Growing up, my mothers always stressed that Christopher Columbus and other explorers and colonizers in no way discovered the land we know as the Americas, nor do they deserve celebration for the decimation of cultures and people. The curriculum that was taught in my schools was mostly up front with the shamefulness of broken treaties, massacres, and destruction of indigenous cultures. I naively thought that I understood what reservations were and what they meant. But after visiting Pine Ridge, I know that I certainly didn’t and I’m trying to grapple with it now.
Certain comments made by Mike Jr. and Justin struck me throughout our time at Pine Ridge. When we drove through Rapid City, Justin commented that “they”, the white founders of the city, placed the statues of predominantly white, male leaders on the street corners because “they” wanted to insult “us”, the Lakota people, in every way “they” could, and the statues should be indigenous people. Throughout the time spent at Pine Ridge, I found myself desperately searching for words to prove that I wasn’t like “them”, the white colonizers, the U.S. government, the U.S. military, or any other “them” that directly bloodied their hands with violent and shameful acts. And as I was searching, I had to remind myself that proving myself was not anywhere near the reason for visiting the Littleboys. The visit was for education and understanding. My only role was to receive the visit, the ceremonies, and the hospitality with an open mind, an open heart, and respect.
Upon arriving to the Wounded Knee site, we walked under the archway and Kendall brought my attention to something on one side of the arch. Hand written in Sharpie was the phrase “America is built on stolen lands.” This phrase rang through my head throughout the trip. Despite my early socialization that encouraged an aversion to Columbus Day and to the practice of dishonesty and deceit by the U.S. government, I had never actually understood what the broken treaties looked like. It looks like a food desert. It looks like extremely limited access to health care. It looks like a system of oppression that is still too ugly, shameful, and removed for proper remediation to occur. It is important to remember that the system is what is broken, not the Lakota people. Everyday we were there, I found myself feeling a shame and guilt, sadness, anger, despair, and a reoccurring realization that this is reality and it’s happening in the United States.
There were many instances a small piece of understanding would hit me, and it hit me square in the gut and the heart simultaneously; I felt guilt and shame, sadness and anger. But it’s important to make clear that, for me at least, this didn’t overwhelm the visit. The reality is that the Lakota people living on the Pine Ridge Reservation are subjected to extreme poverty and issues that are a result of such poverty. With this being said, this does not define the Lakota people, or their traditions and culture. The Lakota people we interacted with, who brought us into their community and ceremonies, are working to preserve their culture and traditions, and to ensure a future for their children and their way of life.
I am still unable to honestly claim that I understand what life on a reservation actually is. But we have seen what pieces of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation looks like. And the Lakota people need justice, respect, dignity, and understanding.