Westward: Like the Setting Sun (part 4)


Sunlight plays peek-a-boo through the yellowed blinds, and shutters my body awake. I let out a silent groan thinking “I want to sleep,” but my mind keeps wandering to the day plans. I clamber out of bed to go fill my grumbling stomach with a bagel. Then Skyler, Ashley, and I go out to explore the grounds a little more. Behind the school we see a dome shaped green house and an old looking building with chipped white paint which is probably used as a storage shed. A couple yellow-orange buses are parked, with the words “Red Cloud Indian School Pine Ridge, South Dakota” gleaming in shiny black paint on the side, dried mud is splattered across the the bottom part.

DSC04253Being considerate of our time we play on the playground a bit before heading back towards our rooms so we could get started with the plans for the day. First on our agenda is to stain a deck and the skirting of a trailer for a local woman named Robin. In the previous year, the group had helped with fixing up the home, but it was a surprise to hear that she still had yet to actually move in.

After some time into our work, Robin comes by to introduce herself to us; her daughter and son-in-law, Daisy and Nolan, also come to visit along with their five children. We decide to take a break and have lunch together. Lola, one of the girls, is coloring with Ashely. Although she is super shy at first, soon her chipper personality bubbles out. After some time, we say our goodbyes and go back to finishing the little bit of work we had left. Then we head back to Red Cloud before our departure to the other school.DSCF4427

Painting horses, a Game of Ninja, and a Skateboard

I start out in the painting room again, and sit next to Twila. She doesn’t say much in the time she sits next to me, but I can tell that she is intrigued by my painting. I glide the paintbrush with brown paint over the paper, making curves and lines until at last I have a horse. I see her hand copying the same motions. Then I goop some black paint to make a mane and tail. She makes her paintbrush do the same. At last we both finish our bay horses, “Wow, that looks really good, Twila! You’re an artist!” A smile slithers across her face. I smile back.


We head to dinner, and then play a game of Ninja afterwards, a game that I have yet to master to this day. Then we shuffle off to play Bingo with the kids and some of their family members. I don’t win anything, which I am definitely ok with, because I would find it hard to decide on which kid I’d give the prize to. There is a young man sitting diagonally from me who gets a Bingo and wins a skateboard. He is super excited to be able to share it with his best friend.

A Hospital Far From Reach

 We travel to the one and only hospital on the reservation in Pine Ridge, and a lady who has been here for 11 years now gives us a tour and talks to us about the hospital. One hospital and two health care centers on 3,469 square miles of land. To put that in perspective, that’s one hospital and two health care centers for 3.32 Rhode Island’s, or 1.78 Delaware’s.

pine ridge
To put in perspective how far away each city is, here is a map with the three cities on the reservation marked in green as well as the proximity of where Rapid City would be.

As the lady is talking to us she mentions how there are two health care centers located in Kyle and Wanblee, and there is one ambulance being utilized because they are extremely short staffed. For some people, it can be a 2 hour trip to the hospital. The next nearest hospital is located in Rapid City another 2 hours away. It made me think of how we as Americans can easily take for granted what’s given to us, and quickly become oblivious to problems right in front of us. We’re too blessed and that has made us spoiled.

The more I hear the woman speak about her family and how much she actually enjoys her job and just wishes there were more people willing to help, the more my brain rattles on about how I have to come back. Someday.

To learn more about the Native American Health Services here.


Westward: Like the Setting Sun (part 3)


My phone buzzes me awake. It’s 6:30 a.m. I grumble as I turn over and get out of bed; I slowly get dressed to head out on a hike with Skyler.

We head outside, there a light powder of snow dusts the ground and rocks, and a chill clings in the air. I feel as if I never seen snow before! Skyler and I explore and wander for a good hour, and talk about life. It feels amazing to be out in the ‘mountains’ where time doesn’t matter.

We traverse back to the dining hall to begin our day, and get everything together for our week ahead of us. The van hauls us to Pine Ridge Reservation.
On the way, we spot several Bison on the side of the road, so we stop and gander at them.

