After an experience such as the one we had in Pine Ridge, we, visitors from the dominant culture, cannot escape the inevitable question “What should we do?” This question is difficult to answer, and can be uncomfortable for a group such as ours, who strive to be sensitive and politically correct while still maintaining idealistic values of activism and justice. I believe wholeheartedly in cultural sensitivity and respect, but we must be careful to make sure that cultural sensitivity does not cancel out empathy and compassion and paralyze us. When respecting someone’s culture gets in the way of supporting them on the level of human survival, I think that no longer counts as sensitivity. Culture includes what the people are living today as well as what they should be living ideally or what they experienced in the past. When discussing Indigenous issues, it is easy to slip up and offend someone, whether they are Native or not, and many people avoid even talking about sensitive subjects for fear of saying the wrong thing, so these issues remain unaddressed.
There has been so much injustice towards the indigenous people of the Americas, all committed by our European forbears. It is easy to slip into “white guilt”, which can effect us in several ways; it can lead to attempts to do some type of service work to settle one’s conscience, which can sometimes be of use but often is not what people really need and has no long term results. Guilt can also take us too far in the other direction; we become too afraid of offending or doing the wrong thing that we do nothing. We tell ourselves that what the indigenous people need is to be left alone to rebuild their culture without the interference of nosy whites trying to right the atrocious wrongs of their ancestors. We are frightened to act, afraid of doing something wrong, and instead we do nothing.
I agree that Native cultures need space and time to return to their roots and revive their traditions, but this can be a bit difficult to do for a family of 11 with no real source of income living in a single trailer with only blankets for windows during a South Dakota winter. Yes, what the Lakota really need is jobs, a source of steady income, healthy and affordable food, a stable government, and their lands returned to them, but acknowledging this does not decrease their immediate need to put food in their children’s mouths and shoes on their feet.
I found myself struggling with many questions after leaving the rez. What was our purpose in visiting the community? Who really benefited? How could I go back to my cozy bed, nice clothes and beautiful campus without doing something to make the lives of these beautiful people a bit easier? But what could I do? I don’t have the qualifications or skills to build houses or start businesses or fight in court.
I may just be an idealistic college student who is out of touch with reality, but I don’t believe standing by and doing nothing will benefit anyone. Even just raising awareness helps, and keeping Native people and their struggles in our minds has a positive effect. I’ve realized this more after seeing how highly the Lakota value and believe in prayer and thought. Yet if I can do more, and do it in a way which is actually helpful, I want to pursue that. I feel that the Earth Ship project with Celinda and Robin could be a successful, practical project, as long as we do our research, actually go through with it. The plan is to build an Earth Ship, a sustainable house which requires very little heat or water, for Big Mike and his family. This would give Big Mike a safe, warm place to live and would and would take the considerable stress of heating a home off of his family. I don’t know if this project is actually feasible, but I want to do my best to make sure that we pursue, while still remaining sensitive to the needs and desires of the people for whom it will be built. I don’t know if this is necessarily the best or correct thing to do, but if we can follow through with this project, we would be able to make a lasting and real difference in a family’s life, someone who has done so much for our class and our school over the years. One house will not cure the people of alcoholism, find people jobs, or return stolen lands, but if done correctly and with help and collaboration from the Lakota community, it would make real change, no matter how small.