We’re All Living on a Rez: My Week on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

I almost walked out on our Lakota tour guide, right there in the church.  Daniel Red Bird was speaking to our group in the back of Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  He was telling us yet another painful story of U.S.-Indian relations and kept using words like murder, massacre and ethnic cleansing to describe historical events I had associated with mere “deaths” and “battles”.  For example, the Battle of Wounded Knee became the U.S. government’s genocide of unarmed Lakota women and children at Wounded Knee.  Other Lakota speakers used similar words and somewhere deep down I was beginning to resist these jarring versions of American history, and get angry. 

I was drawn to Daniel (not his real name) the minute I saw him, an impressive Oglala Lakota man IMGP1770who looks the classic elder.  Imposing and direct in manner, he wears a long silver ponytail and works as an artist, activist and interpretive guide for the U.S. Park Service in Badlands National Park.  During my volunteer service on Pine Ridge last May, Daniel provided a running commentary over the school bus intercom as we bounced along reservation roads.  He was knowledgeable, articulate, funny…and blunt as a stone about U.S. government and Christian church failures with his people. 

I thought I understood basic U.S.-Indian history.  I knew it was very bad for Indians, a sad story of exploitation, violence and injustice.  But I also thought things were changing: from the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, to real Indian lawyers now fighting for tribal land, political and economic rights, to real income for some tribes from gaming and so on.  I thought I understood Christian ministry too, having worked for twenty years as a Catholic chaplain.  I certainly had experienced my share of dysfunction and powerlessness in the institutional church, but also the good hearts and intentions of my lay and ordained ministry peers from all denominations.  Yet Daniel was talking about another failed attempt to help Indians, this time through church programs.  The dissonance was getting to be too much.  I wanted to say, “Okay, okay, Daniel.  We get your point.”  

But our Lakota Indian guide wouldn’t quit.  He was guiding us, all right: guiding our hearts and minds right into an ambush with the superior forces of actual Indian experience.  It was like the Little Big Horn all over again and us white people, like Custer’s 7th Cavalry, didn’t understand what was waiting over the next hill. 

“There’s some old pictures of the original Mission church,” Daniel said, pointing at the new walls around us.  “Lot of people say it was beautiful.  Fancy woodwork, elaborate altar.  Right out of a IMG_3880European cathedral or something.”  We peered at the photos.  “The original church burned down in 1996.  Good Friday.  This here is all that’s left.” Daniel was pointing at the large gothic-style baptismal font standing in front of us.  With its tall spire and European carvings, it looked about as out of place as a pope at a pow wow.  “A lot of Indian babies got baptized in there,” he said with a hint of regret.  “The blackened wood on the top there is from the fire.”  Daniel looked out the window.  “The bishop said the old church got hit by lightning, that’s why it burned down.  But the Indians-” he turned back to the circle of white faces around him, “We knew it was arson.”  Was Daniel faintly smiling?  I couldn’t tell, but this was starting to feel personal.  A deep swell of indignation was rising hot in my chest that would lead to no good.  I have to get out of here, I thought, and started for the door. 

But the crowd of other volunteers was blocking easy exit from the church.  I decided to wait and talk with Daniel alone.  He finished his talk and the rest of my group filed into the church sanctuary for a tour of the attached Indian school.  The doors closed behind them and then it was just Daniel and I standing in the foyer.  As I walked over to talk with him, I recalled all we had seen during our volunteer week. 

The focus of our time on the Pine Ridge Reservation (the “Rez” as locals say) was work and cultural exchange facilitated by the Re-Member volunteer organization.  And we IMG_1881worked: we built outhouses, wheelchair ramps and insulated skirting for battered old trailer homes that lacked electricity or running water.  We assembled and delivered bunk beds for children, dug an innovative “waterless garden” in the hard-baked earth, toured schools, historical sites and the stark, gorgeous Badlands.  Under big Dakota skies we ate fresh Indian tacos and admired the paintings and handwork of Lakota artisans. 

