Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ONE Spirit sponsor visits Pine Ridge

From time to time sponsors receive invitations to visit their families on Pine Ridge. This is always an eye-opening experience. This weekend Regina Hay, Sponsorship Program Manager for ONE Spirit, received the following letter from a sponsor who recently made her first trip. The letter was so wonderful that she got the writer's permission to share it with all of you.

When I told friends that I was heading up to South Dakota, the first question from each person was, "Why?" Some of my military friends had been stationed in Rapid City and hold horrible memories of the winters. Others simply view it as the boring middle section of the country. There was still puzzlement after I explained that I was going to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. No one talks about Native Americans these days, and, if you know anything about Pine Ridge, it's equal parts forgotten and overlooked.

I fell in love with Pine Ridge.

I grew up in a major city but have always had a soft spot for open spaces and rural countryside. Living in Texas now for the last 10 years, I've been as up close and personal with everything huge and country that's possible. But even this didn't prepare me for the overwhelming HUGENESS of the rez. The Badlands spill onto the rez, or vice versa; I wasn't sure. Driving from one road to the next, it's easy to blur the boundaries since the entire landscape has an amazing other-worldliness that's difficult to describe. I just remember cruising along a two-lane road and seeing the "Entering Pine Ridge" sign materialize on my right.

The vastness of the reservation was quite sobering. Isolation seems like a completely logical feeling for anyone who lives on the rez. It's another world but for reasons other than the landscape. From Kyle, where we were staying, to the nearest gas station in Sharp's Corner is roughly 8-10 miles. Without any public transportation, the most basic activity, be it groceries or church or work, can be a logistical struggle for someone without access to a vehicle. Winters can only be a nightmare.

On the way to Pine Ridge "town", I noticed we were almost out of gas. Based on our maps, it was closer to travel off the rez for gas, to Gordon, NE, than to head back to Sharp's Corner or Kyle. There are roughly nine "townships" on the rez, and only a few of them have convenience stores or gas stations. My friend lived in Manderson, which was over 40 miles from my hotel. When the roads are usually under construction, closed or unpaved, a morning or afternoon can go by quickly!

The people on the rez were very open and welcoming. Our first stop was the Wounded Knee site, and the folks at the makeshift "information" booths across the street were talkative and friendly, answering any questions we had. I wasn't quite sure how to compose myself, and I'm not sure why. It wasn't my first time on a rez; I'd visited the Dineh once many years ago, and they were just as gracious. I imagine the Lakota are used to receiving tourists on a daily basis, and I wasn't sure how they regard this. But I got the feeling that they understood our genuine interest, and they were more than proud to share their history with us. One lady spoke to me for almost a half hour about the story of Lost Bird, who is buried at Wounded Knee. She had such a soft voice and quiet earnestness, and I felt like I could stand there all day listening to her.

One fellow at a booth told us his story about coming home to the rez after years in Colorado City. The "white man's world" was too much for him, he told me, because it's too hectic, too stressful. There is little time for silence or quiet contemplation. Here, on the rez, the sun is his clock, and he knows that when the sun sets, it's time to head home. To someone on a much-needed break from a 9-5 job, I couldn't have been happier to hear such a sentiment.

Bette's Kitchen is a definite must as far as food. Not only is she the most accommodating restaurant owner I've ever met, but her fry bread, reportedly a recipe coveted by several media outlets, was so delicious that we purchased a bulk order to munch on during the long periods in the car. The Oglala Lakota College is another recommended stop. The Development Coordinator took time out of her day to guide us through The Heritage Center and, unexpectedly, through the entire campus. The Veteran Memorial behind the school bears the names of all the Lakota war veterans in every conflict since WWII. The Chamber of Commerce, in Kyle, also has lots of information about efforts to revive small businesses on the rez, with a focus on local artists.

The poverty on Pine Ridge was expected but not any easier to deal with. I deferred on taking any photos of my friend's home or any other home on the rez. When I arrived, she welcomed us in but apologized for the mess. Her humility was moving, but I certainly didn't want her to feel self conscious--especially when I'm wildly disorganized myself! We had a bin full of school supplies and toys for the kids, and this time I didn't take pictures simply because I forgot to. It was too much fun to watch the kids play. She's battling some personal struggles these days, and it made me rethink the issues of poverty on the rez. The spartan living conditions capture the attention of the public, but they seem almost secondary compared to the alcoholism and unemployment plaguing the families.

The wide open spaces of prairie land, sunflower fields, and breathtaking sunsets give Pine Ridge, a rez with definite challenges, a surreal and sublime atmosphere. There is certainly enough time to think during the endless hours of driving, and you can't help but take stock of the simple things when you're surrounded by sky and earth. Yes, Pine Ridge has grave issues such as suicide, gangs, and indigence. But it also has a lot of heart, and you can see it all around.

One thought that kept coming to me over the course of the week was an encounter with another Texas couple on my first day. Pine Ridge has been, they told me, their go-to "spot" for the last 20 years. It sounded so peculiar to me at the time. But as I was making the long drive home on my last day, I easily understood what they meant. All I could think about was when I could return.


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