Photo Credit:Brad Fischer

A School for Red Cloud’s Children

For the next few days we will be staying at Red Cloud, a K-12 “private” school (it’s really public, but works in a private school sense). The building is composed of old red clay brick, and has stood here for over a hundred years. Being built in the late 1800’s, it’s actually the oldest school on the Reservation. One part of the building has “face wall.” In front of the school stands a church, replicated from the church that burned down in prior years.

The “Face Wall”

On the school’s left and split between the road is a cemetery covered in old weathered gravestones, and yellowed grass dead from the winter and most likely unruly in the summer.There is a small fenced space reserved for Chief Red Cloud and his wife. Chief Red Cloud had a desire to build a school for the children, so he set out to do it. DSCF4351.JPG

A School, Kids, and a Fog

It’s around 2 p.m. when we arrive at the Pine Ridge Public School. Here the children stay throughout the week, and then go home on the weekend. We are going to set up board games, an area for painting, and we have some outdoor equipment ready to play with the children. It wasn’t too long after our arrival that we were given the distraught news about an 8th grade girl who committed suicide only three days earlier. Then it hit me, there is a musty fog in the air thickened with depression, and these kids are stuck in the midst of it all. They can’t escape as easily as we can, because the eleven of us are only here for three days.

I stick myself in the painting room because it is the one area I could easily work and make connections. I sit down at a table with a few young ladies who are making “R.I.P.” posters for the girl who committed suicide. It’s sad to see, but at the same time it’s good that they are coping and healing with the tragedy in a healthy way. I feel a connection with a girl named Tristiana, she is sweet and petite. Her straight black hair is a tad past her shoulders; her bangs are brushed to the side. Other group members make a bond as well    Skyler with Twila, Lacey with Diamond, Kim with Dillonte, and Ashley with Natalia and Mystic. Another girl named Espy made this amazing anime art piece    she truly has an amazing gift. DSCF4368.JPG

At dinner time Tristiana saves a spot for me. I ease myself into a seat next to her. I am really amazed with the children because they all finish their food; they are grateful for their food. We finish eating and then go back to continue our activities until it’s time to go. The end of our first day at the school is a success!

Ken the Volunteer

Back at Red Cloud, we are introduced to Ken, a volunteer of two years. He talks about his time that he’s spent here, and how he is a gym coach. He truly puts his heart in his job. I only wish that there was a more awareness of this treasurable place that is treated just as poorly as a third world country, and a deeper understanding of what it truly means to give time and love to our own brothers.

This trip, so far, is a real eye opener; it’s one thing to read articles about suicides, or about the poverty-stricken land, but to feel and breathe and live it is a deeper comprehension.

You can read more about the history of Red Cloud Indian School here.

Westward: Like the Setting Sun (part 2)


It’s a brisk and chilly walk towards the dining hall for our morning meal. I walk with a few of the students in my group, while some were still getting ready. I set myself down at a table next to Skyler probably my closest friend in the group. The rest of the group trickles in.

After we finish breakfast, we pack ourselves a sack lunch for our climbing adventure later that day. Then, Mary, Larry, and the eleven of us squeeze ourselves uncomfortably into the Great White Beast, who I decided to call Moby Dick. We set off for Rapid City to talk to Kristin, a Native American lady from Montana, and a local pastor; their goal is to inform us about Bear Butte and the prayer cloths that are found along the steep trail.

The interview process was nerve wracking. I was motioned to come in the interview room, and I plopped myself in a seat across from Ashley and another lady named Abby. Both ladies asked me questions such as what experiences I’ve had with children, what would I get out of this trip, how would I be an asset to the group, etcetera.  I fidgeted in my seat, peeling away my already peeled away cuticles      a nasty habit of mine because my hands always need to be doing something. My voice stuttered at times because my mind works faster than my mouth. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be deemed good enough for the group. Then all of a sudden two weeks went by and I got an email: “You’ve been accepted for the Alternative Spring Break Trip.” My lips slowly curl into a smile of excitement.

