Nestled against the majestic beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota and the mysterious wonder of the Badlands, lies the home of the Oglala Lakota known as the Pine Ridge Reservation. Established in 1889, for many years the inhabitants of the reservation experienced a tragic history of cultural discrimination, repression of basic rights, economic sanctions, and neglect by the government of the United States and some of its citizens. It was not until 1973 when the Lakota and the American Indian Movement made a stand at Wounded Knee demanding that their tribal rights be honored that the U.S. government acquiesced and treaty renegotiations led to the rights and freedom that the Lakota experience today at Pine Ridge.
Earlier this summer, two group leaders, two teachers, and 11 high school students piled into a van at Rapid City Airport to spend a week at Pine Ridge to learn about the culture, study the factors contributing to such extreme poverty on the reservation, and examine the use of microfinance to promote economic growth and development. We had reviewed the statistics of extreme poverty and alcoholism on the reservation, of people living without the basic necessities such as electricity and heat, and one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. So, our expectations of what we were about to experience were quite jaded before we even began our drive to the reservation. In all honesty, we expected to enter a community of downtrodden, depressed, and hopeless individuals who had given up trying to make a better life for themselves and their children. Even though some of us had lived overseas or traveled extensively around the world experiencing different cultures, we were still taught the same misperceptions about Native Americans that many American students are taught to this day. How misleading, judgmental, and unfair our thoughts ended up being.
There is no refuting the current statistics that Pine Ridge Reservation is among the poorest areas of the United States with some of the highest numbers for unemployment, extreme poverty, high school dropout rates, and health issues. Nor is there any denying that their standard of living does not come even close to comparison of that of the average American. And, yes, there is an inordinate degree of alcoholism and drug use on the reservation; however, this does not make a people. As one of the members of the Wild Boyz gang stated, “We did not ask to be born here. It is a tough life and this is how we deal with it.” If we, non-Native Americans, were trapped in a prison of poverty, would our subsequent actions dictate the people that we are or are we just doing what is needed to survive?
The Lakota don’t judge nor do they dwell on matters concerning materialism. Instead they follow a path of a certain degree of enlightenment that promotes the principle of “don’t be afraid to be weak and don’t be too proud to be strong.” Realize that in your heart you must follow your own way and eventually overcome adversity to return to your destiny.
There is an overwhelming sense of spirituality in this community derived from a deep-rooted history of tradition, culture, and beliefs. During a recent interview by the Rapid City Journal, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer was asked what he would like all South Dakotans to know about life on the reservation. He answered, “We’re people. And I really believe that we’re all related, and we’re more alike than we are different. I would really like people to come down and visit us and see what we’re doing and see what we’re about. I know we’re poor, but we are real rich in our culture and our traditions.” Too often we judge without cause and we realized that to truly understand the heart of a nation is to know and communicate with the people. That is what we spent that week doing.
There is a story that is popular among the young children on the reservation. It is the story of the Star People. Two young children venture far away from their village exploring the wondrous world surrounding them. Suddenly the sky turns dark and a torrential rainstorm begins with thunder and lightning. The lightning strikes a tree and starts a fire. The children run for what seems like forever until the fire is far behind them and the storm has passed. They discover that it is now dark and they have no way of finding their way home. It was then they realize that the stars up above are shining and twinkling and the spirit of their grandmother appears. She tells the children “The Star People are always with you. Look up, and you will see me among the stars.” Comforted by knowing they are not alone, the children use the stars to find their way home.
The story of the Star People epitomizes the beliefs of the Lakota living as one with nature. Nature is their source of food, water, and shelter and it is to be respected and treated with care and consideration. Nature belongs to the spirits and is a guiding force of energy, harmony, and spirituality. The Lakota believe that one only takes from the earth what is needed and that no one individual owns the land or the rivers or the mountains. This philosophical perspective coupled with a strong custom of belief in a spiritual world creates a value system that is influenced and enveloped by the environment. There is no separation of their physical being from the environment that they live in as everything is part of the universe. The foundation of relationships with all aspects of nature (mitakuye oyasin) allows for the wholeness of well-being.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to meet a remarkable man—Leonard Little Finger, the great-great grandson of Chief Big Foot. In 2009, he received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the College of Mount Saint Joseph (Ohio), in recognition of his work with youth, Native and non-Native, teaching Lakota culture, language, and history. He taught us many things about the Lakota ways and life in general in the short time that we had with him. As founder of the Lakota Circle Village and the Sacred Circle School, he believes that thought and language are the foundation of a culture. To that extent, he focuses his efforts on keeping the history, culture, and language of his people alive through his work at his school, his activism inside and outside of the community, and his teachings to non-Native Americans. As he so eloquently stated: “Without learning about our culture, we won’t know our past; therefore, we won’t know our present. We won’t even know our true identity.”