My favorite visits were to the little cabin outside Manderson belonging to the Lakota medicine man Black Elk, and later to radio station KILI.  The KILI studio, perched on a remote hillside off the highway, is a hip one-hundred-thousand watt FM radio station with loyal internet fans as far away as Germany.  It broadcasts IMGP1789everything from traditional Lakota songs, to local news, Indian rap and a hilarious pow-wow version of the Flintstones’ Theme (Black Lodge Singers) The Lakota people we met around the Rez were kind, warm hearted and deeply centered.  So much so that I often had the unpleasant sensation of talking too much, too fast and too invasively.  Just standing with these people made me feel like I was in a hurry.  The difference, perhaps, between living life in relationship to the clock, and living life in relationship to the earth. 

In the evenings we gathered to hear from Lakota elders, a high school teacher, spiritual leaders, an activist, a grandmother.  Hanging on the wall behind the speakers’ podium was a long scroll of paper with the official title and date of each of the three-hundred-seventy U.S. treaties signed with the Indian nations.  Even though I have a law degree, it hadn’t struck me until then that an Indian treaty is a U.S. federal law: like any treaty with a sovereign nation each one had to be debated in Congress and signed by the U.S. president.  Each one went into the U.S. Statutes books with a specific law number.  “Yet every single one of those treaties was broken by the U.S. government,” said one speaker, pointing up at the scroll.  “Not a single treaty was broken by the Indians.  Not one.”  Three-hundred-seventy United States laws, all violated by the United States.  Strange business. 

And then there is Wounded Knee. 

Of all the ranging high plains landscapes, villages and historic sites on the Pine Ridge Reservation the saddest place of all is the little cemetery on a hill outside the town of Wounded Knee.   It marks IMGP1130the mass grave where the frozen bodies of several hundred Lakota men, women, children and a Lakota chief were dumped after the “battle” of Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890.  In the high-school-history-class version of this event, a large group of armed, reservation-resisting Lakota Indians attacked U.S. troops  sent to protect the tribe’s own winter rations.  The brave U.S. soldiers prevailed and the survivors were awarded Medals of Honor for their heroism. 

But the Lakota version is different, as told to us by several who had actual kin at the event.  That winter in 1890, three hundred sick and starving Indians (mostly women and children) were walking to Pine Ridge with their ailing chief Spotted Elk to discuss grievances with the U.S. government.  Nervous U.S. troops intercepted the Indians and brought them to Wounded Knee Creek.  The Indians pitched camp and woke in the morning to find themselves surrounded by five hundred troops and Hotchkiss repeating cannon set up on the high ground around them.  As the 220px-DeadBigfootIndians attempted to gather at Spotted Elk’s tipi the soldiers disarmed them.  A deaf Indian named Black Coyote resisted, a shot was fired and the soldiers opened up on the Indians with rifles and the Hotchkiss cannon.  Two hours later nearly three hundred Indians were were killed, the majority women and children.  Twenty five soldiers were also killed, many by friendly crossfire.  The Lakota bodies were left in the snow for two days then tossed into a mass grave.  Twenty medals of honor were awarded to the U.S. soldiers, a point of particular outrage for the Lakota.  “That was not a heroic battle,” said one Lakota speaker.  “That was not even a massacre.  That was genocide.  Ethnic cleansing.” 

From each Lakota speaker we heard the same theme over and over: even the good intentions of white settlers, educators and missionaries had a devastating effect on Lakota society.  From the vast plains on which their hunter-gatherer society depended, the Lakota were suddenly restricted to designated acres of reservation land, thin government rations and instructions to suddenly begin farming.  The Lakota language was forbidden.  Children’s long hair was cut off.  Hand-made tribal garb was replaced with European-style clothes.  Worst of all, the Lakota spiritual ways were gutted.  

