March 7, 2008
Thursday was tour day for the group.
Loading into the Re-Member bus, the team had high spirits after two days of service, and five days of learning on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The family dinners, group seminars and months of preparation on campus had prepared individuals as best as could be expected…but being on the ground, connecting faces to the stories, and seeing life here first hand brings new context to the experience.
This week, students went outside their comfort zone; they experienced anger, hope, disbelief and pride. They saw things, heard things, and did things for which no one could prepare. Yet, they leave with an overwhelming sense of hope, diminished only by the desire that they could have done more while they were here.
Someone who had never picked up a power tool was sanding square edges on plywood minutes later. Drywall repair became a trade skill. Building, and installing an outhouse door became possible. The group learned about themselves, their peers, their understanding of American history, and their ability to make a difference. They will always remember.
Driving through Pine Ridge on Thursday and looking down side streets with windowless homes, junked cars, and trash-strewn sidewalks, it was easy to forget we were in the middle of the United States. In fact, this experience was set in the middle of Pine Ridge, the service center of the reservation, where the only hospital, the only supermarket, and many of the only public services are available for an area roughly the size of Connecticut.
We will all remember the names, the faces, and the stories that have been relayed to us while we were here. We will remember the work that was done, and the hope of the Lakota people. We will remember the family in Porcupine with a new door for their outhouse, and we will remember Kevin, and his overwhelming perseverance to do whatever it took to feed his family.
We will remember the staff here: Tom, Phil, Jerry, Jerome, Theresa, Abby and Vicki - all of whom went out of their way to make our time here memorable and comfortable. Whether it was waiting up until after 1 a.m. to welcome the group upon it’s arrival, to boiling another pot of water for hot chocolate, or offering personal reflections and stories during times of emotional unrest…we will never forget their antics, their companionship and the empowerment they offered.
Today we depart Pine Ridge, but we will always have a piece of this reservation with us. From the incredible panoramic views at the Badlands, to the incredible stories we were told, we will always carry these pictures and words with us; we will always remember.
On Friday, the group will depart the Pine Ridge Reservation en route to Mount Rushmore, before returning to Rapid City in advance of their return to Saint Anselm College on Saturday.
March 6, 2008
Spring Break Alternative participants woke up this morning with a roof over their head, a mattress under their body heat to warm them, and a full breakfast waiting to be consumed. For many on Pine Ridge Reservation, this was not the case.
Morning activities were curtailed due to weather conditions, as the snowstorm of yesterday left roads too dangerous for travel this morning. Overnight, a biting wind whipped snow horizontally across the open land, as the temperature plummeted into the teens.
Bunk bed assembly continued through the morning, along with a special project: the building of a new door for the outhouse that had been relocated the day before at a residence in the community of Porcupine. Several students took it upon themselves after the day’s work to take meticulous measurements of the opening - and approached the Re-Member staff at the conclusion of the day to inquire on the possibility of building the door, and returning to the site to install it.
Under a crisp blue sky, and a blanket of fresh white snow, the team of Saint Anselm students constructed the door carefully. The workshop was abuzz with the whirr of power sanders and circular saws as others continued the task of assembling the components for beds.
Following lunch, the groups split up to best utilize the afternoon. One van returned to Porcupine to install the door, and finish work inside the house. Others remained at Re-Member, helping staff with an inventory of building supplies and other odd-jobs around the workshop.
Your blogger followed the crew back to the Porcupine house, and watched as they carefully installed the door. Outside for two-plus hours in the cold, the door was carefully hung, and subsequently covered in a coat of fresh white paint.In the center of the door was inscribed a Lakota saying: Mitakuye Oyasin. Translated in English, this phrase means “we are all related.”
As darkness settled over the hills, and as the group transitioned into their evening with board games and the opportunity to work on native crafts, a man who introduced himself as Kevin rolled into Re-Member in his wheelchair.
