From July 7th-13th, I had the privilege of meeting the true Americans. My church youth group went on our annual trip, and this year our destination was the Pine Ridge Reservation located in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. Consisting of around 2,000,000 acres, close to 40,000 Native Americans live on Pine Ridge.
My first impression of South Dakota was very skeptical. Looking out the window the last hour of my plane ride, all I could see was pasture upon pasture, interrupted by the occasional barn or house. Being from the city, it was hardly love at first sight. Our first order of business after arriving was visiting the famous Mount Rushmore. All twenty of us piled into church vans provided to us from a local church and drove the 45 minutes from Rapid City to our beloved founding fathers. After getting our cheesy pictures with our presidents and buying our over-priced souvenirs, it was back into the vans and on to the reservation.
After the first hour of driving we were told that we were on reservation land. This shocked me — there was nothing there besides the occasional plateau. I later learned that these were called the badlands. After our second hour of driving we had arrived at our destination — the Re-Member Organization of Pine Ridge.
Re-Member is a non-profit organization, which works with the Oglala Lakota Indians. Through volunteered time, money, and resources, they help rebuild relationships, homes, and lives on the reservation. Re-Member consists of three buildings for the volunteers to sleep, eat, and congregate in, and a workshop down the road. Surrounding us on all sides were acres of dried pastures. It was a beautiful place to stay.
My days were filled with tiring labor, doing projects spanning from insulating the bottoms of trailers to building bunk beds for the Lakota children. Insulating the trailers (known as skirting) was extremely helpful and important to the Indians. By skirting a trailer, we are essentially saving them over 1/4 of their annual incomes (which on average is about $4,000 a year). Building bunk beds was an equally rewarding project, because for most of these children this is the first bed they will have ever slept in. The look of pure joy and happiness on their faces when we delivered and assembled their beds is a picture that I will cherish in my memory forever. It was a truly heart-warming experience.
While we were busy doing hard work, we also got to learn a lot about Native American culture. We even got to attend a pow-wow, and unlike my expectations there were no tee-pees or bonfires in sight. The pow-wow consisted of ceremonial dancers dancing in a circle and drummers keeping beat and singing. It was a very fun experience. Also, every night we would have a Native American come and speak to us about their culture. The Lakota are a very spiritual group of people, and I loved hearing their views on religion. It was extremely interesting to be taught their customs and to learn history from their perspectives. It was very hard and confusing for me to process all the wrong our government committed against them, and how little I knew about it before my trip.
In all, it was a very rewarding trip. The Lakota Indians are a people rich in culture and history. It is a true shame that more people do not know their story and have not heard of their struggles. It was an honor and a privilege to spend a week with them, and I hope to one-day return.
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