When I was accepted into the AmeriCorps program at Red Cloud Indian School in Porcupine, SD, all I knew about Native Americans was the whitewashed story of the first Thanksgiving, how “Indians” and settlers gathered around to celebrate the harvest. Sure, we read about the Trail of Tears in high school, but my education about Native Americans was completely sanitized.
I was hit with such culture shock when I arrived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in August 2000. I lived in Paris for a summer and had no problem fitting into that culture. But in Porcupine, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. For six months, I kept asking myself, “Is it May yet?” I couldn’t wait for the school year to end and return to the real world. I heard of the Pine Ridge Reservation referred to as a third-world nation: it wasn’t until I lived and worked there that I understood why.
I returned to Weymouth, MA, at Christmas, and upon returning to Porcupine, something changed. I became enamored with the culture of the Lakota people. I could see through the poverty, substance abuse, and unconscionable domestic and sexual abuse our students and families experienced: I could see and appreciate the absolute beauty of the Lakota culture. I attended pow-wows and listened to elders speak about the history of the Lakota people. I poured everything in my heart and soul into educating the students of Pine Ridge.
People have told me it was so nice of me to give back to people living on the margins. I always replied, “I have gotten back way more than I ever gave, and the students and the families saved my life and gave me a life.” A one-year commitment turned into a twenty-year journey of a lifetime on the “rez.”
I could talk to you about the heinous atrocities committed against Native Americans:
- 1492 – Columbus “discovers” the New World;
- 1493 – Pope Alexander VI writes the Doctrine of Discovery, stating that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” The Doctrine emboldened Europeans to take over the New World with justification;
- 1830 – The Indian Removal Act – Following Thomas Jefferson’s lead, Andrew Jackson pushed all eastern natives west of the Mississippi River, claiming 20 million acres of land for the federal government;
- 1838 – The Trail of Tears – President Martin Van Buren forces the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creeks from their land by foot, often in chains, to their new home on the reservation. The last holdouts of Cherokee were forced to leave their land and walk to the reservation: a 1,200-mile journey where thousands died;
- 1868 – The Treaty of Fort Laramie – The Black Hills were given back to the Sioux until 1874, when Gen. George Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills accompanied by miners. Once miners found gold, the US Army pushed the Sioux out. The Treaty was broken;
- 1887 – “Kill the Indian and save the man” – Native Americans were shipped off to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their language, their hair was cut short, and they were deprived of their customs, native clothing, and beliefs. Thus began decades of unspeakable atrocities, no more chilling than the recent discovery of the remains of 215 bodies in a mass grave at a Canadian Government Boarding school.
To this day, Native Americans face insurmountable challenges. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the health and well-being reality is that:
- The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the United States national average;
- Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease occur in epidemic proportions on Pine Ridge;
- Native Americans’ rate of amputations related to diabetes is three to four times higher than among the general United States population;
- Death rates due to diabetes among Native Americans are three times higher than among the general United States population;
- Unhealthy diets and lack of exercise are two main contributing factors behind these high numbers, even though in the early history of the Lakota, diabetes was virtually unknown;
- Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the lowest in the United States—twenty years less than communities just 400 miles away—and on par with the countries of India, Sudan, and Iraq.
The economic reality is that:
- Eighty percent of residents are unemployed;
- Forty-nine percent of residents live below the federal poverty line;
- Sixty-one percent of residents under 18 live below the poverty line;
- The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is in Oglala Lakota County, where its per-capita income makes it the second poorest county in the United States, at $6,286;
- If the Oglala Sioux Tribe were to equally disperse revenues from the Prairie Wind Casino to all enrolled tribal members, each resident would receive $.15 per month.
While living among the Lakota I received a new education about the real history of Native Americans. While working with students and families dealing with the realities of life on the rez, I was able to witness, over twenty years, a rebirth of sorts among the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Lakota language started coming back stronger and stronger. Lakota language immersion schools began to form, and at Red Cloud, classes started in kindergarten and now go through middle school. Parents were getting more educated and finding jobs. Our students were going off to colleges and universities and coming back to affect change on the reservation. When I first arrived in 2000, if you got educated, you stayed away from the reservation.
We celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, AKA, Native American Day, because Columbus didn’t “discover” this land; he just got lost. This land was already discovered. Native Americans have impacted culture in so many ways and it was whitewashed from the history books for years. Now we have a day, and a month, to celebrate these lost cultures and their revitalization. Though the fight for dignity, respect, and a better way of life continues to this day, by celebrating and acknowledging Indigenous People and our Native Americans, we can open our eyes to a culture that respected the earth, protected their people, and lived for one another.
(Photo Credential: Red Cloud Indian School)