Kevin came to Re-Member to offer his artwork and crafts for sale. As he laid charcoal paintings out onto the tables, he informed the group that he was selling his works for as close to forty dollars as anyone could offer. A few students sat down to talk with him, and learned that he was down and out. His situation was bleak, and it was learned that he had hitchhiked some ten miles in his wheelchair on snow-covered roads to offer his work for sale. Several participants purchased his works, everyone marveled at them.
As Kevin prepared to leave, he was offered a van ride back to his home in the community of North Ridge. Accepting the offer, he asked on the ride home to stop at the only grocery store on the reservation - Lakota Nation in the village proper of Pine Ridge.
The following recounts the experience of bringing Kevin home, as told by the group that accompanied him:
Driving into his community, stray dogs ran loose in the streets. Houses were sprayed with graffiti, many houses appeared dark from the outside. A number of residences were boarded up, abandoned and partially collapsed or in extreme disrepair.
With grocery bags in hand, the front door of Kevin’s house was opened. Inside light bulbs flickered with an unsteady flow of electricity. A small heater sat in the middle of the room, responsible for heating the whole first floor of the house. Clothing, dirty dishes and trash littered the countertops, furniture and floors. Seven children were inside the house with their mother.
As the grocery bags were carried in, the kids tore at the plastic to get into the food. With grace, Kevin introduced his family, his wife, and his newborn child.
Kevin came ten-plus miles in the snow and cold to Re-Member with no promise that anyone would purchase his artwork. He engaged the group in conversation for upwards of an hour, and was prepared to hitchhike back to Pine Ridge to buy what he could carry to feed his family.
Last night, Kevin and his family had food in their home — in part — because a group of students from Saint Anselm College came to South Dakota for their spring break, and bought his artwork. The unimaginable was verified yesterday.
In Kevin’s home, and in a grocery store that offers meat scraps for sale, and a sparse selection of fruit and vegetables the stark reality of Pine Ridge Reservation became grossly apparent.
Additional photos are available on our Flickr photo sharing site.
March 5, 2008
Today’s experience exceeds the means of written and visual communication.
Participants of the spring break Trip to South Dakota were told before they left that this trip would change their lives. They were told they would see things and do things that were beyond their comprehension…Today, that happened.
No longer was the Lakota life observed from behind the glass of a van passing on the highway. No longer were the statistics and second-hand stories the basis of understanding the challenges of living as Lakota.
Shortly after 9 a.m., four Re-Member vans pulled up to a house in the community of Porcupine. From the outside of this residence, many in the vans noted that this house appeared, at first glance, to be in better condition than many other homes observed along the route we have previously traveled.
A dog house sat in the yard, with three small pups residing inside. In the field to the right, an abandoned car with a collapsing roof and broken windows interrupted the natural landscape. Behind the house, precariously perched on an embankment, sat a small wooden shed, that was soon learned to be the outhouse of the residence.
Inside the home, single-pane windows were covered in plastic from the outside, with sheets, towels, and blankets providing an extra buffer from within. One electrical outlet behind the living room couch featured exposed wiring that reportedly smoked from time to time. On the kitchen counter, and in a back hallway, dozens of water jugs sat on the floor.
The house had no functional plumbing.
Work commenced: drop cloths were laid out on the floor, spackle was apportioned, and the volunteers were given a crash course in drywall repair.
Outside, others collected shovels, and began to dig a new pit upon which the outhouse would be relocated. A light rain that had been falling transitioned to snow.
For the next three hours, work continued at an incredible pace. Re-Member staff tended to electrical concerns while volunteers spackled and painted in unison. Large holes were tended to with great care, with a team of students tackling the job of cutting new drywall to fill one particuarly large gap.
Outside, the pit became deeper than SBA’ers could handle from the surface. In the developing mud, they jumped down into the hole to dig further. When the time came to relocate the outhouse from its original position to the new hole, the entire Saint Anselm crew came outside and into the snow to lend a hand.
