Going to the Pine Ridge Reservation is like entering a foreign country. As soon as we crossed into the reservation I felt like a stranger and a tourist in a way I’ve never felt anywhere else, even when I really was in a foreign country. Because most indigenous people in the US live on reservations, the majority of Americans have little to no contact with them, and therefore very little understanding of them; I have had teachers at Colorado College who implied or said outright that all of the Indians in North America had been wiped out. I could list all of the horrifying statistics about suicide rates, life expectancy, income, and housing conditions on Pine Ridge, but suffice it to say that conditions on the rez are third world, and most Americans would never believe such conditions exist within their country. Pine Ridge is a place that is fascinating for me to visit and learn from, but I cannot imagine myself living there. On the rez, it was very interesting to get a Lakota perspective on things (often many different, conflicting perspectives). One statement that particularly struck me was when Mike Junior said that many parents who have lived their whole lives on the reservation raise their kids to be racist. When talking about racism, we almost exclusively discuss racism against people of color. Yet in a colored (Lakota) community with very little contact with the outside world, racism against white people is very much alive. And not without good reason; the only white people many Lakota know are the government officials who have broken nearly every promise they have ever made, the FBI who occasionally come in and arrest people, the occasional church volunteer group, and the people selling alcohol in White Clay. When one considers this, coupled with the brutal history of oppression, broken treaties, and outright genocide against indigenous peoples by the US government, it makes sense that the first thing we saw driving into White Clay was graffiti reading “Die whiteman”.
Coming home, I could barely talk about my experience with my friends. I didn’t know how to respond to the simple question “How was your trip?”, because the honest answer would have taken hours to explain, and I’m not sure that I even know the answer yet. Before I could even begin to talk about my personal experience I had to give context about the poverty and living conditions there. One of my friends asked me to describe life on the rez and said she imagined it to be kind of like an Amish community, very isolated, little technology, and somewhat stuck in the past. I didn’t know where to start to explain to her what life on a modern Indian reservation is like, but it is far from Amish. There are so many things that we saw and experienced on the rez that would be very difficult to explain to someone who has no context within which to understand them. I will never fully understand life on the rez, no matter how many times I visit or how many questions I ask, because it is a completely foreign culture and belief system. One thing I began to understand more fully is that the Lakota way of life and manner of thinking and relating to the world is fundamentally different than our own. Even if it is possible for a Lakota to assimilate into our culture, the people as a whole have an outlook on life that most Westerners have trouble comprehending. They view everything from money to religion to family relations to time very differently from us. Living on “Indian time” means taking the day as it comes, doing things when you are ready or when they feel right, and not worrying too much about any agenda. This can be very relaxing and liberating; I don’t think I heard anyone say “we’re late” the entire trip, no matter how many hours behind schedule we were. This time management strategy is at odds with our modern lifestyle, where everything is scheduled and has a limit, but it makes sense in a hunter-gatherer society without clocks, where people’s only indication of time is the movement of the sun. This time seems like ages and ages ago to us, because for people of European descent, it was. But for the Lakota, this lifestyle is only about 200 years distant. That is only a few generations. Noah, Big Mike’s cousin, told us about how his grandfather met Crazy Horse. Noah spoke of the old days as if he had been alive, saying “It seems like only yesterday that we lived in tepees”.
We are separated from the Lakota not only by distance, socioeconomic status, and religion, but also by their location in time. It takes time to adjust to changes, especially if those changes are as brutal and destructive as those indigenous people have faced. We have not given the Lakota time, nor have we given them the respect and understanding they need to survive in such a fast, complex modern world. Perhaps my friend’s assumption that the Lakota reservation was like going back in time was more accurate than I thought when she first asked. Although there are cars and cigarettes and TV’s and casinos on the reservation, these are not what are most important to the Lakota. They are just side effects of being thrown into a fast, modern, technologically developed world. What really matters to the Lakota is family, respect for elders and all beings, relationships, and the land itself, things that we value all too little in our modern society.