A Land of Hope
March 3, 2008
Morning arrived with traditional Lakota music serving as the backdrop to the day. Re-Member staff make a point to remind participants not to set their own alarm clocks, as the soothing music is as much a signal to wake up as it is a mood-setting device for the day.
Outside, the temperature had plummeted overnight with the whipping winds gusting over the open terrain. The morning commenced with a group breakfast, and a session led by Tom McCann, the Executive Director of Re-Member. Saint Anselm participants were welcomed and given a full briefing on the day-to-day operations, and the unique challenges that come with operating Re-Member on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Following breakfast, the Saint Anselm group joined together with a smaller group from the University of Virginia who are also on site this week. The first order of the day was a reading of “the Wisdom of the Elders,” followed by the introduction to the story of Wounded Knee.
Participants then loaded into three vans for the short ride from the Re-Member headquarters to the Massacre of Wounded Knee site. Upon walking to the hilltop where the mass-grave and memorial marker are located, Tom completed his story, allowing several minutes thereafter for participants to walk quietly about the site.
Returning to Re-Member, an open discussion ensued. Participants questioned why there are two different versions of history - noting that in the experience of many, the story Tom told from the Lakota perspective is vastly different from that which they previously understood.
Conversation next turned to the challenges, and potential that exists on the reservation. The ensuing discussion focused on land issues, federal government oversight, and the engrained social habits that threaten so many Lakota people: abject poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Participants were told that in one recent study by a local chamber of commerce that most money earned on the reservation is spent within 48 hours of it’s receipt.
In recent history, the county that comprises the vast majority of the Pine Ridge Reservation was determined to be the poorest county in the United States. In the most recent census, Pine Ridge “fell” to third, as two other reservations essentially became poorer.
Average annual income here was determined to be approximately $4,000 with an unemployment rate between 80 and 90 percent. On a reservation that is comparable in size to the state of Connecticut, there is only one supermarket.
Following dinner, participants were treated to what many described as the highlight of their day: a visit from Minerva Blacksmith, a Lakota resident who shared her life story, and took questions from the group.The discussion ranged from hilarious to solemn.
When asked what the greatest challenge to the reservation is today, Minerva paused briefly, before discussing the growing division in Lakota culture. She noted that many Lakota are “losing touch with their spirituality and tradition,” noting that to sustain a strong community, “the Lakota need to live it, care for their spirit, and teach the children of the reservation to embrace their heritage.
In response to what brings the most hope to the reservation, Minerva responded it would be the possibility to educate the youth. Half of the population is recorded as being under the age of eighteen, but on any given day, absenteeism at reservation schools can be over 50 percent. Regardless, Minerva expressed great hope in both traditional schooling, and the immeasurable benefits of mentoring.
As the day concluded, participants took time for themselves: reading, playing group games and exchanging laughter. The sun fell over the horizon and the wind calmed. With a clearing sky outside, stars speckled the vast sky. Inside, the group took time to reflect on their experience thus far… and to anticipate what is to come in the days ahead.
Additional photos are available on our Flickr photo sharing site.