People can survive the loss of land, work, possessions, even a loved one.  But IMG_1919the Lakota found their very souls poisoned in a perfect storm of social, psychological and spiritual alienation.  As the government was taking the sacred land, and the railroads and bounty hunters were killing the sacred buffalo central to Lakota beliefs and survival, the missionaries were undermining Lakota spirituality, literally turning heaven into hell.  “To us, the earth is our holy Mother,” one elder told me.  “Its where our food comes from.  The animals, every blade of grass, every insect is holy.  It’s where our ancestors are buried.  But the Christians came and said no: the earth is not good.  The earth is where hell is, down inside the earth.  It is where the devil comes from.”  The elder shook his head.  “Strange religion.” 

I was now standing next to Daniel in the back of the church, looking at the volunteers in the pews.  I told Daniel I found his words about church workers difficult to hear.  I told him I had served twenty years as a Catholic lay minister in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and a university campus.  I’d worked with Indians, like the Ojibwa of Northern Wisconsin.  I’d worked with AIDS, alcoholism, abuse, gunshots, suicides and dead babies.  I told him I knew there were problems with the churches: patriarchy, overzealous missionaries, insensitivity.  But that I thought most of those people meant well, had good hearts and really believed they were doing good work.  That I thought I had done good work.

Daniel listened.  He didn’t make a single gesture of agreement or disagreement as I spoke.  When I finished we stood a while longer in the silence of the rebuilt church: an Indian, a white man and the charred baptismal font of an old mission church.  Then Daniel told me he had attended an Indian school himself.  That he had been sent there as a young boy and never learned the Lakota language.  “I only heard Lakota when my parents spoke it to each other, never to me,” he said.  Daniel said he moved off the reservation for years.  Then in 1973 the Wounded Knee “II” incident IMG_3885erupted: Oglala and AIM activists protesting corrupt tribal government and U.S. treaty failures occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days, exchanging gunfire with FBI agents and U.S. Marshalls.  Several people on both sides were killed.  The televised news electrified American Indians, who were inspired by the sight of their people standing in defiance of the government which had so often failed them.  “All of a sudden it was, ‘Hey man, you’re Indian,” said Daniel.  “Be proud.  You need to be more Indian.’  People were telling me I needed to speak Lakota but I didn’t know how.”  He shook his head.  “I didn’t know who to be.”  

Daniel turned his head and looked at me with one eye under the brim of his Re-Member cap.  “You know,” he said, “I still don’t know who I am.  I got Indians telling me I’m not Indian enough, and then I walk into a store off the Rez and the white people all turn their heads to stare at me.”  He smiled.  “They’re like owls you know: they can turn their heads all the way around!”  We laughed at that.  I mentioned a young priest I had seen earlier, right outside the church with a group of joking Lakota teenagers.  I said I believed that priest thought he was doing a good thing, working with the youth.  But Daniel said, “See, that’s the thing.  You can translate the whole Bible into Lakota, but its still the Bible.  Its not our religion.  Its not our ways.” 

And I finally got it.  As much as a white man in my shoes could, perhaps.  That for many Lakota, the historical experience is not simply being forced off homelands at gunpoint to make room for unwanted railroads, settlers and religion.  It was the experience of a relentless, systematic pattern, enforced by the U.S. military, to eradicate Indians from the entire American vision.  Ethnic IMG_1177cleansing.  Genocide.  And it was nearly accomplished: the Indian population in 1792 was estimated at 10 million; by 1892 the population had dropped to 350,000.  During the Spanish mission period in California 3 of every 4 coastal Indians died.  From 1830 to 1850 over 90,000 eastern Indians were relocated to reservations in the west: 4000 Cherokee alone dying on the Trail of Tears; 3500 Creeks dying on the journey in Alabama, and on and on.  “Pine Ridge was officially listed as POW camp number 334 by the U.S. military,” said one of our speakers.  “And we’re still living in a POW camp.” 

