Thursday, June 22, 2006

Pine Ridge Reservation *

*Disclaimer: This is a long post, but I couldn't make it shorter and still say what I wanted to, so bear with me. Also, this isn't a political commentary, so please don't launch into discussion about the U.S. and foreign policy and war and whatnot. This is totally about the Pine Ridge Reservation and what I learned and experienced there. Thanks for reading.*

The U.S. has a history of riding roughshod over other cultures in pursuit of what they want or to convert everyone to our way of life. Apparently, the constitution and the declaration of independence only applied to white people, because the Indians? Got no freedom of religion. All men were not created equal – it was only all WHITE men. The Indians were not allowed the supposedly unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What they were allowed was the introduction to disease – and not just the introduction to, but the perpetuating of. In order to speed up the execution of the Indians, the white men would graciously supply them with blankets – blankets taken from victims of smallpox. There were countless atrocities committed against them, and for what? So that the white man could take land that didn’t belong to him and so that we could force the Indians to submit to the white way of life. It’s ludicrous how quickly the people forgot that the reason they came to this land was to escape persecution and have the opportunity to live as they wished without being oppressed and forced into a lifestyle that they didn’t want to live. And yet? They did all of that to the Indians and more.

One of the worst atrocities was in 1890 at Wounded Knee. I won’t get into it here, because it takes too long to explain. But I highly recommend that you go here and look at the pictures and read the story about what happened.

So what is it that we feared and hated so much that we had to slaughter hundreds upon thousands of Indians and destroy their way of life? Maybe it was their reverence and respect for their dead. I visited three cemeteries while I was on the reservation, and I was struck by the gravesites in every one. The unemployment rate on the res is upward of 80%, and the poverty is staggering. Yet I saw more beautiful headstones there than I have in any cemetery I’ve ever been in. Granite, marble, engravings and pictures, and so many of them had flowers planted around them or were decorated with traditional offerings. The graves of children were heartbreaking, because they are covered with toys and stuffed animals. The families visit the graves and the memories of their dead are preserved and cared for, not just buried in the ground and left there. Maybe we feared their spirituality. Their belief in a higher power and their rock solid foundation in the teachings of their tribe. They were put in catholic schools, and beaten for speaking their own language. Their hair, which is their source of strength, cut and their beliefs disallowed. Their torture and despair in the name of God so horrible that the children would run away from the school and be found dead miles away – they would rather die than forget their life and the things they held dear. Instead of respecting the dedication to their life and spirituality, we tried to extinguish it.

We did a pretty good job. At the extinguishing, I mean. I could go on and on about the way that we have treated the Indians – it’s shameful and horrible and tragic. We’ve broken every single treaty we ever made with them – every single one. And we continue to do so today. They’re relegated to land that is supposedly theirs, until the government decides that they need some of it, and they go ahead and help themselves. The Indians trust no one – not the white people, not even each other. They’ve been betrayed again and again – why would they trust anyone at their word?

I’m not saying that some of the fault doesn’t lay with the people themselves – poverty and unemployment are things that might be rectified, but at the same time, the reservation is so unbelievably hopeless sometimes. The reservation is 1.7 million acres and there is one grocery store to serve all of it. 30,000 people and one grocery store. There are farms there that grow wheat and things like that, but they’re all owned and run by white men. Because really, what bank would loan money to an Indian so that he can buy a combine and other necessary farming equipment? The reservation is dry, but just over the South Dakota/Nebraska border is the town of White Clay, Nebraska. The population is around 22 people, however the liquor sales there per year are upward of $4 million. That’s probably the reason that so many Indians die in car accidents – there aren’t any speed limits on the roads and lots of drunk drivers. About 40% of the Indians have diabetes, and the life expectancy is generally around 50 years. Few people graduate from high school and even fewer go on to college. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Even with all of that, I love it there. The Indians that we encountered were kind and welcoming. They would give whatever they had to help you. The day we blew a tire on our bus, no less than six cars stopped to see what they could do for us. This speaks volumes for Re-Member and the respect and appreciation they’ve earned on the reservation. They employ Indians and are respectful of the traditions and ways of the Lakota people. They are there to help, not to change what the Indians believe. And by the way, they prefer to be called Indians – “Native Americans” is stupid to them because they were here long before this place was called America.

When we toured the reservation, I sat near one of the Lakota employees of Re-Member – Kelly Lookinghorse. He was a cool guy who was willing to answer the millions of questions I asked him. After about 6 hours of touring, I had more knowledge in my head than I could even sort out. We had a speaker one night who was a member of the tribal council on the reservation. I learned a lot from him as well. Everyone there has their version of history and the present – Kelly put it well when he said that the things he says are his truth, but he puts them out there – “thoughts in the air”. That way we can take what we wish from what he says and add that to what we hear from others. The other Lakota employee, Jerome, had us all over to his house where his wife had prepared Indian tacos for us with piles and piles of homemade fry bread. She must have made over 200 pieces of fry bread. One woman whose house we were at to install beds, asked us if we wanted to stay for lunch. It’s like I said – they will share whatever they have with you.

