I have been pretty “quiet” lately thanks to the work volume all of the wonderful folks who have been stepping up to become sponsors for children and elders on Pine Ridge Reservation since the 20/20 episode aired. I literally have not had time to write.
That is about to change!
This evening I called an elder to give her a sponsor for the 5 year old granddaughter she cares for. The longer we spoke, the more I knew I had to share this story. I’m sharing it because I am so far past angry I can’t keep this to myself. It is difficult to type when all you can see is red, but I will give it my best effort.
[scrape … scrape … scrape … sorry, the soapbox makes a bit of noise]
I asked Grandmother how her granddaughter, who is in first grade, was doing. She told me that the girl was happy but having some difficulty in school. She was told the child may be dyslexic. That will mean a struggle for her.
I told her I had a sponsor for the girl and she was very happy with the news. We continued to talk as I confirmed the address information. It was then that I began to steam.
This little girl’s family had moved away and left Grandmother with a trailer to live in with the girl. If you could hear me, I would tell you to close your eyes and picture it as I describe it. Instead I will try to paint you the picture with my words on this page.
The trailer is in a group of trailers. It is very old. Grandmother worries that the roof will come off in the wind that comes with storms – and in South Dakota that is often. It seems that the wind is always blowing on Pine Ridge Rez.
The trailer has no running water or sewer connection. They were using a nearby outdoor faucet for water, carting several jugs a day. Some of the neighboring men “rigged” up the sewer pipe so they could use the toilet, flushing by pouring some of the water they had carried into the tank of the toilet. HOWEVER . . . there was some kind of water line break in the area and the tribal water department had to shut off the water. Yes, the outdoor faucet that they were using to obtain water is now dry! The tribe has not made the repair that would allow the faucet to be turned back on. Now they have to go to someone else’s home to obtain the water they need and carry it home.
Following the dotted line . . . or broken water line, let’s see the additional results of the lack of water and sewer connections.
The most striking consequence is that Grandmother cannot get a propane tank without the water and sewer connected. Is that important? It depends on your perspective, I guess. Do you think eating is important? Do you think it’s important to have heat in the South Dakota winters? Personally I think they are both things none of us would want to go without. So how does Grandmother cook? She uses a hot plate or electric skillet. How does she keep herself and her young granddaughter warm in the poorly insulated trailer? She uses several small electric space heaters. The pair sleep in the living room. Grandmother has hung a blanket in the hall doorway to keep as much of the heat as possible in their small living area.
Picture two old-fashioned thermometers, the kind with the bulb of mercury on the bottom. One of the thermometers is measuring the temperature outside the trailer. The second thermometer is measuring the electric bill. As the mercury in the first thermometer drops (actually plummets at night) during the winter, the second thermometer’s mercury is exploding through the top of the stem like a volcanic eruption! By spring, the electric bill will be too high to pay – causing the electric to be cut off and a $250 reconnect fee to be added to the next bill. This is what will happen this winter as Grandmother tries to feed and warm herself and her granddaughter.
Are you beginning to get upset yet? No?! Okay then, it’s time for the clincher.
Do you remember that flimsy roof I referred to above? That roof has another serious problem – it leaks badly! When it rains, the water comes in through the light fixtures. It comes down the walls. Grandmother’s mattress in the bedroom can’t be used – it’s wet. Even if they had running water, the bathroom would be unusable – the flooring and carpet is wet. Besides, after her granddaughter got a small electrical shock when turning on the bathroom light to brush her teeth, Grandmother decided it was better not to use the bathroom at all. So all bathing and tooth brushing and laundry is done in the kitchen.
I asked Grandmother whether she had sought any assistance to get the problems resolved. She told me that she had. She told the folks at housing. A man came out and made one small repair. He never returned, in spite of her calls. Her district representative to the tribal council has tried to help her out but he has had as much success as she has had.
[okay, breathe . . . in . . . in . . . in very slowly, then out . . . out . . . out slowly, control the breath to control the rising anger . . . again . . . okay]
Is this how elders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the wise people of the Lakota, should be living? Is this how they should be treated when they ask for help?
We ALL know the OST has no money, though why they don’t is harder to figure out. But the fact is they have people. They need to be training more people to do the very repairs that elders need and can no longer do for themselves. The tribe needs to invest in their own vocational school to train plumbers, electricians, construction workers, carpenters, etc. These trained workers could be licensed. They could form companies and do work for an income. They could also, in exchange for their education, give back to their communities by performing the repairs for elders for free, as a sign of the respect due to the elders. The tribe needs to work at making it easier to do business on the reservation — especially for registered tribal members.
Lakota culture and values state that elders are to be respected; that women and children are sacred. But it is only lip service that the tribe gives. They spend more time with politics and nepotism guiding their decisions than the truth of their ancestors.
So I am left with the question of how I can help this particular Grandmother. But I am also left with the bigger question. There are many more grandmothers on Pine Ridge Reservation. Many do not have the energy or ability to lobby constantly for the repairs they need. I am trying to use the steam I am still feeling about this to brainstorm ideas on what would help.
If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them. It doesn’t matter whether they are feasible or not at this point. I just want to know that you think this situation is abominable and how you think it could be changed.