I promised I would write more about our Lakota friends. I’m not sure where to start. I think I’ll write about our friends first, and the thoughts I have on Pine Ridge and Lakota Culture later. As I noted, we began by sponsoring a young girl (10 y.o. at that time) through a large international child help agency. The one that claims most of their money goes to directly help the child. After a year of giving their flat monthly rate as well as sending some letters and a few small gifts, including a winter coat, to the child through their office, we went to meet the girl and visit her family at Christmas time. So we traveled from Massachusetts to South Dakota the week before Christmas for what we later found out were to be two chaperoned visits. Because if we were unchaperoned, we and the family might swap information that would allow us to interact directly, cutting out the middle man or in this case, the agency.
The day of our first visit, we met with the sponsor coordinator before the family arrived. She was from a neighboring reservation and told us that folks on her reservation look down on the folks from Pine Ridge. She made it seem that if we gave the family any personal information, they would show up on our doorstep and rob us blind. Hmmm…
When the family arrived, we all went to WalMart to go Christmas shopping. In a “break from tradition” which I had requested, instead of everyone going together, we broke up into “teams.” The parents went with my husband and one chaperon; I went with the two sisters and our chaperon. I wanted to do this so that they could shop for each other, instead of themselves. Also, this way there would be surprises on Christmas morning. That’s always more fun. After shopping, we all ate out for lunch then went back to the agency office to wrap those gifts – in separate rooms, of course. So ended our first visit.
The next day we went to the community center through which this agency sponsors it’s aid to the children. It was a kind of rec hall, dominated by a HUGE television. There were books and games in disarray, broken equipment, and boxes of donated hand-made mittens, scarves, etc.. The kids just grabbed things out of the box to play with, like a scarf for tug-of-war. Creative, yes; respectful of the work and love that went into making those items, no! We had brought books and games for the center that were received with mild interest. This visit was just the girls – our sponsored child and her other two older sisters, along with the oldest girl’s boyfriend and 9 month old baby. Mom was sick. Of course we were chaperoned – this time by the program coordinator of the community center. The odd thing was that our girl didn’t know who we told her. The girls seemed to think we were coming to their house for Christmas day- verboten under agency rules. But they did manage to slip us their phone number when the chaperon was otherwise occupied because Mom wanted to talk to us, even though she didn’t feel well.
We left this second visit after a few hours, disappointed in the agency and amazed at the girl we sponsored and her family. When we returned to our hotel in the evening, we called Mom. They invited us to Christmas dinner. I don’t think I’d ever felt so much like I was between the rock and the hard place. On one hand, the agency has rules and I am usually a stickler for rules. But this rule was crazy to us. We are adults and we know how to take care of ourselves. Besides, on the other hand, we had just bought gifts for the whole family. They wanted to say thank you by asking us to share their Christmas meal. Wouldn’t it be a slap in the face to say no? Wouldn’t it be rubbing their noses in the fact that we could buy them things but they couldn’t do anything for us? So we said yes. Broke the rules. It was the best day of our visit.
We found the blue house where the family of 5 lived with grandmother and another family of 3 – that’s 9 people living in a 5 room house! A kitchen, living room, 3 small bedrooms, 2 very small baths and a laundry room the size of a washer & dryer. The front door was held closed by a dish towel wedged between the door and the frame because the latch didn’t work. The kitchen linoleum looked like it had seen many, many years of wear. The furniture was well used and threadbare. The kitchen set was vintage 1950’s with wear that made it seem older.
Christmas dinner included much of the food we had purchased on our shopping trip. We had turkey, ham, salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, pies, chips and orange Kool-Aid. I can’t remember the last time I had Kool-Aid.
After dinner, we went to Christmas Day Eucharist at the local Episcopal church. Before the service, we got a tour of the cemetery behind it and got “introduced” to ancestors. It was a good time to talk. Got a good lesson on “Indian time,” too. The service was scheduled for 4 PM. Priest finally arrived about 4 PM; people came maybe 4:30 -4:45. Of course, we were there by 3:45. The family had come with us to church, though they hadn’t been since last Christmas. They did not really know the service. The service was done in English as a kindness to visitors (us) but we did get to try to sing a couple of Christmas carols in Lakota. It would have been fine with us if the whole service had been in Lakota- we know the service so we could have followed just fine.
After the service, there was a gathering in the hall below the church. The children were given small gifts. A small meal was offered – pot luck – sliced meat, sandwiches, chips, doughnuts. We sat on folding chairs around tables and had another chance to chat with Mom and her fiance. Found out we both had daughters who were raped as teens. Talked about the stress of raising daughters (I only have one, she has 4!).
We also visited Mom’s mom in her trailer. It was in even worse shape than the house we visited for Christmas dinner. The wooden stairs up to the trailer were half rotted out. At the entrance to the trailer, you had to be careful where you stepped because there was a relatively large hole in the floor – all the way through to the outside. Can’t imagine trying to keep warm in that home in the cold South Dakota winters!
For all that these people lacked, they were generous beyond belief. We were welcomed and we came away with friends instead of people we sponsored with cash. We knew we wanted to keep in touch directly. We’ve terminated our relationship with the big international agency and so did they. We have become sponsors of the same girl through a smaller agency that encourages direct contact so that we can help our friends and supply some of their needs because we know what they are. The One Spirit group we are now with works with individuals and encourages people to get to know each others cultures. It’s a much better fit for us.
Our friends are planning to move off the reservation to a town in Nebraska. They have ambitions and they find rez life stifling. It makes small town life seem like the big city. On the rez, everyone knows or is related to everyone else. You aren’t supposed to stand out. Everyone knows your business. They have been harassed by family members because they have goals to work for. We will be keeping up with them as best we can and visiting them again in October. It will be interesting to see what changes they’ve made.