The Past and Present, Educational Purpose, and “I” Statements

The thing that hit me hardest about Pine Ridge was listening, watching, and feeling the prayers needed there. This reservation is one of the, if not the, most impoverished and suppressed community in the United States. The reservation has a population of about 18,000, with about 17,000 identified as American Indian with the US Census. Only 22% have a high school diploma. The unemployment rate is 89%. The reality hit me more than the statistics.

The first place we saw in Pine Ridge was White Clay. This place was an immediate shock from the midwest farm country we drove 4 hours through. White Clay’s buidlings were al boarded up and looked vacant, with the exception of liquor stores. People loitered around the gas station, smoking and sitting, because there was nothing else to do. On a cement wall in spray paint was written “DEATH TO WHITE MAN.”

We saw the Black Hills on Wednesday, a nice change to the wide flat prairie. I slowed the van down on one of the curves so Mike could show us Mt. Rushmore. “You guys say we came across the ocean or across the ice before here” Mike said. “From the sky, these black hills look like a human heart. We originated here. We used to live in a circle here and we used to be able to pray from our homes.”

Mt. Rushmore is a symbol of conquering, he said. The faces represent the dominant capitalist culture and its ownership of the sacred place.

One of an incredible series of Pine Ridge Photos by National Geographic photojournalist Aaron Huey:

One of an incredible series of Pine Ridge Photos by National Geographic photojournalist Aaron Huey:

First the Lakota were conquered. Then they were removed from their land to a reservation.

They were able to “continue their way of life” on Pine Ridge reservation, but their resources to live sustainably were taken from them. The loss of the Buffalo and the loss of access to sacred places suppressed them.  So the Lakota had to adapt to the Western culture and way of life, but there is no stable economy or resources within the reservation. Liquor stores and casinos come with unemployment, and people sell drugs or practice other illegal activity to feed their family. They are not under state law, so the federal law gets involved. The reservation is stuck in a complex downward spiral of social problems rooted in 300 years of suppression. The problems in history are still relevant today.

Three other students and I took a walk on Thursday evening around Mike’s neighborhood. On the loop back, two black Sedans pulled in and began patrolling. They looked out of place in the narrow street of rusty trucks and stray dogs. They pulled up to us, rolled down the window, and sure enough exposed two white officer’s faces. “Ladies,” he said with a huge folder open in his lap, “do you know a lot of people around here?”

“No.” I said.

The officers moved on to question a man on his door step and knock on doors. No wonder people here hate the U.S. government.

I felt like I needed more historical background. Here is a little bit: Video from Photo Journalist Aaron Huey, Seven Years on Pine Ridge

Mike Jr. always prayed for “educational purpose”. For our educational purpose in Pine Ridge, for his brothers educational purpose getting to CC, and for his daughter. But what does educational purpose mean to him? Definitely that phrase is an umbrella term for something we have always taken for granted. Education, to Pine Ridge, is a bridge to the Western world. An education means being able to straddle the two opposing cultures of Lakota and United States capitalism.

“Rely on yourself,” Big Mike said a few times. “You might have a friend, but then he steals from you. You need yourself.”

I never completely understood this advice he gave us in relation to life on the reservation and ceremony. In fact, I got so frustrated with the “I.” “I” feel this way in ceremony, “I” pray for this, “I” want this. The focus inward seemed selfish and frivolous in a place where the “we” was so necessary. I too am proud when I am self-sufficient, but is he speaking in a political sense? Where the Lakota as a people want to be self sufficient?

Jamie’s prayer on Thursday night moved me, and a lot of the class. She cried for “we,” and she prayed for her whole family’s hurt. Obviously she was hurting, but she cried for something greater than just her. She cried for her sister who found her deceased father, and for her brothers’ alcoholism, and her struggling nieces and nephews. A lot of the class cried too. How can I pray for one struggling family member and as for strength and courage when the people here need so much more?

“Nothing is impossible,” the Spirits told Mike.

I prayed for understanding a lot of the time. I still don’t understand a lot. I think some of it will take a few days of reflection, but most of it would take a lifetime of observation and experience.

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2 Responses to The Past and Present, Educational Purpose, and “I” Statements

  1. h_widmer says:

    I agree with your comment on education as a connecting force between western and native ideals. When Mike’s brother came for the last ceremony he spoke of his college experience and his desire to help the community that he came from. They want their children to know truths about the world so they can in return use their knowledge to help on the reservation. My question is how many of the native students keep their religion with the pressure of higher education.
    In my experience, education and religious spirituality are at odds with each other. As a child, I wholeheartedly believed in God and that miracles happen. But as I learned the truths of physics and psychology it became harder to accept the spiritual world as a possibility. There has to be a scientific reason for everything, or so I’ve been taught. One must doubt everything and ask questions (many of which simply can not be answered from a religious perspective). Either have faith or be smart. Thats what I have thought for the last few years, but after experiencing the Lakota faith, I have hope that the two sides of my brain can be reconciled.
    The challenge for the next generation of Lakota is keeping their spiritual faith while gaining an education. Like you said, they have to straddle what they’ve been taught with what they will be taught. Education is partly about obtaining money and power; while the Lakota value just the opposite. Spiritual understanding is not taught at school. This is something they must learn from their elders and try to hold on to as they are taught the opposite in a school setting.

  2. Patty Weicht says:

    “How can I pray for one struggling family member and as for strength and courage when the people here need so much more?”

    I also found myself struggling to deal with this question while I was trying to pray during ceremonies at Pine Ridge too. I found myself thinking about how small my problems seemed compared to all the things the Lakota people live with everyday and for the past 300 years. There are so many things we take for granted here at CC, so many thing I take for granted at least. Even things that seem so small like walking into a grocery store and deciding what I want for breakfast this week, or being able to turn on the heat in my room when I start to feel chilly. Small things like those seem so normal, but to so many people at Pine Ridge those are luxuries. We are so lucky compared to the Lakota people, but I am struggling to see where we even start to try to help them. What can we do as outsiders that will truly help them?

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