Life on Pine Ridge Reservation is very complicated. I am thrilled that ABC News has followed through on their plans to spotlight life on Pine Ridge for the Lakota people. But the 20/20 program they will air tonight (Friday, October 14, 2011) will only scratch the surface.
Yes, you will see the deplorable living conditions that most endure. You will see the ideas and programs that are trying to bring hope to the people. But there are stories that you won’t hear.
You won’t hear these stories because of “political correctness” and the fear of offending those in positions of authority on Pine Ridge. I usually avoid those stories as well, because I have friends who live on Pine Ridge and I want them to be safe.
But after the 3 phone calls I have received from my Lakota friends this past 10 days, I’m stepping out of my gentle persona and allowing my passion and “righteous anger” to vent. The volume may get a bit loud, so step back a bit if that will bother you and read from a distance.
When the phone rang 2 weeks ago, I was still recovering from organizing and conducting an event at my church which included a silent auction of Lakota arts & crafts, a video presentation about my Lakota friends’ housing search over 6 years and a “feed” that included buffalo stew. It had been a huge undertaking the prior weekend and I was, quite honestly, feeling the energy drain.
My friend’s eldest daughter had moved to Rapid City to find work and build a home for her 2 little boys. They are all my takojas (grandchildren), at least in my heart. Her partner, the boys dad, was living with them. Her daughter found work at a fast food restaurant, got an apartment and tried to make a home. Her partner did not find employment. He did find the time and money to drink with his friends, even when he was supposed to be caring for the boys. He had the “energy” to beat her in front of his sons. This latest call was because he’d slept with another woman. All of this may sound like your garden-variety domestic drama — but not to my friend.
My friend and her husband got sober years ago. No AA or other 12-step group; just a strong desire to put her children first. They do not want the takojas, the boys, to live in those conditions. So my friend was going to Rapid City to pick up her takojas. She was going to bring them home to live with them while her daughter figured out what she wanted in her life.
Why did they call me in all this? Gas money. The most mundane things can complicate these domestic issues even more. The first complication is they no longer have a car. So in order to make the 2 hour trip to Rapid City, they have to borrow a relatives car. Then they must fill the tank with gas so they have enough gas to get that “rez ride” to Rapid and back. With no source of income and limited funds, gas money is a frequent request in times of emergency or stress. I called the local gas station and authorized gas for my friends.
It was no more than a week later that I spoke with my Lakota friend again. She was not feeling well, having severe pain in her abdomen and chest that was strong enough to cause her knees to buckle. I told her she needed to be seen by a doctor. She said she had been seen at the nearby clinic and the only thing they had found was that she had a significantly elevated platelet level in her blood tests.
I am fairly well versed in medical knowledge but I did not have much information about elevated platelet levels and if pain was a result or a cause of that finding. So I did what any slightly tech-savvy nerd would do – I researched it on the internet. I found that pain is not typically found when you have elevated platelet levels. I discovered that there are many causes of elevated platelets, ranging from “benign – no obvious cause” to cancer with many options in between. I could find nothing that made any sense based on the symptoms my friend had related.
She called a day later, in so much pain that I could hear it in her voice. Since I was 2000 miles away, I could not say “Show me exactly where it hurts” or do any kind of touching to clarify what I was hearing from her. But she sounded so frightened, she is newly diagnosed as diabetic, she has a family history of heart disease and the pain was lasting far longer than seemed okay to ignore. So I made the suggestion that I would make to any friend: go to the emergency room and have a doctor look at you.
I was aware that the nearest hospital was at least 45 minutes away, if she went to Pine Ridge Hospital. There is a hospital in Martin, SD that she could go to if she wanted a bit longer drive and of course, there was Rapid City Regional, 2 hours away. She decided to go to Pine Ridge Hospital, since the clinic was planning to have her check in there the following day for additional tests.
Pine Ridge Hospital is an Indian Health Services (IHS) facility. The residents of the reservation have a standing joke about IHS: “I sat in the emergency room for 6 hours and all I got was 2 Tylenol.” It is a commentary on the quality of care received from IHS.
There were 2 physicians who examined my friend, one male and one female. They did an x-ray of her abdomen which showed nothing. [I cannot fathom how an x-ray of soft tissue with no contrast administered could be expected to show anything of significance.] They did an EKG, which they said was find. So the male doctor started to discuss what might be going on when the female doctor made a comment aloud, to no one in particular, that my friend’s problems were all in her head and she needed a psychiatrist.
