Near the Black Hills, directly under the gaze of America’s founding fathers, there is hid a place, though difficult to fathom, where people live in such poverty that the most basic comforts of life are often burned to survive the winter. However, as embodied in a young man who gleefully plays on his swing made of an old garden hose, this is a place of spirit and resilience, despite dealing with the constant reminder of their disenfranchisement.
For the past six years, Christina McClure, an East Lansing sophomore who prefers to be known as T, has been working with Re-Member, a non-profit outreach organization, to help the Oglala Lakota Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which, according to Re-Member.org, is one of the most impoverished communities in America.
With a population of around 30,000 people spread out over a property the size of Connecticut, the Pine Ridge Reservation has a per capita income of $4,000 and an an 80-90% unemployment rate as of 2007. According the website, the life expectancy on the reservation is the lowest in America, and only Haiti’s is lower in the western hemisphere.
It was in the spirit of mitigating such conditions that Re-Member began in June 1998 with Keith and Virginia Titus, both ordained ministers, and Mike Alles passing out firewood on the Reservation. Over the years, the organization grew to the point of having a compound established on the reservation for the facilitation of volunteers.
When T first volunteered for Re-Member in 2006 as a high school sophomore, she was accompanied by roughly 20 other volunteers with whom she built outhouses and bunk beds.
“One of the best experiences I think you can get is giving a child their first bed ever,” T said.
Now, turning volunteers away after reaching their current 90 person capacity, a problem they soon hope to remedy, Re-Member is roofing and skirting mobile homes while increasing their production of beds and outhouses. T, now a regular Re-Member employee during her summers, claims their outhouse production record is 12 in one day.
Fortunately, the organization continues to grow. Stephanie Santucci, a Re-Member program manager, said in an email that the organization, with the goal of expanding their outreach and ability render aid, just bought 160 acres of reservation land from a Nebraska bank, which is quite significant when compared to the three and a half acres they have been working with thus far.
“Although we do not officially plan to move over to our new land for another few years, we are already taking suggestions for new projects,” Santucci said. “Some of the ideas we have thrown around include planting a community garden, buying buffalo to graze on our lands, and creating a farmer’s market for local vendors.”
As resources and volunteers increase, the organization hopes to do more, but the true purpose of the organization extends beyond providing relief. Re-Member’s larger, perhaps more important goal is to mend and build relationships with the Oglala Lakota people.
“Throughout history, white people have kind of burned a lot of bridges with them, and we are trying to fix that—to put back that which we broke,” T said. “Basically, we just try to work on a one-on-one basis as much as possible so that we can chip away at a larger problem until more people are aware of it and willing to do something about it.”
But despite their efforts, T says that progress is slow.
T still describes the living conditions on the reservation as third-world-America. Oftentimes, families are forced to burn Remember-provided comforts like beds just to survive the winter. There is no running water or sewage, working vehicles are rare, and it’s not uncommon to see 22 people cramped in a single trailer home designed for two people, a trailer that may not even be suitable for the two for which it was intended.
“Houses oftentimes should be deemed unlivable,” T said. “But people need a house, so they take it, even if they are FEMA-condemned trailers from Katrina that have black mold and asbestos.”
Even worse, T says the reservation is plagued by the side-effects of poverty: petty crime, rape, gangs, abandonment, and domestic abuse are all too common. But perhaps the worst offender is alcoholism.
According to T, alcoholism runs rampant on the reservation, and it results great numbers of drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Though hardly traveled, T claims that the highways going in and out of the reservation are some of the most dangerous roads in the country because of the frightening number of drunk drivers and drunken pedestrians, some of whom simply pass out in the middle of the road.
T says that the Native Americans suffer from a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, and that disposition is being exploited by alcohol vendors in the form of reservation border towns. Since Pine Ridge is a dry reservation, those seeking alcohol are dependent on border towns like White Clay, Nebraska, a town made up of a bank, a hotel, and liquor stores dedicated to taking advantage of Native American alcoholism. T says that vendors like Budweiser sell extremely alcoholic beverages for cheap exclusively from such border towns to take advantage of the Native Americans.
“Men spend their entire wages on alcohol and leave their wife, girlfriend, or significant other home with children who have fetal alcohol syndrome,” T said.
Despite these social issues, T ardently implores observers to attribute these issues as side-effects of poverty rather than the people themselves.
“I really want to make sure that people don’t confuse [American] Indian culture and poverty culture, because they are two separate things,” T said, “but, unfortunately, they are clashing, and that is giving a lot of people the wrong idea of what the reservation is like. There is extreme poverty, and therefore there is poverty culture, it is not just the culture of this group of people.”
In fact, rather than despairing in their predicament, T says that the true culture of the Oglala Lakota is one to be admired.
“They don’t give up on the reservation. Nobody sees how strong willed they are, and it’s amazing,” T said. “I am constantly reminded while I’m there why not to give up, why to keep fighting, and it definitely carries home.”
She also admires the ingenuity demonstrated on the reservation. With limited resources, some inhabitants have to be extremely creative just to improve their state of life. For example, some will create one working Franken-car out of the parts taken from 20 broken vehicles. T also witnessed an entire addition to a mobile home made out of car hoods and hub caps.
T jokes that her brother, Bryan, who now lives on the reservation, says he has a “major in Reservation Innovation with a minor in Limited Resources Engineering from Figure It Out University, the Re-Member branch.”
What’s even more encouraging is that the resilience of the Oglala Lakota has resulted in a resurgence of the culture’s long-held traditions and spirituality. T says that old customs like pow wows and sundances are returning, as is their traditional sense of spirituality.
“These people refuse to let go of what is theirs, what is their culture and their world,” T said. “It’s fascinating, it’s amazing, and it’s truly inspiring. So much of what is American culture is constantly changing, moving forward, accepting defeat and moving on. It doesn’t seem like it until you’ve seen the other side, until you’ve seen what not giving up really is.”
Though she originally hoped to be a history teacher, T has deviated from that path, claiming that she could not teach the prescribed history after her experiences on the reservation. Now, with a psychology major and minors in history and biology, T is resolved to dedicate her education to helping the reservation.
“Whenever I think about what I want to do after college, I always try to tie it back to the reservation and how it would help the reservation,” T said. “I thought about pre-med, and, if I became a doctor, I would probably go work on an Indian reservation, and by probably, I mean I would. I can’t not go back. I’ll never stop going.”
Her passion for the reservation is contagious. T’s roommate, Haley Williams, Okemos sophomore, says that her thoughts on Native Americans have completely changed because of T.
“She literally will talk about Re-Member for days,” Williams said. “Her passion rubs off. It’s really interesting because you don’t hear people get into stuff like that.”
T hopes that others will be inspired to become a part of Re-Member as well. Here at Albion, she is currently attempting to organize a volunteer trip to Pine Ridge for next year’s spring break.
In the meantime, T extends a simple question: “when ya’ coming?“