Hard to argue that point.  Pine Ridge today has the worst poverty and the shortest life expectancies in the Western hemisphere short of Haiti: 47 years for males and 52 years for females.  Infant mortality is five times the U.S. average; the adolescent suicide rate is four times the national average.   Alcoholism affects 85% of families.  Per capita annual income on Pine Ridge is 6200 dollars.  “We basically have no economic infrastructure on the reservation,” said one speaker.  Another said he could not live on Reservation land he holds legal title to because it was within the Badlands National Park boundaries.  “I go to visit my family’s land and I get stopped by a Park ranger with a gun asking me how long I intend to be up there.” 

Let’s stop at this point in the Pine Ridge/Indian story.  This is about the place where people (like me) change the channel or send a money donation to help those unfortunate people on their reservation.  In either case missing the point that its our own government, our own collective ambition and taxes that created and now maintain the three hundred ten Indian reservations across the United States.  Out of sight, and out of consciousness.  You will not find IMGP1731Pine Ridge mentioned in the tourist brochures for nearby Black Hills water parks, Reptile Gardens and gold mining museums. How many Americans on their way to Wall Drug or Mount Rushmore even notice the I-90 exit signs for Pine Ridge Indian Reservation?  How many actually visit  this remnant of the Lakota nation, still larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined (not to mention the nearby Rosebud, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River and other Lakota reservations)?

My experiences on Pine Ridge got me thinking about the “reservations” we all are subject to.   Not just reservations bounded by cattle fences and U.S treaties.  But reservations in the mind, bounded by consensus belief systems: social, economic, racial, religious… the whole self-enforcing cultural grid we live in.  Although you cannot see your own virtual “Rez” (and your psyche will resist your questioning it), it is possible to feel its barbed fence lines from time to time.  IMGP0566 Whenever you are not free to follow your heart in some new direction, relationship, spiritual path or opportunity.  When fears arise in your mind that stop forward movement on a dream: fear about what your partner would do, what friends would say, your social status, upsetting the boss, loss of income, being alone… These are the barbed wires of the belief system enclosing your personal Rez.  That’s the mind Rez.  It’s what we call fear-based living, in my shamanic study and practice. 

In my case, I struggle to get off the “educated, middle-class white male” reservation.   The white male Rez is particularly hard to see because Western society is organized to protect and justify it beyond question.   The only way for an educated white male to get a glimpse of its fence wires is to get stuck by a few of the barbs himself. 

My first experience of being confined by the white male belief system was in law school in the 1980s.  I had decided at the end of my three years of hard training and passing the Oregon bar exam that I didn’t want to practice law.  The silence from my friends and family was deafening: an utter no comprendo.   “But that’s a good profession/You’re about to make a lot of money!”  sums up their reaction.  I couldn’t imagine enduring an entire career just for the money.  But my peers and parents disapproved, even after I found happiness and satisfaction (and a spouse) in my new field of much lower-paying ministry work.  This experience of the hollow expectations of my class was startling and painful, as if I had stumbled into an unseen fence in the dark when I thought I was on open land.

In 1996 my wife and I moved from a “nice” middle-class neighborhood to our current inner city neighborhood.  The move seemed smart to us on several fronts: houses were OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAso inexpensive in the inner city we could get a bigger house on a huge lot, pay it off in several years and be debt-free.  The neighborhood was conveniently located close to work, church, grocery and downtown; we could sell one car, walk or bicycle with the kids to destinations, burn less gas and gain fitness.  But my friends and church peers seemed deeply disturbed by this plan.  “There’s no resale value there.”  “Aren’t you concerned about the girls’ safety?”  “Don’t you want the kids to go to good schools?”  Even our realtor, a white woman, sat me down and said, “Jeff, consider Regina’s welfare.”  All white code words, I realized, for fear of black people and the poor.  I was about to go off the white reservation!  Into the jungle!  And take an innocent white woman and her children with me!  This was a deeply alienating experience from my own ‘tribe’, a polite shunning by educated and surprisingly fear-based people I would have expected better of.