The Praying PlaceDSCF4297

Moby Dick takes us closer and closer to Bear Butte. Everyone is talking about this wonderful place and how it provides a sort of comfort to those praying. I’m filled to the brim with a sort of excitement because I’ve never gotten to go hiking before. Little did I know about the adventure that I was about to endure.

DSCF4301We arrived probably a little before noon, and were welcomed by many signs explaining the rules and a bit of history on this sacred place. Soon we set out on our quest towards the top. It’s a steep, rocky climb. My breathing soon becomes heavy. Everyone surpasses me, except Skyler who staggers behind with me. I remind myself that it’s not about winning a race, it’s about going as far as one is comfortable with. My goal is to make it at least halfway. My fear of heights is slowly starting to creep upon me.

“Everyone surpasses me…”

We hike about a mile before taking a short break for lunch and resting the weary legs. At this point, we’re approximately 3,500 feet. The view I got was not short of incredible and amazing. I was proud of myself for making it as far as I did, and accomplishing my main goal. The rest of the group hike onward to the top, while Skyler and I want to stay there and just admire the view before us. My phone had died earlier that morning, so I truly do not have a sense of time. It feels wonderful no not have to worry, and to feel like I am in a place where time does not matter.

bear butte4.jpg
“The view I got was not short of incredible and amazing!”                         Photo Credit: Brad Fisher

Once the group returns from the top, we all start our way back down. The descent is always easier and faster then the climb up, but nontheless it’s still a difficult climb. Rocks still clutter the same parts of the path, the ground lays uneven, and I’m still slow like molasses in January. “This is what many months of smoking does to a person.” Brad breathes heavily as he walks past me. I smile, having heard that phrase all too often. we finally make it back down to normal elevation, and thirteen tired adults squeeze themselves into Moby Dick as he roars to life with more energy than we have.

The incredible adventure on Bear Butte resembles my spiritual journey. It was a steep climb to get to where I am now, and sometimes I yearned to just turn around and go back down. If it’s one thing I learned, it’s easier to climb down than go up. But I’ve made it halfway, and I still have a lot of climbing to do.

Dancing to the Rhythm

We are welcomed by the Native Americans as we enter the big gymnasium. There we see many people getting ready and anticipating for a Pow Wow. I am engrossed as their feet keep to the beat of the drums. It’s so beautiful to watch.

pow wow3
Photo credit: Brad Fisher

Then we are invited to dance. I am extremely nervous, because I’m a very self conscious person. What if I screw up my footing and fall or run into someone? What if someone looks at me funny? But when I step out into the dancing circle I’m shown how to dance with my feet and keeping to the drums.

pow wow4
Photo Credit: Brad Fisher

As I’m going around the circle following other kids in my group, there are other dances going on around. It’s like being a part of an “organized chaos.” Women are doing their own thing, while children do a different dance, and then men will perform a more active dance. There is spinning, hopping, and gliding, and yet no dancers crash into one another. These individual dances create one beautiful melody. One rhythm. One beat. One Spirit.

After a few hours of watching and being a part of this amazing experience, we gather our tired selves and head back to Outlaw Ranch.

Westward: Like the Setting Sun (part 1)

Midnight. The outside is engulfed in a darkness that would make it next to impossible to see if it weren’t for the light pole that spilled an orange glow on the sidewalk. Midnight. The beast roars to life as ten students and the designated driver Brad squish themselves in the white oblong body. Minute past midnight–the beast begins to chug along. The journey begins. I take one last glimpse towards my school, momentarily wondering if this trip would truly be meaningful like I had promised myself it would be.

I saw the poster hanging on the big tackboard outside of my classroom. In big black bold letters: Want to go on an Alternative Spring Break? Then a few brief details about a service trip. South Dakota. Pine Ridge Reservation. Spring Break 2015. I ponder at the thought of going to a Native American Reservation. It sounds rewarding and like a once in a life time deal. But as I walk away my mind begins to clutter with Chemistry. 