Overcoming an unbearable stench and the visual of a pit full of refuse, the crew orchestrated the movement of the structure some fifty feet. As rotting lumber fell away from the footings, and the snow whipped nearly horizontally, the outhouse was lowered onto the new pit.
The young daughter of the homeowner appeared outside as the crew began to troubleshoot how to rebuild the floor. With a smile on her face, and a gas station slurpie cup in her hand, she picked up a shovel and helped place dirt around the perimeter of the structure.
As departure time neared, and cleanup began inside the house, a final touch was added to the outside facility. A scrap of carpet was placed onto the muddied floor at the base of the wooden seat.
It was this touch of home that inspired the homeowner to speak with the Re-Member staff who were on site, her words: who are these people, and where are they from - how can I repay them for coming here?
The answer provided by Theresa High Horse, one of the Re-Member staff: they are college students, they are from all over, and they have come all this way to help you.
The group would later learn that the homeowner is the daughter of Theresa.
On the schedule for Wednesday: Continued service work in the communities of Porcupine and Kyle.
Additional photos are available on our Flickr photo sharing site.
March 4, 2008
Waking at 6 a.m. Monday, the sun was just cresting the horizon with the fiery colors offsetting the bleak and dreary surroundings of the pre-spring terrain. Inside Re-Member, the group rose and was seated for breakfast. Shortly thereafter, work groups formed and headed into the workshop to work on one of Re-Member’s signature programs: building bunk beds.
Following an “orientation to power tools” seminar, the workshop literally began to buzz with activity. Lumber was measured and cut, following well-tested specifications. Re-Member has assembled and delivered some 2,500 beds to the Lakota people since forming. With a backdrop of rolling hills set against a deep blue sky, many participants focused on sanding down the wood. Laughter permeated the constant buzz of power tools, and in short time, a number of frames had been completed.
Following lunch, the group loaded into Re-Member’s bus for the 45 minute ride to Badlands National Park. For many participants, this was the first real view of the reservation - as they had arrived under the cover of darkness on Saturday night.
During the initial drive, many commented on the overwhelming darkness of the area. Baring a smattering of streetlights illuminating the yards of some houses, it seemed there was certainly nothing else to be seen.
With the veil of darkness removed, reality became apparent. No more than 25 feet off the roadway were abandoned vehicles, stripped of all reusable materials. A child-sized bicycle was left on its side, next to a deceased dog. Houses, many with boarded up windows, and front yards full of refuse, and unserviceable vehicles dotted the landscape.
Upon arrival at the Badlands, the group piled out of the bus and moved into the barren landscape. Massive geological formations rose high above as they walked about on the porous clay. After scaling a small ridge, the group was treated to a view that provided an overwhelming panoramic view, a perfect opportunity for several group photos.
Taking time for personal reflection, the group fell silent while in a natural basin. Where only the sound of the wind whipping through the landscape could be heard. Following a streambed back to the barbed wire fence through which the group had entered, cameras snapped a few final photos. Several individuals took time to break away from the group, enjoying a private moment to process their surroundings.
On Tuesday’s schedule: The group will travel to worksites on the reservation. Extensive remedial work is planned on existing structures for the full workday.
Follow Spring Break Alternative -an introduction to our student reporter
Additional photos are available on our Flickr photo sharing site.
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.
March 3, 2008
The following events summarize the first day of Spring Break Alternative 2008.
12:30 p.m. E.S.T. - The “SoDak” SBA group met at the Romero Center in Lower Cushing Center for a last minute overview of what to expect in the day ahead. As other groups departed, some delayed by weather, busy SoDak’ers took time to send each group off into the snow.
2:30 p.m. E.S.T. - On Interstate 93 en-route to Boston Logan Airport - After filling a hallway with luggage, SBA South Dakota loaded into two white passenger vans for the drive to Boston, chauffeured by Campus Ministry Director, Sue Gabert, and two SBA-Maine participants.
