If you’ve heard about the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota, chances are you know that it has one of the highest unemployment rates and is in one of the poorest counties in the USA. While poverty and unemployment are prominent parts of the story of the Oglala Lakota people who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, this is certainly not their whole story. Lakota people have always maintained a sense of heritage through their dynamic language and culture. They are kind, generous, and thoughtful people with many stories to tell and much wisdom to share if we just listen.
For Spring Break this year 9 people from Lutheran Campus Ministry of Iowa State University and a leader from St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Ames, IA headed out to the Pine Ridge Reservation to help install drywall and build shelving for Healthy Start, a federally-funded donation center for the women and children of Pine Ridge. We spent four days dry-walling major portions of the ceiling in the building that had fallen into disrepair. We also built many shelving units to outfit the rooms with more adequate storage for their inventory. After the drywall was done, we moved the shelving units into the rooms and sorted a lot of the donations for easier access. The transformation of the space was dramatic, and we hope this will increase the efficiency of Healthy Start.
Other than our leader and one of the students, we had little to no experience with drywall and carpentry so it was a challenging week. Our daily devotionals and discussion, done throughout the day, helped center us in the morning, regroup at lunch, and process our day in the evening. One of the devotionals focused on 2nd Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (NIV) We talked about how God is making each of us new through God’s grace, just as we were making the Healthy Start a new place. Although poverty and unemployment on the reservation are serious issues, there is hope and new creation going on. We had the privilege of staying with Emma “Pinky” Clifford, who works for the OST Housing Partnership. Pinky works tirelessly to open up doorways for Lakota people to become homeowners. This is not an easy task, as most American Indian people live in substandard federally-issued homes that are neither purchased nor sold in the same capacity that non-Native buy and sell homes. Pinky connected us to one of the representatives of the Chief of the Porcupine District who is also the CEO of Housing for the reservation. He talked to us about the huge issues with chronic underfunding and inadequate housing facing Lakota people, but how they are dealing with them in the most effective way possible. They are currently working on a project called “Trail of Hope” where they are taking a federally-funded house, which was recently occupied by a family of 18 people, to Washington DC to show Congress the horrible living conditions of most people on the reservation. They hope this will educate the public about this issue and inspire Congress to take action.
We went to the Pine Ridge reservation to serve the people there by helping repair and improve the Healthy Start building, but we left knowing we had received much more than we had given. From an outsider’s perspective, Lakota people are often viewed as an impoverished people, but they are rich in spirit. And isn’t that how Christ challenged each of us to live?
Article written by Emma Grinde, Iowa State University Student and member of Lutheran Campus Ministry