The trip starts out a bit uneasy for me. I sit on the edge of a seat big enough for three, but really only comfortable enough for two. “What am I doing?” I question myself. Stoppit I yell at myself. This trip isn’t meant for me, it’s about those kids. “Hang on kids, please.” my mind wanders, “We’re coming.”

At the first stop I find myself moving to sit in between two other girls. Our journey goes on as we continue to drive on I-90. The darkness fades into a light haze.  Time goes by, pole after pole, tree by tree, cornstalk to cornstalk.

I day dream as I gaze outside. It’s flat. Cornfields claim the majority of land from the road to as far as I can see. And where the cornfields don’t touch, giant metal telephone poles claim. Silos show signs of where a farm resides, some are giant and silver, while others have that “old-style” look to them. New farms are planted with a bright painted barn, while the old farmsteads are laid out with an old and faded barn that is often broken with age. All I can think of the entire time is how peaceful it looks out here.

DSCF4242.JPGOur first stop in South Dakota is in Oacoma at a small diner combined with a store called Al’s Oasis. There we discover a giant bison statue across the street. There we take a first of many group pictures to come, and the selfies to follow. DSCF4229.JPG


A few days passed by, my mind was still occupied with Chemistry. School. Bills. Money. Work. I had a Spanish table talk thing that I needed to attend as part of my participation grade. I was nervous. I wasn’t good at talking to people especially in a language I was barely getting the hang of. So I sat down next to a girl I recognized earlier as the girl next to me in the coffee line. Her curly red hair touched her shoulders. Her personality bubbled out of her like a light bulb in a lamp. “Hola.” she said to me, “¿Comó te llamas?” I smiled and said, “Angel” and asked her what her name was. She replied that her name is Ashley. 

I bumped into Ashley again a few days later, but this time at the booth to promote the trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Her energy poured out of her and into me. Her enthusiasm gave me an itch to want to go. So I took the application with a plan to set out on a journey to the West. I didn’t know it at the time that the trip would shape me into more culturally diverse person. 

As we further Westward, our journey goes past the Badlands. DSCF4245.JPGWe stop and stretch our legs a bit. Filled to the brim with excitement, a few of the other students make their way to as close to the edge as they dare to venture. DSCF4258.JPGMeanwhile I try not to think about the possibility of what could happen if I were to fall. I almost miss the sign about rattle snakes.

It is about 5pm when we pull into the driveway of Outlaw Ranch. Our chaperons Mary and Larry greet us with warm, friendly smiles. They lead us to a dining hall where a light meal was waiting for us. Upon entering through the tan door, an aroma of soup and oatmeal bread overpowers me. My knees want to buckle, and my stomach lets out a grumble in response. We all willingly eat the first of many delicious and new dishes that are prepared for us.

After supper we are shown the way to where we are to be staying. We all scramble our way to unpack our luggage, and make our way to a bedroom of our liking. I pick the first bedroom I come to. There I find my friends Danielle, Rosie, and Lacey all unpacking their belongings. I was excited for the next upcoming week.

Life on the Rez: Third World Living

It was a hot Tuesday afternoon as I sat in the back of a van that was crammed with ten other students. The air was so thick that it was barely noticeable that the AC was on full blast. We bumped along on a road that would lead us to our destination—Pine Ridge Reservation.

Throughout our week long stay on the reservation, we were at a K-12 public school. There we spent time playing games or painting with several of the kids. We also spent one of the days doing some work for a local Native woman. She was so appreciative of the few hours we took painting her deck and trim around her house. While in South Dakota, there were certain parts of the trip that really pricked at my heart. I got a taste of how their lives are truly impacted by poor lifestyles. Employment, income, and life spans are one the low side of the spectrum, meanwhile diseases, suicide, and alcoholism rank high. Life on the reservation makes any Third World Country look like a high class society.

