On Monday, April 18, 2011, we delivered another 30,000+ pounds of meat products to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota. This is the second delivery and we have now delivered in excess of 70,000 pounds of assorted meat products to the Lakota of Pine Ridge. This time the distribution was different because my wife Carol and I, along with George and Vickie Tuft drove to the reservation and helped distribute the food to the people.
We left on Sunday at 6:00 A.M. and drove…and drove…and drove. I don’t remember what time we reached Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but I remember that I was quite happy to finally be in the right state. What I didn’t realize is that South Dakota is REALLY wide and we were only halfway into our trip. Around 10:00 (11:00 our time) we reached the campground in Hermosa and crashed for a much needed rest.
The next morning we awoke to the excitement of 3-4 inches of snow on the ground and a weather forecast that called for an entire day of snow, rain, sleet and whatever else God chose to throw at us. We fired up the RV and drove into the reservation to our first stop, which was the small hamlet of Red Shirt. The food was to be distributed in a senior center that was on the end of a very small driveway. I remember thinking that there was no way that the truck was ever going to make it past the tiny driveway entrance, guarded by two deep ditches. Well, I was wrong about the truck making it into the driveway, and Luke from the Hutterite Brethren backed the truck right up to the door of the senior center. Practically the entire town turned out to unload the food and then stand in line for their box of frozen meat. The feeling that we got from being blessed to be able to be there with the people and share in their happiness and excitement is impossible to describe. You really had to be there to experience it for yourself, and it is my hope that many of you will be able to accompany us on subsequent trips.
While I was wrong about Luke making it into the driveway, leaving was another matter: the rear wheels of the semi trailer went into the ditch. Every Lakota with a pickup truck decided that they were going to be able to pull the trailer out of the ditch. Calmer heads would have noted the impossibility of the task, but they HAD to try. One by one, and then two by two they all tried and failed. Finally, Ted Skantze, the Executive Director of Re-Member, and the person who arranged the distribution, called a Tow Company in Custer, South Dakota, and after a very long wait a huge Peterbilt wrecker pulled up, and in short time pulled the semi out of the ditch. Now being four hours behind we made haste to drive to the second Distribution site.
After about an hour’s drive, we reached the second distribution site, Oglala and quickly distributed the food to make up some of the lost time. From Oglala we drove through the town of Pine Ridge and eventually made it to the next distribution site, Wounded Knee. This is the site where one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history occurred. On December 29, 1890, members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry surrounded a band of Spotted Elk’s Lakota Sioux and indiscriminately fired into the camp, killing over 150 men, women and children. Then, to add to the shame, soldiers hunted down many of the women and children who fled and shot and killed them.
The cold, wet, gray, weather added to our sadness to be in a place of such sorrow. I looked down on the food distribution from a little hill and saw a line of once proud people waiting patiently for their handout of food. It bothered me immensely that our government herded them into a place where they can not make a living for themselves and furthermore, the Lakota are reduced to accepting food from the very people who have put them into this position. I saw how the people who were actually handing out the food to the Lakota were white, and while George and Ted have devoted their lives to helping the Lakota, I wished that we whites were in the background and that the Lakota were the ones handing the food to their own people. In future distributions I will see to it that the food distribution is a Lakota program with Lakota in charge and the ones in view in the interaction with their people.
As we went through the reservation, making stops and handing out food, we also set up a table where we handed out cooked brats, Italian sausages, hot dogs, coffee and lemonade and apples to the people who came to get food. The hot food was happily received and we got many thank you’s and compliments on our thoughtfulness. Carol and Vickie did an excellent job with the food and they made many people happy.
We made additional stops in Porcupine, Kyle, and Wanblee, and all of them were similar. All featured terrible weather and parking lots that were a sea of sticky mud. Our RV that we were so proud of looked like a fugitive from a junkyard. As dirty as the RV looked, we felt right in place parking next to the Lakota vehicles which were a museum of automotive styling from the past 40 years. Our RV easily out-valued all of the other cars there combined and I was acutely conscious and embarrassed by that fact. A number of Lakota came up to me and good naturedly told me that if I left the RV there overnight it would have a family of 20 Lakota living in it tomorrow. I heard this same joke in a slightly changed form at every stop, and I countered that because of the large stature of the Lakota, 20 would be a maximum. However, when we took the RV to Big Bend National Park in Texas along the Rio Grande, the joke there was that if we left the RV overnight it would have 40 (smaller) Mexicans in it the next day. That seemed to go over quite well and I got a few back slaps that almost knocked me over.
”Tweet” impressions of Pine Ridge
- With the exception of the town of Pine Ridge, there are almost no businesses on the rez.
