Friday, April 13, 2012

La Vida Lakota

My husband, Logan, took his time off and went with me to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota last week. His first trip to a place most of America will never see. I wanted to share with you his perspective of the Rez I have come to know and love through the eyes of my spirit. This is a note he posted on his FB.

Freshly returned from vacation trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Great learning experience. Gaining perspective was the whole point. Awesome discussions with new friends. Among other things, I saw why KC is excited about the potential for the artists there to re-shape their community's future (while supporting themselves, also).
Personally, I discovered that the Lakota culture is not American culture, nor should it be. There are problems on Pine Ridge that have rooted themselves firmly into the fabric of Indian society. Most of America acknowledges this simple description from a distance, and without much reservation, to use a pun.

However, most of America doesn't know this: The problems on the Rez need solutions that come from the Rez. There are so many stories (but also haunting physical effects, and even memorials -- more on that in days to come) about well-intentioned whites coming in and orchestrating reforms as they see fit. Iraq, anyone? Afghanistan? We arrogantly attempt to rebuild nations in our own image, without much thought to what already works. Or what's fair.
Let's be blunt: These people have had their asses kicked. The reservation is what's left of a prisoner of war camp. Look it up. The tribes were broken apart, spread across a desolate landscape, and threatened with death if they left. When gold was found on their land, US gov't claimed it.

If you think getting repeatedly screwed after being nearly wiped out would be a "downer" to most any race, think of how it affects a people of warriors. This, to me, is one of their greatest afflictions. While the majority of the women seem to be lively and motivated, many of the men are lost souls. Their spirits, by and large, have been crushed so deeply and so often, what's the point in trying to fight anymore? Pride is gone, honor long forgotten.

This is where alcoholism begins to take root. For those of you who don't know, there is an 80% rate of it here. It is not the primary demon, as most social workers will tell you. It is a symptom of a larger problem.

This is when the word "empowerment," so overused today, actually applies perfectly.
Getting these people to help themselves is paramount. Finding effective means of recovery from within is essential. Americans pride themselves on hard work, of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." The Lakota, psychologically speaking, are barefoot.
Now, I've never been big on charity. But I recognize the difference between living and surviving. During my wife's winter trip, two people froze to death. It didn't even make the local paper, it's so prevalent and accepted. That's why I don't mind handing out coats and toilet paper. It's an emergency. But I'm always keeping an eye on the goal of empowerment.
I don't want Lakotas to put on suits, open savings accounts and trade stocks. I want the Rez to have it's own economy, not America's.

This Rez is such a food desert...what I found to be the most promising efforts there were gardens. Bruce Bonfleur is starting a greenhouse, and will give the people there the know-how and the tools for growing their own food.  Shannon Freed (Colorado State alum, too) is creating an immensely self-sustaining system of composting, and has planted a "food forest" (not an orchard!).

These are vital solutions. And certainly an improvement to the barren neighborhood I drove through in Sharp's Crossing. Here, where the food comes from the only convenience store within 20 miles, the families were watering dirt front yards in an attempt to imitate suburbia.  

That's a good deal of darkness to speak about, but there were many moments of levity also. There are bright, shiny people on the Rez like there are stars in the night sky. Good humor is often hard to come by with a serious-natured people in a bad situation.
-- Leon Matthews, during a spirited discussion about Christianity's rejuvenation of, well, spirit...said Jesus had something of a "housing issue," too.
-- One very large and presumably homeless Lakota woman, upon learning of our supplies, wondered if we could offer her a bikini. Her eyes disappeared when she broke out in laughter, her smile taking up all of her face.
-- A proud father, Tyler LaForge, boasted of his 14-year-old son's academics while the young man, Justin, looked down and away. I was disheartened by Justin's lack of eye contact, his poor posture, his withdrawal. But when I prodded him to stick his chest out and brag for himself, he looked my in the eye, and grinned. A full-scale smile broke out when I encouraged a fist-bump. I will never, ever forget how quickly and fully he responded to me. He ran through the door when I opened it.
Tyler, incidentally, cried on my wife's shoulder because we purchased a fan belt for the muffler-less '70's Cadillac that became his only mode of transportation, and which allowed him to work.
Their family still lives without running water.
-- We drove through Wounded Knee one time while the native radio station played "Funkytown." Hmmm...
This station also played a full-length version of the old Hawaii 5-O theme song. Out...STANDING!
-- My eyes watered at the sight of so many American flags on native graves. Veterans of all our wars are buried here. They fought for the country that almost exterminated them.
One of the most promising artists here, Joe Pulliam, is a veteran. He told us he fought to honor his ancestors, all of whom had fought in their lives. His grandfather was especially proud of him, to know that he "had seen battle."
Joe, a fantastic, up-and-coming watercolor artist, is cousin to Crazy Horse and great grandson to Black Elk, both legendary warriors.
Today, Joe struggles with the idea of his military service, and shakes his head.
-- I saw an article about a Native American music group that puts its own spin on blues, jazz, and rock. They tabbed it, Alter-Native.

Lastly, KC and I stayed at the home of Bruce and Marsha Bonfleur (and son Brent). Fourteen years ago, they left family in Florida and moved with their two young children to the Rez, sight unseen. They were called, they say. Extremely hospitable and beautiful people.
They are investing themselves in the Lakota. They are there 365-24-7. These are the people worth supporting. I wish all the missionaries, who come in the spirit of selflessness but then leave to return to their own lives, would grasp this: The Natives are weary of temporary intervention that does more to soothe the faith-based pursuits of well-wishers and do-gooders than it solves any real tribulations of the tribes. Missionaries are kind people, but to be effective, they should follow the guidance of the permanently entrenched like our Bruce and Marsha.  "Lakota Hope," in case you want to see more.