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Pine Ridge Reservation

The 50/50 Project

11 July 2016

In 2012, National Geographic published an article on the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation titled, “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee.” The article exposed me to unforgettable images of the Oglala Lakota people and how they live today.

It was a positive article focusing on the strength and resilience of the Oglala community, but the abject poverty could not be overlooked nor diminished by its praise.

Pine Ridge, the largest reservation in the United States, occupies a stretch of land between the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Land rolls on through cascading fields of endless green; these landscapes are hauntingly beautiful. In sharp contrast to the scenery, an urban town center holds much of the population. Its streets are lined with familiar sights of gas stations and restaurants (the local Subway praised as the only source of fresh vegetables). Horses are as common as automobiles, and both can be found penned together on properties, the animals grazing among the collection of broken down vehicles, a tuft of grass growing out of a rusty hubcap.

My stay was brief, not more than a few hours, and my experience with the community hardly scratched the surface, but during the visit I was able to sit down with a local elder and hear her share stories of the last few decades about her life and the work she’s done with the children of the reservation.

green fields of South Dakota

The Reservation

Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Her work largely involves dentistry work, but in reality, she does so much more. She began recounting stories of the situations she’s been involved with and how she’s almost become a type of detective in tracking down kids who aren’t being taken care of.

“Sometimes we find kids that have been with these families… There was one little girl. She was with this family for three years. They had no kind of guardianship or any custody, they were just taking care of her. So I went out and found out what to do. I got the paperwork and took it out to her and brought her back to Pine Ridge with me. I brought her in, we went to Social Services, the BIA, and then the courthouse. This was all on a Friday. By Monday she was under temporary custody. I don’t think the mother ever showed up so that family probably has permanent custody now. That little girl was three years old at the time.”

The Reservation

Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

And all of that came from a simple interaction in getting dental work done for these kids. She attributes a lot of the health concerns with the lack of attention given by parents or guardians, but there’s also a lot of shortcomings from the Indian Health Services (IHS) as well. The company she works for is based out of South Dakota but was an entity created and maintained outside of Pine Ridge.

It’s encouraging to hear stories of such generosity, where someone is constantly going above and beyond their standard career calling. There is a problem, and she’s found a way to meet the need. It’s easy to point at the parents and accuse them of neglect, but that doesn’t get kids to start brushing their teeth and avoid potential abscesses which left unchecked could result in death.

“What happens to a culture when it cannot be given to its children?”

Worse still, recognizing the extreme impact the United States has had on this race does little to bring about any positive change to the current status quo. Soldiers of the 19th century took their weapons. Left with no way to protect their people or hunt for food, the men resulted in drowning out their depression in alcohol provided by the same soldiers. Children were forcibly taken from Native American families and raised in white boarding schools. The schools taught them English, behavioral lessons, and then reprimanded them for using their own language.

What happens to a culture when it cannot be given to its children? The injustices go on.

Wounded Knee Cemetery

This is wrong thinking. Happiness is not the goal. And this misplaced priority throws everything out of balance. I never knew how to write about this trip, not while I was on it, or the months following its conclusion. I don’t know what to share or the best way to start, but after all the interviews and stories I’ve heard, I think I’ve learned the greatest motivation for why people do what they do, myself included.

In what I’ve seen from people and families across this country, each and every one of them is simply trying to live life: to work hard, to enjoy the time they’re given, to care and provide for their spouses and children or themselves, to protect them from harm and uncertainty. And to fulfill these commitments they each carry a priority which gives them the motivation to face the day and take it as it comes. Whether it’s making people smile or exploring the unknown, we all strive for something, and the reoccurring theme, the goal, I’ve found from all these encounters is not the pursuit of happiness. It is love.

Wounded Knee Cemetery

Wounded Knee Cemetery

Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

So as I stood at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre reading the crudely made plaque which explains the story of the “last armed Native American conflict in the United States,” a local rides up to me on a bike. Tries to pedal a few charms or trinkets off on me, and after my refusal, simply asks for a couple bones to help him out.

I walk up to the mass grave at the top of the hill. A weed-woven chain link fence marks the perimeter and a neglected chapel sits at the end of the property. Gravestones, both old and new, honor those who have passed away throughout the decades, many who even contributed themselves to service in the United States military. I am conflicted.

As a loss of life by murder cannot be undone, as it is with the death of a culture. In both cases, it seems the only solace can be found in forgiveness.

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