About the size of Connecticut, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has come in second place for being the largest in the U.S. Nearly 40,000 people call this reservation home, and roughly 35 percent, or 14,000 people, are younger than age 18 (Schwartz, 2006, Demographic Info). Approximately 80-90 percent of the people are unemployed (Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, n.d., Pine Ridge Statistics). If these percentages are based on a population of about 40,000, this is between 32,000 and 36,000 people who have no job. Schwartz adds that these numbers often times will increase during winter time because weather doesn’t permit easy travels (Employment Information).

Schwartz (2006) writes that the Reservation provides little opportunities for employment, as there is little industry or technology. With few employment options on Pine Ridge, oftentimes workers must turn to major cities off the Reservation such as Rapid City. Rapid City is located about 120 miles away (Employment Information). Generally, travel time could take a minimum of two hours. Even if there was a big city that was closer, Lee (2014) notes that most families lack decent cars or any form of transportation (Glimmers of Hope on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, para. 2).

Housing Conditions
A three bedroom house isn’t that bad to live in, but could you imagine sharing that space with sixteen other people? How many people would squeeze onto one bed? I could never imagine sleeping in my twin sized bed with more than one other person. According to Schwartz (2006), a home meant for three or four is often crammed with 17 people on average; sometimes 30 people can be found in a home built for eight. This is because family members will never turn down other family members in a time of need (Housing Conditions and Homelessness).

Having a basic roof over my head is a blessing, and in the winter time I can crank the heat as high as I want without worrying about it shutting off. Growing up we had a woodstove in the house, and always had plenty of trees to cut for firewood. Schwartz (2006) writes that on the Pine Ridge Reservation many homes are heated with ovens because propane can be expensive and wood can be tricky to come by (Housing Conditions and Homelessness).

I was also fortunate enough to be able to flick on a light and flush my toilet without much worry. Around 39 percent of homes are without electricity, while 33 percent lack a basic water and sewage system. Quite often families turn to local rivers which could be contaminated (Schwartz, 2006, Housing Conditions and Homelessness). The Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply has to deliver water to hundreds of homes, which is then stored outside in fifty-gallon barrels, during the winter months the containers are brought indoors (Situation of Youth on Pine Ridge, n.d., Housing). Schwartz adds that approximately 60 percent or more of the homes are infested with black mold. Sadly despite these horrid or potentially fatal conditions, there is no government program or insurance to assist families in need (Housing Conditions and Homelessness).

Health Care and Issues
One would think that this 2.7 million acre land would have many hospitals located throughout it, but sadly there is only one hospital which resides in the city of Pine Ridge. There are also two health centers; one is located in Kyle, the other in Wanblee. Imagine it taking an hour or more to run a lady in labor to a hospital. That’s like driving from Green Bay, WI to Oshkosh, WI.
pine ridge
In her article, Scwartz (2006) mentions that due to the distance to the medical facilities that many residents do not live with health care. She adds that these places are highly under-staffed and under-funded (Health Care). While in South Dakota, I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the hospital. The lady who was giving a tour talked about how people may volunteer but not many people stayed because of how difficult it is. According to her, it is a fast paced and very stressful job, and that there is a low ratio of staff to a large amount of patients. She also mentioned that there is currently only one ambulance out of six that is running due to the shortage of paramedics.

Health conditions are more prevalent on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (n.d.) writes that cervical cancer is 5 times higher on the reservation. One out of every four infants is born with FAS, or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Pine Ridge Statistics). It is reported that in comparison to the national average, diabetes is 800 percent higher on the Reservation. Half of the adults over the age of 40 are diagnosed with diabetes. Men live to be about 48 while women have a life expectancy of 52. This is a huge 30 year difference compared to the life expectancy of a non-native (Schwartz, 2006, Life Expectancy and Health Conditions). Pine Ridge has the lowest life span in the U.S.; in the western hemisphere, it is the second lowest, Haiti is lower (Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, n.d., Pine Ridge Statistics). We as a nation are so set on saving our own heritage, yet we are content with letting other cultures wither away.

