In worship on Sunday, the nine of us who traveled to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a week of cultural immersion and construction had the opportunity to share some of our pictures and stories. It is incredibly difficult to summarize that trip, the things we learned, the things we did, and the impact it had on our lives, but I’m going to give it a shot.
First off, everyone always wants to know what we accomplished there (must be the Midwest Protestant work ethic). We all spent three days working on projects for the people of Pine Ridge. This included building and delivering bunk beds, digging holes and installing outhouses, constructing a wheelchair ramp, skirting trailers, installing stairs and small landings for people to get in and out of trailers safely, and weeding/debugging at the Renewable Energy Center. The work seemed almost minimal, but the stairs enabled people to have electricity installed in their trailers (the electric company wouldn’t put it in without a safe entry/exit). The skirting would save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for a family in heating costs. And, the beds may have been the first beds that some children, or adults, had ever had. There is a very long waiting list for these type of requests to be fulfilled. In fact, we were working on requests from 2013.
The deeply transformational part of the trip was the combination of learning the history of the reservation (you know, the stuff the history books don’t teach you), hearing their personal stories of poverty, struggle and rampant teenage suicide, and learning about their spirituality, values and traditions. The bottom line of all of it is that the white man intentionally destroyed an entire civilization and has taken no responsibility. Native Americans did not steal, lie, drink alcohol, or show violence toward their women or children, until the white man showed them how. Their culture and structure was matriarchal and circular, centered on the wisdom of the grandmothers, until the white man refused to speak to the women. Their spirituality taught them respect for all people and all of creation. They believed that the land was alive because it carried the spirits of their ancestors. They knew of the balance of creation and understood their interconnectedness to all things until the white man came and forbid them to speak their language or practice their spirituality.
From 1900 through 1978 the language, spirituality, traditions and rituals of the Indians were outlawed in the United States. Children were forcibly taken from their homes and put into boarding schools where their belongings were burned and they were beaten for speaking their native language. Their identity, honor and dignity was effectively stripped from them. Racism is alive and well against the Indian population. This is not ancient history.
We visited the Wounded Knee Massacre site of 1890 where hundreds of men, women and children were disarmed and then mercilessly murdered by the U.S. military. The sadness was palpable.
The government has broken every treaty it ever made with the Native Americans. For the Indians of South Dakota, these were crushing blows. First, the Indians were given the Black Hills as their land, but the ink had hardly dried when the government reneged because gold was found in “them thar hills!” So, they were placed in the plains just south of the Badlands, where there is little rain and agriculture is next to impossible. Then the white man killed off millions of buffalo in a vicious attempt to starve the Indians out of existence. This left no resources or opportunities to live off of for the Indians of Pine Ridge. And, to add insult to injury, the four presidents featured on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills all wanted the extermination of the Indian population.
The poverty is excruciating, the depression and despair is real, and the anger is understandable. But that is not the end of the story. Slowly, there are a few who are leading the return to their native values and beliefs. Elders are teaching the sacred stories and leading the ancient rituals. The hope is that this will help to heal their spirits. But the relationship with white people also needs to be healed. This is what we were a part of, working with the volunteer organization, Re-Member. We were there to grow in our own understanding of the situation and issues to gain compassion, recognizing our shared humanity, and walking with them as equals.
White elitism, manifest destiny and Christian superiority have done so much harm in the world. It is time humanity stopped being afraid of differences. There is so much beauty in the people and spirituality of the Indians. We have much to learn about them and from them.
We are all related,