The last evening on Pine Ridge, our volunteer group was invited to share a gift we each had received during the week, and a gift we’d like to return.  I said I had received two big gifts.  One was a shift of heart from pity for the visible Rez poverty and social issues, to admiration and outright envy for the unseen yet vibrant Lakota spirituality all around us.  Their sacred, earth-honoring ways, inextricably connected with nature and all living creatures, reach far beyond humans and human institutions.  We have forgotten this way, in America.  My second gift was from Daniel.  When he shared his own identity confusion and the admonishments from Lakota peers to “get with the Indian program”, I instantly identified with his struggle.  Not as a Lakota, of course, but as a man who had also been stuck between my own belief systems,  among my own “people”.  Who am I?  Where do I fit in?  For a few IMGP1134moments, we slipped through the battle lines of our ancestors and onto holy land of shared compassion.  Just two ordinary men, trying to make our way among the obstacles of life. 

The one gift I’d like to return to Pine Ridge, if I could, would be some kind of great vision from inside their own hearts. A vision for healing, for power and for a way forward.  A vision that would help shift their story from being victims of the U.S. government, church missionaries and beer industry into a thriving nation fully aligned with the deep heart of Lakota spiritual heritage. And somehow finding the best means to do this. As we were reminded during our week, poverty is not lack of money. It is the lack of opportunity and outside investment.

I drove back across the Great Plains in silence, over the Missouri, then on to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. As I passed through  the unnatural sameness of all the genetically modified corn, wheat and soybeans I tried to imagine these lands as they once were: covered by mixed and shortgrass prairie, countless buffalo and diverse animal, bird and insect species. There’s not much wildlife out there now, in the cornrows.  The rabbits, birds, bugs and worms are missing: decades of herbicides and insecticides have seen to that.

As the sun was setting I came upon a plantation of wind turbines scattered across the plains.  I pulled off to the IMGP1873shoulder, shut off the engine and gazed at these modern giants as their long white blades cartwheeled in a silent ballet.  After dark, only the red marker lights could be seen in a long line of red eyes atop each tower, pulsating in unison.  On.  Off.   On.   Off.   What were they signaling?  Was it a code talker from the ancestors?  Or a plea for assistance to the ancestors?  Help them.  Slow Down.  Pay attention.  To the Earth. 

I pulled back onto the highway with the big irony still cartwheeling in my heart: I had just spent a week with human beings few Americans ever think about, yet these same people hold a sacred  memory of living in balance with nature that could help save our planet.

Exit 131, the Pine Ridge exit off Interstate 90, is a magical exit. Its a shaman’s portal to the past, among the living, that can shapeshift and bless the future.

* * *

I returned to Pine Ridge the following summer and wrote another story you can read here, Where The Heart is Hidden in Plain View.

I’ll be leading a group of volunteers back to Pine Ridge Reservation August 4-8, 2017. If you’d like to join me on the trip, you can read more about it and register on my website at greatplainsguide.com.

Thanks for reading this today.  Do share with a friend.  Read others’ comments by clicking the “Thoughts” link below.  I welcome your own comment in the box you’ll find at the end of all the others.

53 Thoughts.

  1. What moving writing! My husband and I are professional leather workers/saddlemakers. We have done numerous projects overseas and would now like to volunteer here. We offer 1-2 week classes to teach saddle repair and leather work (belt making, etc) that is marketable. Any suggestions or leads for us? Thanks and Happy Holidays, Lisa

    • Hello Lisa,
      Cool last name you have 😉 The volunteer coordinator for the Re-Member volunteer organization I worked with is a wonderful soul and horse-woman named Paula Sibal. Do contact her via email at trips@re-member.org and see if she has idea. She knows LOTS of good people on the Rez. Say hi for me! Good luck, and best to you in connecting your talent with the Lakota people. I’m also thinking the schools (high school) and Lakota College on the Rez as possible leads for you. Ask Paula about that 🙂

