, to which his response was to look at each side and point at the five knots in the wood. “You need to sand these out,” he said, “because if a kid picks at this and gets a splinter it will probably get infected. Once it gets infected he won’t go to the doctor ‘cause they don’t go to the doctor out here. That infection could take his limb or life.” With that Jerry handed the triangle back to me. Oh. For the rest of the day myself and the rest of the sanding crew worked tirelessly to ensure that there would be no splinters even if it meant going back again and again to smooth out a rough patch. It was mind-blowing to be in a place where a bed held the potential to do more harm than good. My short interaction with Jerry put into perspective the importance of every task we were dealt on the reservation. Even the tedious task of sanding could make such a difference for these people.
Wednesday night at Re-Member is community dinner night. Locals arrived at the Re-Member site to eat and sell their crafts. I was expecting to buy some jewelry and talk with a few people, nothing too exciting. The very first table I walk up to a man was sitting who I had one of the most interesting and intriguing conversations with ever in my life. I’ve always been interested in Native American culture so hearing stories from a local Lakota was a highlight of my week. As I sat down at the table to scan over the jewelry, he began to explain to me the meaning behind one of the dream catchers. The design signified people within the culture that have strong healing powers. He then proceeded to tell me about a man he knew who had stage four cancer and was just waiting to die in his hospital bed. Two of the people with strong healing powers were asked by the man’s family to complete a ritual in a last chance effort to save his life. When the ritual was complete they left and were never seen again. A few days later the man had more tests done to see how the cancer was doing. Multiple tests were taken due to the confusion of the results. There was no more cancer. The vendor told me the man went on to have a family and a healthy life. This was just one of the many stories he told me, but I will forever remember all he shared with me about his culture through his stories. If I never built up the confidence to go off on my own, I may never have gained a deeper appreciation for the Lakota culture.
My favorite night on the reservation was Craft Night. On Craft Night, Re-Member invites the community members over to have dinner with all the volunteers. It’s a chance for us to eat with locals and buy handmade crafts. Although every other night I really enjoyed listening to the speakers tell their stories and learning about the Lakota culture, I was more excited to get the chance to speak to Lakota locals informally. As I walked over to the tables with my dinner in my hands, I started to become anxious about sitting with them. However, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I surveyed the area as I was walking to see which tables were open. There was a couple eating dinner with crafts at their table but nothing else or no one else there. I reached the table and knew that there was no turning back. I realized soon enough that there was nothing to be anxious about. They told me about all their crafts, and the meanings behind them. I especially liked listening to the meaning behind the dream catchers. Just from listening to their story, I learned so much more about the Lakota culture. That night I got the chance to speak to many other Lakota and it was very eye opening to hear everyone’s stories. I can’t wait to go back home and share their stories with my own family and spread the Lakota culture.
Today my crew was assigned to deliver bunk beds to people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I was very excited to be able to interact with the Lakota people. Assembling the bunk beds was challenging at first because there were a lot of different steps, but soon we got into a rhythm and quickly got the job done. After we were finished, it was an amazing feeling to step back and realize that we had just provided beds for someone that otherwise might have never had one. It was heartwarming to see the excitement on the faces of the kids when we started to unload the pieces of the bed from the van; they all wanted to help be a part of building their first bed. However, it was unsettling to think that the kids had been sleeping on the ground prior to us making them bed. I can’t imagine growing up without a warm bed to sleep in, and it was very hard realizing that a lot of the kids in Pine Ridge don’t have a bed. Overall, it was a very rewarding experience that I will never forget.
Before arriving at Pine Ridge reservation our group learned many startling statistics. The one that resonated with me the most throughout the entire week was the level of obesity on the reservation. As of 2007, Pine Ridge has eight times the United States rate of diabetes and twice the rate of heart disease. In today’s society we have so many statistics thrown at us, which can desensitize us to how serious they are. Being on Pine Ridge I got to learn the stories behind these statistics and as a result became better informed about why the Lakota nation has poor health conditions. On one of the first days, we stopped at the second largest grocery store on the reservation. When we entered I was stunned by what was an equivalent to a convenience store or some type of enhanced gas station food mart. I did not find the produce until walking through a couple of aisles and again was surprised; there was barely any fruit and vegetables available and what was there was rotting. On top of all of this, it was all incredibly expensive! It was disheartening to witness the types of food that were being sold and how children, specifically newborns were being affected by these unhealthy food options. I also think that this is hard for the Lakota people because the options are so limited and as a result are unable to provide their families with healthy foods. I think it will interesting to observe the contrast as we head into our next week in St. Louis where we will be focusing on urban agriculture because we will be able to witness how two locations in the same country have different types of access to fresh nutritious foods.
The day’s last rays of light shone over the hills of South Dakota as the wind tugged at the tall grass and sage. Red and yellow streaks of light illuminated the west and behind me, navy blue sky touched the earth. I sat, knees tucked up to my chest, with the wind blowing through my hair. This was our last night on the reservation, tomorrow we would leave Re-Member and start towards St. Louis. As I looked at the sky, I thought about how our time here was setting along with the sun and everything I learned this week. All the memories, experiences, and insight that I will carry for the rest of life. I thought about the bunk-beds we built, the salamander I caught with several Lakota children, the people who took the time to tell me about their lives and culture. I received far more from these people than I gave them, priceless gifts of kindness, wisdom, and joy. It was then, just as the sun disappeared from view, I realized I had to come back. I would apply for a position on staff, but if I was unable to get a job with Re-Member, I would be a volunteer again. I will return to this place.