Stories from the Road: Pine Ridge Reservation - South Dakota (August 6, 2017)
This piece was originally published on MillennialPolitics.co in August 2017
There is no escaping the wind on the Pine Ridge Reservation. While it blows through the South Dakota golden grass and huge rock formations, at the top of the hill at Wounded Knee, it almost seems to howl. The climb up the hill leads to a cemetery and under an iron arch, with two brick pillars on either side. A gate protects the area of the mass grave where the 300 victims of Colonel Forsyth’s 7th Calvary’s massacre were buried. Even as Wounded Knee is considered a ‘National Historic Landmark’, the level of disinterest by the government is obvious.
Yet, Michael, an Oglala Lakota man who seems to be the oral keeper of Wounded Knee, says that he doesn’t want the government to come in and make it a National Park. He says that my people, as he points at my bare, white arm, came in and killed his people and took his land. Now they want to do it again.
I can’t help to look away uncomfortably as he voices what everyone has avoided all day. His words give a name to the feeling that I have had in the pit of my stomach: guilt. Guilt from knowing some of the history between the Oglala Lakota people and white people. Guilt because white colonialism has not only helped cause, but also ignored the problems faced by those who live on the reservation. But, guilt most of all because we both know that, at the end of the day, the reservation will only be a memory for me. Something that my privilege has allowed me to see, but never truly experience.
“They would ruin the land with buildings. You wouldn’t be able to hear anything,” he says as he waves his hand and continues about the possibility of a national park. His voice pauses momentarily as he tells me to listen. “Listen to the wind.”
On the other side of the reservation, Andy sits across a conference style table and is showing our group a picture of some of the most recent Youth Leadership Development Program graduates. They are raising money for the Water Protectors who have remained at the Standing Rock Reservation, a few hours north of Pine Ridge. His easy smile and obvious passion make it impossible to stop listening, even as he sheepishly admits that he is notoriously long winded.
“We weren’t experts,” he tells us, reminiscing about the early days of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. “We weren’t even community organizers. But now, I guess, we are.”
The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation offices look like two small ranch-style homes on the outside, but have all the normal office furnishings on the inside; a visual representation of the organizations work that straddles the current life on the reservation and also the planning for the future.
Thunder Valley is working to advance all facets of life on the reservation. Gardening and dietary classes establish stable food sources while simultaneously improving health outcomes. Housing and workforce development initiatives are steps towards breaking the cycle of poverty and allowing community members to take an active role in their futures. Issues with crushing utility bills have inspired building plans with solar panels. Predatory lending practices from the outside led to the creation of financial literacy courses. Everything from systemic problems to everyday challenges is addressed in this conference space, which Andy views with reverence.
And it’s hard not to feel the energy and exceptional nature of the work going on here. Andy takes us on a walk around the grounds, showing us the shells of a few homes that are in the process of being built and the gardens that are starting to take shape. Wind kicks up the dust as construction sounds hum in the distance. We walk through an almost completed chicken coop, a larger version of their successful first attempt at collecting and selling eggs. Standing in the field as Andy describes where different buildings will someday be, it is hard to not to see the vision too.
As someone who doesn’t live on the reservation, it is easy to hear all of this and think that all is well. Or, at least something close to it. It is easy to pretend that drugs, alcohol, and poverty are not problems here. Yet, it would be unrealistic to pretend that they are not. Those and many other issues on the reservation trace their roots back to colonial and white oppression. To ignore that is to ignore white guilt in this crime. However, other people’s lives are also not for gawking or for saviorism. Native American reservations are not sideshows of poverty meant for one off visits to assuage white guilt.
The wind is blowing as Andy shakes our hands in the parking lot. “Just know that the drunken, lazy native narrative was never ours.” He shakes his head in disgust. “Our narrative is resilience.”
While these solar panels and chicken coops down the road from a tragic and underfunded memorial may not seem like the solution to centuries of problems, it’s hard to doubt Andy’s optimism. Or maybe it is his belief in people. With the right tools, Thunder Valley is teaching young people to build their futures in potential careers, lifestyle choices and in homes they may one day own. They do this with the memories of their ancestors in the wind around them and the hope for their families within them. And there is something amazingly resilient about that.