One of the tenets that Little Finger discussed with us in detail was the Lakota belief that life is lived with ones’ “body, mind, and soul.” There is no separation among the three, as all are needed to achieve “wicozani—the wholeness of well-being.” The elements of wicozani are spiritual, physical, mental, and economic. The element of economics is based on adequate needs of food, shelter, water, and clothing and not the pursuit of wealth or materialism. The latter would be considered a squandering and abuse of the natural resources provided to man and disrespect to the Creator by not sharing with the community.
Communal living is sacred and one man or woman’s home is home to all who need it. For this reason, you will not find homeless individuals on the reservation as doors are always open to all. Another aspect often desired by non-Native Americans that will not be found on the reservation is the procurement of materialistic possessions. This is not due to the lack of funds by the Lakota but from an inherent belief that life should remain simple and that focus should be aimed on adequacy of life and consumption of only what is needed. Many individuals attribute the standard of living on the reservation to laziness or a desire to achieve. What we must understand is that the Lakota are not lazy and have every desire to achieve; it is just that their idea of achievement is different from other cultures.
Another amazing individual that we had the honor to meet was Henry Red Cloud, a direct descendant of Chief Red Cloud (one of the great Lakota war chiefs). His belief in the traditional ways of his culture of a self-sustaining nation and living in harmony with nature spurred him to found the Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE) company in 2006 in partnership with Trees, Water, and People (a nonprofit organization focused on sustainable development and sustainable livelihoods). Red Cloud realized that the severe realities of life on the reservation needed a new vision for the future.
Living in a part of the country that experiences extreme summer heat and harsh winters, many Lakota live without electricity, heat, plumbing, essential water access and in extreme poverty. In a land that is barren of sufficient trees for heating with wood stoves, Red Cloud explored a way to help his people without sacrificing cultural beliefs and traditions. As he stated in his biography: “By using energy from the sun and wind instead of fossil fuels, we can complete the circle of our ceremonies, honoring the old, but in new ways. I see myself as a twenty-first century Lakota Warrior, bringing social justice and economic development to Native American communities through renewable energy.”
LSE is now a successful renewable energy company owned and operated 100 percent by Native Americans. It provides employment, training, and an affordable means of raising the standard of living for many Lakota. As a caretaker of the resources provided to his people, Red Cloud builds hope for a community that is too often neglected by others in surrounding areas. Just as his ancestor Chief Red Cloud did in the 1800s, he is leading his people to new sources of sustainable living through hard work, tayamni (mind, body, and soul), and the physical and mental strength of modern-day warriors.
Chief Red Cloud proudly stated to the U.S. government: “I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches but we do want to train our children right. Riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love.” Henry Red Cloud is carrying forward the dream of his ancestors.
Our experiences during our week at the Pine Ridge Reservation are indelibly imprinted in our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Each one of us brought back a tiny piece of the spirit of a proud people who struggle so hard to maintain their customs and traditions. The clarity of viewing the world for what it really is and knowing where we come from and where we belong is a lesson that the Lakota can teach all of us. Humbleness, strength, respect for nature, adequacy of wants and needs, compassion, and a relationship with the universe are the spirit of a nation that we could all learn from.
Lakol makoce el eyuskeya upo!
Biba S. Kavass is an economics teacher at Southwind High School in Memphis, Tennessee. She is also the founder and advisor to a grant project generously funded by the McCarthey-Dressman Foundation entitled “Microfinance in Action.” The project is dedicated to involving high school students in the research of poverty, culture, microfinance, economic growth and development, and humanitarian aid. Further information is available online.