I wish I could explain all of this better. I wish you could understand what I saw and felt and experienced. But it’s impossible. You really would have to be there to understand the sadness and the joy. The despair and the hope. The need and the generosity. The pride and the history and the tragedy and the living of life. I am unbelievably lucky to be able to experience what I get to when I’m there and the opportunities I have to affect and be affected. It puts life into perspective.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nebraska: The Pictures

We left the reservation on Friday, and headed to Ft. Robinson, a state park in Nebraska, to hang out and unwind for a couple of days before heading home. On the way there, we stopped at Cascade Falls, an awesome place where we could jump off the falls and swim in the water at the bottom, as you can see from the pictures. SO. MUCH. FUN. It's not often you get to swim in natural waters like that, and it was so great. We had a blast.
Me and my girls laughing at something. There was a lot of that during the week.
Our first night in Ft. Robinson, we took this little tram thingy, towed by an old Scout, to a clearing where we had a campfire and ate homemade buffalo stew and cornbread and sang songs. It was also fun.
Ft. Robinson is an old military post and has a ton of historical buildings where people can stay. We stayed in the barracks, which, as you can see, is a big room with about 20 beds in it. There were 19 of us. All the boys slept on one side and all the girls slept on the other side. And out of everyone, not one person snored. This was an awesome thing. There was a kitchen at one end and bathrooms at the other end. It was a totally fun place to stay.
The last night we were there, all of the adult leaders were smoking cigars. Yes, I know, that is not what you'd expect from youth group leaders, however, it was all part of a valuable lesson about life. You know, after we messed around and took pictures where we attempt to look gangsta. Hijinks, I tell you.
And last but not least, one of our two vans on the ride home. This was not too long before we all fell asleep. It was a busy week.

Bet you wish you could have as much fun as I do. Because I do. We have the most fun and our kids are the best. I couldn't ask for anything better...

The Pine Ridge Reservation: Pictures

The first installment of my adventures is in picture form, as it is going to take me a while to write everything about the trip.
So. In South Dakota, we were hosted by a group called Re-Member, whose outreach includes building and installing bunk beds in the homes of families who need them, as well as rehabbing various buildings on the reservation. On Monday, we assembled and installed 28 sets of bunk beds in homes around the res. Here are some of my girls in the basement of a home, putting a bed together.
On Tuesday, we went on a tour of the reservation, which included a hike through the badlands. Here are two of my boys who just graduated being badasses in the Badlands. The image is slightly skewed by the fact that they are wearing children's shirts that they got at a gas station on last year's trip.
The third day was another work day. We drove 90 miles to a town where we spent the day working on a church. Three of our kids were mowing and also there were people working on the roof outside. It was like 100 degrees. I made my boy in the black shirt change into a white t-shirt before he keeled over from heatstroke.
Here are a couple of my boys working on the inside of the church, getting ready to hang drywall.
And here is another one hanging the drywall.
All work and no play is no fun at all, therefore we had to take a break in order to mess around. And drink a lot of water and/or Gatorade.
That took us through Wednesday, and on the ride home, our bus blew a tire about 30 miles from the Re-Member site. But it was fine and we all eventually got back. On Thursday, we toured some more of the reservation, and on Friday, we headed out of South Dakota.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

After while, crocodile

It's 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning and I'm about to jump in the shower. Van leaves at 7:30. Bags packed? Check. Books, iPod, water bottle, snacks? Check. Camera? Check. Air mattress, pillow, sleeping bag? Check. Mental preparation for spending a week with 15 high school kids complete? Che-- well, I guess you can never be TOTALLY prepared for that.

Anyway, I'll be back a week from Sunday. Miss me!!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Notes from my life of leisure

As I may or may not have mentioned, I leave on Saturday for the first youth group trip of the summer. Don’t be jealous as I ride in a van with 15 high schoolers to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Seriously, curb your envy when you hear about how I’ll be spending 24/7 with the kids as we build bunk beds and install them in the homes of people who have most likely never had a bed before. Actually, you should be a little envious of that last part, because the appreciation of the people who receive the beds is apparently pretty rewarding. Anyway. I say all of this sarcastically, but really, I’m totally looking forward to it. The van rides are always fun, and doing work for people who need it is also fun. The plus side is that the weather will only be in the 80s most of the week. Unlike Juarez, Mexico (which is where we were last year) where it was about 105 every day. The down side is that being on the reservation is pretty depressing. The plus side is that we’ll get to see a lot of cool historical stuff about the Lakota people who live there. The down side is that the history is also pretty depressing. Interesting, but sad.

A vital item that I am taking with me on my trip is my new 30gig iPod. It holds 7500 songs (and also video), and now, thanks to PIC, I have 7800 songs. And this is before I’ve even loaded my own cds onto the computer. I had to get an *snort* external 80gig hard drive because my computer is only 30gigs by itself. Anyway. As part of my birthday present, PIC shared all his music with me and patiently went through and deleted duplicates – it took a few hours. The other part of my present was something that will hopefully prevent me from either getting towed again or getting more parking tickets at the meters. He gave me a meter key. It’s this little weird key looking thing that you put into the meter and lo and behold, turns out there’s money stored in the little key chip and so I don’t need change to park! Yay!

Speaking of parking, PIC’s balcony overlooks a public parking lot, and we were sitting outside on Sunday night, when we noticed these two sketchy looking kids doing something at the edge of the lot. I went in and got his binoculars, and we sat there and watched them for almost 30 minutes. What we deduced was that they were high on some sort of illegal substance, and while one of them was totally mellow and just sat there, the other one was constantly moving – digging in the dirt next to the lot, pacing around, smoking a half a cigarette, throwing it away and then lighting another one. Sheesh. If I were the mellow high guy, I would totally stop hanging out with Twitchy McFidgets because his constant motion would ruin my mellow high. I mean, I was like 100 or so feet away, 3 floors up (and not high) and I wanted to knock his manic ass out. Anyway.

Now that I go to the grocery store in the middle of the day on a work day, I run into a lot of old people. In a recent blog entry, Hope said “I mean can you imagine bumping into a little old lady's shopping cart in the grocery store and having her give you the finger? And you feeling compelled to give her the finger back?” Which made me think. Sometimes -- judging from the dirty looks I get from aforementioned old ladies when I *GASP* politely say "excuse me" and try to pass them as they block the ENTIRE aisle with their cart and take eight million years to decide what they might possibly need from the shelves – I think they might be thinking about giving me the finger. They act like they own the place and anyone else who is trying to get by is infringing on THEIR territory. I’m all about respecting my elders, but I also don’t believe that age gives you an excuse for bad behavior.

And lastly, can someone get a message to my cats? Can you tell them that it’s not cool to a) meow incessantly for breakfast at 6 a.m. and b) climb the screen door/bedroom screen/living room screen just because they want to see the bugs? Because clearly, I’m not getting through to them. Thanks.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The one where I pretend to be an adult

I guess I knew it would happen eventually – the role reversal of parent/child. Where the adult children cared for their older parents – taking them to doctor’s appointments, worrying about illness and mortality in a different way than when you were a child. A more concrete way, a more REAL way. To see your parents as humans – scared, in pain, frail – the things you never thought your parents could BE.

I knew it would happen, but I guess I figured I would be an adult before it did. Yes, I know, I’m 30, but I don’t feel like an adult. I have this card that says “Everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.” That’s exactly how I feel. I don’t feel like I’m old enough for this to start happening, and more to the point, I don’t feel like my parents are old enough for this.

Both my parents are 60, and I remember thinking how old 60 was back when my grandparents were alive. But my parents aren’t old – my dad isn’t gray at all, and my mom looks much younger than her age. They go out to hear live music and have dinner with friends and drink margaritas and my mom takes yoga and my dad plays basketball and racquetball every week. That isn’t what old people do. Old people sit around and play cards and they smell funny. My parents smell the same as they always did. Thank god. Because old people smell is awful. Anyway.

The reason I bring all of this up is that recently I’ve been faced with the parent/child role reversal. Since I’m not working, I have lots of free time to do whatever anyone needs me to. A couple of weeks ago, I took my mom to have a minor surgical procedure. I sat in the waiting room for 3 hours, and when they called me back to where she was recovering, she looked so tiny laying there in her hospital gown on a hospital bed. The doctor comes in and explains to me all of the stuff that they did and what she needed to do once she got home and then he hands me the discharge papers to sign because I’m the responsible adult. WHAT? Sure enough, next to where I had to sign, it said “signature of patient or responsible adult.” Gah. The pressure. So I sign th papers, and wait for my mom to come out of the anesthesia and I walk with her to the car, with her holding my arm for balance. It was so strange.

Today I was at the Hot Tub House, because the owner had back surgery last Friday and her husband had to go back to work today, so she needed someone around for a couple of hours in case she needed anything. So we went for a walk and I went and got us lunch and then I took her to the doctor. Again, super weird, because she’s even younger than my parents. And I want to make sure she's ok without treating her like the weak and infirm, so that's a fine line to learn how to walk.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind helping out at all. I like it, actually. I would rather do it than have one of them hurt themselves or whatever. My mom said she was glad it was me that took her to the doctor and not my dad, because I’m much more patient and mellow. And I joked about how she should have gotten my brother to take her and she’s like “NO WAY”, and that’s when I realized that I’m the one. I’m the one who will take my parents to the doctors and be the responsible adult.

It’s totally surreal and I have to face it, even though I’m not ready for that phase to begin yet, but I decided one important thing. I will NEVER complain about taking care of my parents, because I would rather care for them than be without them. And not only have they taken great care of me throughout my life, they continue to do so, and that’s something that I can never completely repay. This is the least I can do.

But responsible adult? Really? That’s pushing it.