- Topsoil on the rez is like a coat of paint. Scratch it and the scar gets larger and larger, exposing the clay underneath. New “badlands” in the making
- The tribal elders have the history of their people etched in the creases of their faces. Loss and despair mixed with stoicism and determination.
- The Lakota are BIG people. Physically imposing.
- Verna Yellowhorse, a waifish old lady came up and hugged me. Said she was soooo happy to get food. Her daughter died and she was raising her grandkids. Verna said, “Ya gotta put a lot of food through kids nowadays”.
- The vast majority of housing on the rez would be condemned as unfit for human habitation anywhere else in the U.S.
- The average 1,000 sq. ft. (or smaller) home or trailer on the rez will house as many as 20 people.
- Most houses have black mold growing everywhere because of the humid conditions due to so many people in each house.
- Lakota elders are treated with respect by the people. We could learn a lot from them.
- The Lakota need everything. Tricky to help them without creating dependence and taking their pride away
- Many asked “when are you guys coming again”. Good question.
Besides collecting and delivering food, what else can we do to partner with the Lakota to help themselves? I have two ideas for discussion. When we were in Wanblee, we met Jerome High Horse and his wife Theresa. Jerome is that rarest of all Lakota with their 85-90% unemployment, a man who had a good job with the US Government, and now a decent pension with great benefits and full health insurance. Jerome and Theresa dedicate themselves to helping their people. Jerome took us to see their Youth Center, built with a U.S. Education Grant. The building was outstanding and had the only paved parking lot I saw on the rez. Everything was relatively new and clean, but with the exception of a gym and 2 basketball hoops, the building was empty. It had a number of classrooms that had nothing in them.
Jerome explained that they had no money whatsoever to operate the Youth center and they had great difficulty in coming up with the funds to heat and light the building. They had plans for a computer center and a Home Economics classroom in addition to other programs but couldn’t fund any of them. Individually, each program or classroom could be supported with a relatively small amount of money or help. Easy for us, but difficult for the Lakota. My thought is that individual churches could sponsor a program and make a multi year commitment to take on the responsibility of funding it.
I see this as a peer to peer program with the local church’s youth groups being the primary fund raisers/equipment drive collectors. For example, a craft class needs supplies of all kinds. Nothing whatsoever is available on the reservation but acquiring supplies and raising funds to purchase other supplies are easily done by us with proper motivation. Rather than spending a week at the reservation on a Mission trip, our youths can make a dramatic and permanent difference in the lives of a large number of Lakota kids. Cross cultural visits, dedication to a specific program, and the spiritual uplift that comes from helping to change the life of a Lakota young person who you have come to know as a friend, makes this program commitment easily as important to our kids as it does to the Lakota kids.
The other program that I would like to propose is a result of the unbelievable poverty that the Lakota endure. With almost universal unemployment, the Lakota eke out an existence from the $100.00 per month that each adult Lakota gets from the U.S. Government as payment for having stolen their land and herding them into an area where the land cannot support them. Every dollar becomes important when you live on the edge, but the handful of stores on the reservation charge exorbitant prices for everything. There are no Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other used goods stores on the reservation, and one couldn’t find a place with greater need for a store with good, affordable items of all kinds.
In our throwaway society, what could be easier than collecting items to ship to the reservation and work with the Lakota to set up their own store(s) to sell items at very low cost to their people? Theresa High Horse has wanted to do this for a long time and she would be a great person to deal with. Having access to quality items, clothing, housewares, furniture, etc., would profoundly improve the lives of the Lakota people of Pine Ridge. This is something that could be started almost immediately and I would be glad to offer space in my warehouse to store items to be sent to Pine Ridge.
Thanks to Joel Decker of the Hutterite Brethren in Gibbon MN for donating the Freezer truck and paying the cost to ship the frozen meat to the reservation.
Thanks to Mike Lynch of Blood N’ Fire Ministries who got us together with Joel of the Hutterite Brethren. Mike’s dedication to feeding the poor is an inspiration to us all.
Thanks to my church, Christ our Savior Lutheran Church in Sussex for donating hundreds and hundreds of coloring books, crayons, and reading books for the children of Pine Ridge. A big box of books and crayons went with each delivery vehicle to accompany the food. We made a lot of kids very happy!
Thanks to George and Vickie Tuft for their help in hundreds of ways and their knowledge of the reservation and of Lakota ways.
Thanks most of all to Ted Skantze for setting up the distribution and the many hours it took to see that everything went smoothly. That many thousands of people received protein rich foods is due entirely to his hard work and dedication.
Call to action
If any readers of this letter are interested in working to help the Lakota of Pine Ridge, please send me an email of your interest and intent, whether it is personal or as a representative of a church or other group. With sufficient interest, I will host a meeting (dinner included?) to plan on how we can move forward with some specific programs to partner with the Lakota.
Thank you for your attention,