The Pine Ridge Reservation is steeped in paradox. Its 3,400 square miles of South Dakota are part rolling prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction, part clay pinnacles and hoodoos of trackless badlands, part vast expanses of lush range and farmland – much of it leased by white ranchers and farmers. Alternately alluring and forbidding, the landscape is dotted with lonely shacks and trailers (many home to a dozen or more people) and weather-beaten towns like Potato Creek, Porcupine, Kyle and Oglala clustered around relatively modern schools, medical clinics, community centers and churches. The towns are connected by well-maintained roads that would be the envy of pothole-weary Easterners and Midwesterners; venture off the main arteries onto some of the washed-out dirt roads of the adjacent tracts of government housing however, and you’ll quickly yearn for a high clearance vehicle, preferably one with 4WD.
Pine Ridge is also a place where military service is often the only ticket out of the second poorest county in the United States and the most decisive defeat in the history of U.S. Army is a widely-observed – if unofficial – holiday.
I’ve spent a week or so on Pine Ridge four of the past five summers, the first a sort of get-acquainted visit and the others as a part of a non-proselytizing art/story telling camp at the Little Wound School in Kyle for elementary and middle school students organized by the Unity Presbyterian Church and Hot Metal Faith Group of Pittsburgh. How a bunch of palefaces from Western Pennsylvania came to share Lakota art and folk tales with these South Dakota children is a long story, but its genesis lies in a man with connections to Unity and Hot Metal named John Connolly who has journeyed to Pine Ridge nearly every year since the early 1970s . . . carrying-on a tradition begun by a relative who, as a tyke, was befriend by Lakota members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Collectively, that’s upwards of 100 years of experience on Pine Ridge. Needless to say, my four whole weeks pale in comparison and to suggest I even know the right questions (never mind any answers) to the abundant challenges on Pine Ridge would be the height of arrogance.
I can say, however, the children it has been our gift to work with the past few years have been bright, curious, for the most part cheerful and, without exception, well-behaved. In three, week-long camps that have been rewarding (if chaotic) learning experiences for kids and grown-ups alike, there have been no fights or shoving matches, and I would be hard-pressed to recall a single moment when any of the young voices were raised in anger. The only tears shed were the result of a chipped tooth at recess . . . and the heart-wrenching decision to take away a puppy four boys “adopted” after they found her outside the school one morning.
Heart-wrenching? Average male life expectancy on Pine Ridge is 47 to 48 years. It’s estimated alcoholism impacts four out of five families, and the teen suicide rate is four times the national average doubtless stemming, in part, from alcohol-fueled family turmoil creating conditions akin to the post-traumatic stress endured by war veterans.
Inevitably, one’s mind wanders to what is in store for two or three dozen of the most engaging kids you could imagine in the coming years. And to other disturbing statistics, like the fact that there are something like half a dozen mental health professionals for what some estimate to be as many as 40,000 people spread across a chunk of America the size of Connecticut. Such is the epidemic of economic and psychological problems visited upon a proud and spiritual people whose culture a host of government and religious institutions did their best to exterminate that mental health workers regularly burn-out after a few months on The Rez.
For better or worse, during most of our time in South Dakota we Pittsburghers only get fleeting glimpses of the darker sides of Pine Ridge . . . roadside memorials to lives cut short by suicide and DUIs, towns where dilapidated, graffiti-festooned structures mix with maintained houses, forlorn trailers silhouetted against boundless skies, our annual pilgrimage to Wounded Knee, “Ground Zero” for the genocide inflicted on aboriginal peoples worldwide.
We get a more intimate look during an evening visiting with “Dorothy” (not her real name), a soft-spoken, woman who seems not entirely of this world and whose partner recently walked-out on her after twenty years of his on-again, off-again battle with alcoholism. His departure left Dorothy to live with two of her sons – one a man-child who suffered a head injury years ago, the other sharp-as-a-tack who has been jailed a couple of times for minor offenses and is married to the lovely mother of their energetic two year old boy – in a trailer that’s been condemned for, among other reasons, black mold run amok.
Dorothy speaks of the spotty health care available in a Kyle clinic where doctors rotate through every few months – or just about the time they have developed a functioning familiarity with their patients; of a tribal government which, by law, stands for election every two years, all but guaranteeing what little time officials don’t spend lining their pockets is devoted to getting re-elected rather than governing; of a picturesque church atop a distant hill which holds services on Sundays but is otherwise unstaffed, with no one to offer spiritual guidance or social support the remainder of the week.
But for a real vision of hell on earth, it’s necessary to leave the “dry” Pine Ridge and cross the state line to the asshole of the earth, otherwise known as Whiteclay, Nebraska. Population 14, Whiteclay is “served” by no less than four liquor stores that sold nearly 5 million cans of beer in 2010. On any given morning, you’ll find Indians sleeping on the sidewalks of Whiteclay, while others wait in line for the liquor stores to open. A 2014 tribal referendum approved the sale of liquor on Pine Ridge which, if nothing else, should enable the reservation to collect some of the nearly half million dollars in sales tax otherwise destined for the Cornhusker state’s coffers and – presumably – help fund alcoholism treatment programs on The Rez. On the other hand, opponents argued the referendum will just spawn Pine Ridge’s homegrown Whiteclays.
Given the nature of our “voluntary” summer camps, the kids we see likely come from the most stable and economically secure families in and around Kyle, “likely” being the key word. It’s impossible to imagine the parents who proudly examine a week’s worth of their children’s art projects and enthusiastically cheer our comically sweet “dramatic” adaptation of the classic Lakota tale “Brings the Deer” standing on line in Whiteclay.
Certainly we all want to believe none of “our” kids are destined to add their names to the grim statistics of Pine Ridge; statistics that would catapult Pine Ridge into the national headlines and onto the network and cable news shows were it situated near a major media center instead of within spitting distance of “the continental pole of inaccessibility.”
Similarly, we all recognize there are positive stories coming out of Pine Ridge in addition to the wonderful Little Wound kids. Stories like the Lakota Waldorf School, which offers tuition-free Pre-K to second grade education assimilating Lakota culture with the internationally-recognized Waldorf curriculum and teaching methodology; and the Oglala Lakota College which granted 139 new degrees in June, bringing to more than 4,600 the number of students who have obtained their degrees since the school’s founding in 1971; and ground-breaking for Thunder Valley, the first planned, sustainable “green” community on a Native American reservation featuring new residences, retail spaces, business incubator sites and a community center.
Yet even in hope there is paradox. Like the fact that the Lakota Waldorf School offers free tuition means it must rely on donations and grants to continue its work, let alone realize its ambition of developing a full-on Pre-K through twelfth grade program; like the fact that, thanks to a host of challenges including the need to drive up to 100 miles for a single class, only 11% of students graduate from Oglala Lakota College in “a reasonable” time frame of four to six years; or the fact that traditional Lakota Treaty Chiefs (who have no standing in the eyes of the law and whose power within the Lakota nation stems from ties to their forefathers who signed the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1848 and 1868) view Thunder Valley as just the latest effort by interlopers of tenuous Native American heritage to further dilute Lakota culture.
It’s difficult to gain valid perspectives about life on Pine Ridge when you live in Penn’s Woods, visit South Dakota once a year and rely on text messages, occasional phone calls and The Native Sun News and stream KILI radio to stay abreast of developments; harder still to ask the right questions, let alone develop solutions. For those we best look to the people of Pine Ridge, especially the students and graduates of Oglala Lakota College and – in the fullness of time – the kids at Little Wound, Waldorf and other schools on the reservation.