Life on a reservation
A visit to the Badlands, Wounded Knee, and a deeper look at the circumstances of Native Americans
Last April, we were fortunate to see a presentation on how Native Americans have been portrayed in film by filmmaker Victoria Mudd at the Monadnock International Film Festival. The presentation was both inspirational and moving; it prompted us to investigate how we could become better educated about the conditions in which Native Americans live in our country. This led to booking a week-long volunteer trip at an organization called Re-Member on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The week started with some quiet reflection time in the small portion of the Badlands that is located on the outskirts of the reservation. The landscape was stark, hot, silent, and beautiful. The rest of the Badlands is on land that was taken from the reservation to become part of what has now become part of the United States National Park system.
Next, we visited the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. In December 1890, roughly 300 Native Americans of the Oglala Lakota tribe were slaughtered by the U.S. Cavalry and left dead on the frozen ground for three days before being buried in a mass grave. A modest monument stands as a memorial; ribbons tied to the cyclone fence that surrounds the mass grave blow in the breeze.
Most people on the reservation live in small trailers donated by FEMA. During the week, the group of 45 or so volunteers worked with Re-Member staff to participate in projects like building porches and stairs, handicapped ramps onto trailers for people unable to use stairs, bunk beds for children who did not have a place to sleep, and outhouses. Other projects included cultivating a community garden and insulating the base of trailers so that heating costs would be dramatically reduced.
Pine Ridge has the characteristics and statistics of a developing country. Poverty is severe, commerce almost non-existent, and unemployment extreme. Many homes are without running water or sewers, suicide rates are very high, and the life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States, second only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It was shocking to witness people in our country living in these conditions.
In the evenings in Re-Member’s community room we heard a variety of Lakota speakers describe their heritage as well as the challenges of the Lakota people. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes to the problems that they face. The issues are complex and the societal forces that helped to create them formidable. All this is underscored by the sad reality that many aspects of their traditional way of life will never return; the oppressive treatment that they have endured since the days of the early settlers has exacted irreparable damage. But there is hope that the beauty of the Lakota’s spiritual beliefs, language, customs, and deep connection to the earth can be reinvigorated and preserved.
The dried grasslands around us stretched for miles under a sky that was larger than anything we had ever seen. With temperatures that rise to 100 in the summer and well below zero in the winter, it can be a difficult land. Yet it is this land that holds the rich history of a people who were once intimately connected with it and which has been witness to changes as sweeping as its vistas.
Re-Member vehicles are well recognized around the reservation. It was surprising to us that Re-Member is one of a very few organizations that work to improve the quality of life of the Lakota people. Re-Member is not church-sponsored and has been serving the Lakota people since 1997, existing on donations and the good will of people. To find out more about Re-Member or to spend a week as a volunteer, go to: www.re-member.org.
Molly Ferrill is a freelance photographer, videographer, and writer. Lisa Murray is Molly’s mother and the Interim Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Franklin Pierce University.