  2. Hi Jeff,
    just discovered this post, and found it a type of sacred ground. I live in Melbourne, Australia. Am coming to the states for a conference towards the end of March 2016. The only place in the US that I have ever really wanted to visit is Pine Ridge. So I found your article very timely. There really doesn’t seem to be much on the net about Pine Ridge for starters, and secondly, to have you writing about the spirituality of your time there felt like I had lucked in!
    I am just going to be there for a couple of days before I have to head back to Australia, and will be visiting 3 schools. However, if you can put me on to anyone with whom I can spend some time learning or even to guide me, I would be very grateful!
    Thanks,
    Martine

    • Hello Martine, thank you for your comment. Sorry about my delay- I didn’t catch this until today. Delighted you are heading to Pine Ridge. I would recommend you contact the volunteer coordinator for the Re-Member program I volunteered with for ideas about who to contact for a short visit. Her name is Paula Sibal, and her contact info is: trips@re-member.org. There is also a good visitor center with guide(s) at the Red Cloud Indian School, Heritage Center. Info: The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School. Have a wonderful visit. It will break your heart, and open your heart at the same time <3

      100 Mission Drive
      Pine Ridge, South Dakota 57770
      605/867-8257
      heritagecenter@redcloudschool.org.

    • Hello Martine Wakeham – I live in Australia too and as an early childhood educator I wonder how I can be of service to this community. I wonder if you did end up going and if you could share your experiences. Thank you.

  3. My two adult grandchildren and two teenage grandchildren are passionate about mission work on pine ridge reservation after researching. We our not religious but are very spiritual. The only short trips available seem to be religion based. Is there anyway you would be able to point me in the right direction with contact information for an experience similar to the one you described. I was truly enlighten by your article. Thank you. Good thoughts, Marie

    • Hello Marie,
      Truly sorry about my long-delayed reply- I only now saw your comment. I’m taking another group out to Pine Ridge this Aug. 4-8, 2-17 if you are still interested. See the “Programs” tab on my website for more information at http://www.greatplainsguide@gmail.com. Hope that helps! -Jeff

  4. Dear Jeff, loved reading your heartfelt rendering of your journey to the Pine Ridge Rez through the auspices of Re-member. I am wanting to celebrate my 80th birthday with a volunteerism experience/family reunion/80th birthday celebration. Because of experiences in Guatemala helping improve lives with people living at and on the garbage dump in Escuintla, Guatemala through ER ABROAD and Buildinguate.org, and experiences with Fathom Impact Travel in the Dominican Republic I have felt a kind of deep soul satisfaction that is hard to explain. I would like to bring that kind of experience to my family as part of my legacy to them. I cannot explain the depths of my horror at what we have done to Native Americans both past and present. Our true history has been painful to learn and I hardly know anything. I would like my family to understand some of this story and meet real living Native people and hopefully form some kind of connection and commitment to them. I am looking for a way to do this. And am looking into Re-member as a possible vehicle toward my purpose. I would like a week in which as a family we would build a house. I am also looking into Habitat for Humanity for such an experience. What might be your ideas on this plan? In my immediate family I now have 41 members. Quite a squad!!!! Ages 50s to Great Grandson almost 2 years old. I would love to hear from you. Blessings, Kate

    • Greetings, Kate- I am truly sorry for the long-delayed response, I only now found your comment, so thank you for that. I am taking another group out to Pine Ridge this Aug. 4-8, 2017 if you are still interested. Otherwise Re-Member is a fine program, and there are others to be aware of, like Trees, Water, People serving with Lakota Solar on the reservation; Earth Tipi- a family run sustainable food and housing program; The Tipi Raisers. Check these out (google them and you’ll get the info). – Jeff

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *