*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.