Growing up I never experienced the pain of a classmate committing suicide. While I was visiting South Dakota, I learned of the most recent one which happened just days before I arrived. It is reported that suicide is the second cause of death among American Indians; the rate is 1.5 times higher among adolescents (Situation of Youth on Pine Ridge, n.d., Health/Mental health). Landry (2015) explains that there have been 5 deaths from Christmas day to February 19 (para. 2). While I was on the reservation I learned of a group of five boys who attempted to take their life by consuming pills, thankfully none were successful. Authorities have reported that there were 162 suicides in 2014 (Stasiowski, 2015, para. 17).

Despite this overwhelming fog of depression, there have been recent outreaches towards young children. In a recent article from the Rapid City Journal, Stasiowski (2015) mentions that an education technician and coach, Nellie Long, and a few students volunteered in a 3-day effort of finding ways to help prevent suicide (Picture description). Landry (2015) writes factors that could tribute to suicidal thoughts are bullying, poverty, or even poor home lives (para. 6). She adds that there are organizations like Sweet Grass that are also reaching out towards adolescents (para. 8).

Substance Abuse
The number one addiction on the Reservation is alcohol (Situation of Youth, n.d., Addictions). Schwartz (2006) adds that eight out of ten families are affected by alcoholism. It doesn’t help that there is a city right across the border that sells the majority of liquor to the reservation. Whiteclay, Nebraska is a small town with a population of 14; standing along the road are five buildings, one says grocery store, and the other ones have “bar” somewhere in the name (Alcoholism). It is also noted by Situation of Youth that cigarettes, chewing tobacco, marijuana, and methamphetamine are very problematic among the reservation (Addictions).

The schools on the reservation are actually in the bottom 10 percent of school funding, according to the BIA or Bureau of Indian Affairs (Schwartz, 2006, Education Issues). In the article “Pine Ridge: A broken system failing American’s most forgotten children,” Lee mentions that this is due to the lack of local tax money. “There are virtually no private land owners on the reservations, so no taxpayers to tax” (2014, para. 8). This poor funding shows up in dropout and graduation rates. American Indians or Alaskan Natives had a dropout rate of 7 percent and about 67 percent of students are likely to graduate. These percentages are low in comparison to their white counterparts whom have a dropout and graduation percentage of two and eighty-six respectively (Lee, 2014, graph).

While staying on the Pine Ridge Reservation I learned many things, both good and bad. I heard many sad stories about the Massacre at Wounded Knee and personal stories about how alcohol or drugs have affected families. I also experienced the love that this community had for each other and for others as well. They were willing to share a part of themselves with us. Their culture is not “savagery” like many Americans are lead to believe. Their culture is their culture—beautiful. Trymaine lee writes, “The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has become emblematic of rural poverty, neglect and the plight of struggling American Indians. But across the reservation, there are glimmers of hope and resistance against the monumental challenges the Lakota people face” (2014, para. 5). Despite issues that are derived from poverty they still hold on to the little threads of life.

Laundry, A. (2015, February 19). Spate of Youth Suicides Shake Pine Ridge Reservation.Retrieved April 6, 2015, from http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/02/19/spate-youth-suicides-shake-pine-ridge-reservation-159222

Lee, T. (2014, June 2). Glimmers of hope on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/pine-ridge-wounded-knee-hope

Lee, T. (2014, May 29). Pine Ridge: A broken system failing America’s most forgotten children.Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/failing-americas-most-forgotten-children
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx

Schwartz, S. (2006, October 15). The Arrogance of Ignorance: Hidden away, out of sight and out of mind. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.nativevillage.org/Messages from the People/the arrogance of ignorance.htm

Situation of Youth on Pine Ridge Reservation.(n.d.).Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.medicinewhl.org/situatione.htm

South Dakota Map and Map of South Dakota-MapPoint State Map Gallery-MP2K Magazine.(n.d.).Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://www.mp2kmag.com/gallery/states/South Dakota-Map-92.html

Stasiowski, J. (2015, March 5). With energy and hope, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation attacks youth suicide epidemic. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/with-energy-and-hope-pine-ridge-indian-reservation-attacks-youth/article_4a73830b-9c99-5560-8e98-11c516b4f253.html