3:50 p.m. E.S.T. - Boston Logan Airport - During check-in at the Northwest Airlines ticket counter, SoDak encountered a contingent of - who would have guessed - Saint Anselm College faculty on their way to Rome. After causing minor chaos to the ticket counter staff with our large group, we were off to the security checkpoint, where we said good bye to Sue.
4:40 p.m. E.S.T. - Boston Logan Airport - The group is now awaiting the boarding call for our flight to Minneapolis. Sitting in the concourse, we just watched two fellow Saint Anselm College students walk by on their way to their spring break destination: the Caribbean.
6:01 p.m. E.S.T. - In the skies over Boston, Mass. - As the sun sets over the city of Boston, our flight is off the ground and bound for Minneapolis, Minn. The group is spread throughout the plane, but from my seat I can see several participants reading, listening to music and napping. Group leaders, Kristen and Sarah, report they have been awake nearly 48 hours at this point, with only short naps to keep them going.
8:06 p.m. C.S.T. - In the skies over Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. - As we prepared for landing, our flight crossed over the Mississippi River and expansive suburbs of the Twin Cities on our final approach to the airport. A row behind me, English Professor Denise Askin, who is accompanying this trip as a participant, was paging through a copy of Black Elk Speaks, an account described as “a book of visions of an American Indian Black Elk” as told by author John Neihardt. At Saint Anselm, Askin offers a freshman course in English called “Native American voices” and was invited to join with the group for the trip.
8:45 p.m. C.S.T. - From Terminal F of MSP - Students have made a beeline for a quick bite to eat during our layover in Minneapolis. Showing their culture, a majority of the students returned with sushi, salads, and sandwiches rather than something fried. Boarding has just been announced for the final leg of our flight to Rapid City, South Dakota.
9:25 p.m. C.S.T. - In the skies over Minneapolis - We are “wheels up” from Minneapolis, en-route to Rapid City. As the plane banks away from Minneapolis, the partially filled cabin is full of chatter from Saint Anselm students conversing amongst themselves, and making friends with other passengers. During the longer flight from Boston to Minneapolis, a number of the flying public clearly became quite familiar with this trip, as more than once students were wished good luck and encouraged to make the most of their experience upon deplaning.
9:38 p.m. C.S.T. - In the skies over southwestern Minnesota - The flight deck just informed the passengers of Northwest Flight 1203 that the current temperature in Rapid City is 64 degrees at 8:39 p.m. local time. For a group that had its trip departure delayed by a snowstorm earlier in the day, this is nothing short of amazing!
10:20 p.m. M.S.T. - In the parking lot of the Rapid City, South Dakota Airport - After a turbulent arrival, we picked up our luggage (it all made it!) and the group made final arrangements for the pending two-plus hour drive to Pine Ridge.
As we stepped outside to pack our four minivans parked curbside, we were greeted with tumbleweed blowing across the walkway. Clearing the side of the building, SBA SoDak received its welcome: the winds of the plains. Strong enough to not only whip everyone about, the gusts actually took several people off their feet, sending them tumbling into the nearby grass.
10:42 p.m. M.S.T. - On the road in Farmingdale, S.D. - After a long day of travel, unpredictable and out-of-control weather, and excitement, four vans are rolling south out of Rapid City en-route to Pine Ridge.
1:31 a.m. M.S.T. - Following a drive that took the group through the badlands - twice - the minivan convoy arrived at Pine Ridge. The highly regarded “Tom,” the Executive Director here at Re-Member, was at the front door to greet the leery-eyed travelers as they arrived. Following brief opening remarks, and a quick orientation of what to expect tomorrow (today now…) participants were sent on their way to unpack, settle into bunks and get a few hours of rest.
2:05 a.m. M.S.T. - Lights out - for a few hours. To the Saint Anselm Students, with the time change, it feels like shortly after 4 a.m.