My friend stopped the male doctor in mid-sentence to ask if the female doctor had spoken about her. The male doctor was uncomfortable enough that my friend realized it was true. She asked both doctors to leave so she could get dressed and she prepared to leave the hospital without treatment.
That was when she overheard a number of hospital staff, doctors, nurses, etc, making comments about “drunken Indians”. They were laughing and mocking. My friend and her husband, who were stone cold sober, were shocked. They were even more shocked when one of the staffers made a comment to the effect that, if all the drunken Indians were shot, it would make their nights a whole lot easier and saner.
I know the anger that rose in me when my friend told me about those comments and the mocking. I could barely speak, which was fine since I could not think of what to say that might possibly be appropriate in this situation. I was embarrassed that those in the medical community would say such things. I knew my anger, resentment and embarrassment couldn’t begin to approach what my friend and her husband felt. She did file complaints through the proper channels. But you and I both know that will not take away the sting of being mocked by those charged with your care. It was so totally unprofessional. Sadly, it was not particularly unusual.
The most recent call occurred 2 days ago. Before I detail the call for you, I want to tell you about my Lakota friend’s husband. Understanding this man is germane to understanding the event. It is also important to understand a bit about rez life, so I will also go into that a bit in case you don’t know very much about it.
As I said at the beginning of this post, life on the rez is very complicated. That statement might actually be an understatement. There is the poverty the underpins almost everyone’s life, since 90% of the residents live at or below the poverty level. There are divisions that tear at the fabric of the culture: pure-blood vs mixed-blood, traditional vs contemporary, activist vs passivist, etc. There are times when the true Lakota culture, its values and traditions, are ignored or perverted. Elders, women and children are considered sacred yet domestic violence is rampant. Based on the traditional clannishness of historical Lakota life, who your family is can be more important that who you are or what idea you may have. Nepotism and corruption abound. The tribal council has actually tolerated disrespect among its members. People who are elected do not have to meet any age or educational requirements. Politics play a bigger part in who gets a job than does who is the best qualified.
My friend’s husband is a big man but he is not the kind of man who uses his size to intimidate. He is quiet and funny. He is very smart and currently working on his college degree in business. He would like to see honesty and respect return to the tribe and the interactions of the people who live on Pine Ridge. He is a man of integrity who married my friend when she was a single mother raising 4 teen-aged daughters. That takes courage in any culture!
All of that information is what made the phone call I received from my friend 2 days ago even more unthinkable. She called to tell me that her husband was going to be arrested and she could find no one on the rez who could loan them $125 for bail money!
If it had not been for the panic in her voice, I’d have thought it was a joke. I have always told her that, if the girls got into trouble, there was no money available for bail money. Just not going to happen. But the panic was there.
Here is the story that I pieced together: They had submitted, to the proper person, a voucher for gas to go to a health appointment for her daughter. Somehow, it had disappeared (mistakenly thrown out, intentionally “misplaced”, who knew?); they resubmitted it. The check was supposed to be ready that day but wasn’t. My friend’s husband called the office and the clerk told him she had seen the check in the official’s office. So my friend’s husband called the official and, as he stated, “in a voice of authority” told the official that he would come down to the office “to straighten things out.” The official decided that was a threat and called the police to arrest my friend’s husband for threatening a tribal official.
This had been on the phone. My friend’s husband did not assault anyone nor did he go into the office and create a scene. [I must say it is probably a good thing I don’t live on the rez; I’m not sure I could keep my temper in the face of all the “crap” that goes on. I’d probably be a “regular” with the jailer under that criteria.] If she could not bail him out, he would be suspended from college and lose his scholarship money. It would destroy everything he has worked so hard to achieve thus far.
I was really torn because I had always said there would be no bail money. But this man has worked hard. He makes really good grades. He is honest and straightforward. I have always respected him. I wired the bail money. They plan to wire it back to me when they receive his educational stipend for the semester in another week. I plan to let them send the money back to me.
After all, there is no gift of bail money, even if there is a loan of it.
And life on Pine Ridge Reservation is complicated, even for those of us who don’t live there.