The South Dakota Badlands are beautiful to see, with buttes, pinnacles, and spires formed by countless storms and relentless wind. Native grasses that fed generations of buffalo still grow there.
But it’s not the beautiful vistas that routinely brings groups of William Woods University students to the region.
The Pine Ridge Reservation is part of the Badlands, set aside in 1939 as a national monument and in 1978 as a national park. Depending on what census or study one looks at, there are between 15,500 and 28,000 people at Pine Ridge, created in 1889 to contain members of the Oglala Sioux nation.
It’s one of the poorest areas in the United States, according to Travis Tamerius, director of the Center for Ethics and Global Studies at William Woods University. He often takes WWU students to work at Pine Ridge where many reservation residents struggle for the basic necessities in life.
“There’s a two-year wait list for an outhouse,” he added.
Tamerius said he leads an initiative, “Woods Around the World.” A group of WWU students recently came back from Pine Ridge with new perspectives after working with the organization, Re-Member.
“The goal of our program is to become interested in a story other than your own,” he said. “The best kind of learning is to get outside of your own skin.”
Gone the dreams
Pine Ridge consists of 2.1 million acres; only 84,000 acres are suitable for agriculture. That’s a hard barrier to overcome, as is the history.
Megan Rogers, a rising sophomore, was one of several WWU students who went to work at Pine Ridge in May.
“I’ve always wanted to do service projects,” she said. “I didn’t really expect anything going in there. I kind of kept an open mind.”
She said the history of the Pine Ridge Reservation was impossible to avoid.
“The biggest thing is to never forget about them,” Rogers said. “I feel like we forget about their history. We need to keep talking about it, and make people aware of what’s going on.”
In the late 1800s, in a last-ditch defense of their culture, Lakota and American Indians from other tribes conducted “Ghost Dances” throughout the Badlands. They hoped to reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to Indian peoples throughout the region.
Instead, Sitting Bull was arrested and killed at dawn at his cabin on Dec. 15, 1890. On Dec. 28, a few weeks later, the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment — the same regiment Gen. George A. Custer served under — opened fire on a group of men, women, and children at a spot called Wounded Knee. They injured 50-plus people and killed somewhere between 150 and 300 Lakota.
Rogers said she returned from her trip with a bracelet commemorating that event.
“I have a bracelet that I wear. It says, ‘Remember the Knee,'” she said. “It has the dates, February 27, 1973, and Dec. 29, 1890.”
On that 1973 date, a group of Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, protesting failed treaties with American Indian people and demanding the reopening of treaty negotiations.
The site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, and where the 1973 protest occurred, is designated a National Historic Landmark.
“We stay very close to Wounded Knee,” Tamerius said of his trips there with students. “We always go to visit the cemetery and hear the history from a (High Hawk) descendent.”
WWU students also visited the cabin of Black Elk (1863-1950), an Oglala Lakota medicine man, he said. A well-known book about this man, “Black Elk Speaks,” was written by John Neihardt, a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and poet-in-residence and English lecturer at the University of Missouri. His interviews with Black Elk were legendary, Tamerius added.
Black Elk said this about the Wounded Knee massacre: “I did not know then how much was ended. I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
Tamerius said the desolation of Pine Ridge and the ensuing, endless poverty started with the destruction of the life-giving buffalo.
“It was a perfect storm of factors,” said Tamerius. “Much of it was a man-made disaster.”
Historical events may have created the poverty at Pine Ridge, but now that poverty is almost taken for granted.
“There are 80 to 90 percent unemployment rates,” Tamerius said. “There are no industries; no people are investing there.”
The reservation also is a “food desert,” with few places to obtain healthy food at reasonable prices, he added.
“There may be one grocery store for the entire reservation, and it’s hard for people to get there,” he said. “There are ‘convenience’ stores, but a bag of grapes may be $12; a bag of potatoes is $6.”
Rogers said one of the projects she worked on was the community garden.
“On the last work day, I helped build a garden for a woman named Ruby,” she said. “It’s for the whole community, if anybody ever needs help.”
Ruby’s house is next door to another where drugs are said to be distributed, Rogers added.
“She lived next door to a meth house,” she said. “She said there are about 50 cars in and out of there every day; kids, too.”
But Ruby, Rogers said, was inspiring.
“I just fell in love with her because she’s doing so much for her community,” Rogers said. “She’s literally like a Mother Teresa.
Rogers also said she heard about high rates of child suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“We saw kids looking so upset,” she said. “Remember, we all have bad days, but our bad days are nothing like theirs.”
A 2007 health report and a census of the reservation reported by the Re-Member organization spells out the odds residents face at Pine Ridge vs. the national norm.
“There’s eight times the rate of diabetes, two times the rate of heart disease and four times the rate of teen suicide,” Tamerius said. “Kids as young as eight years old (are committing suicide). Schools are having funerals.”
A year ago, the New York Times published an article about teen suicide at Pine Ridge. According to that article, other problems — including alcoholism and domestic violence — plague people there.
Toiling at Pine Ridge
The groups of William Woods students who travel to Pine Ridge work about a week on projects defined by Re-Member, Tamerius said.
“They build outhouses, skirt trailers, and build decks and wheelchair ramps,” he said. “The trailer skirts can make a huge difference with the huge temperature extremes of South Dakota, with the hot summers and cold winters.”
Tamerius remembered a student he took there who was so moved she returned.
“She ended up working there 3 years, helping with grieving families,” he said. “It gripped her heart so much she got her degree in social work and went back up there.”
Pine Ridge is not an easy place to be, with problems that seem insurmountable, Tamerius said.
“I tell students, when you go onto reservation land, you forget you’re in the United States of America,” Tamerius added. “It’s very important for all of us to learn about what it’s like to put yourself in somebody else’s situation.”
A solution for Pine Ridge, once and for all time, has thus far been impossible, he said.
“It’s like throwing a bunch of spaghetti noodles on the floor and trying to pick up the one broken in half,” he said. “There’s little health care. Ambulances don’t work.”
But he said he’s not giving up.
“I’ve made five trips there, and I’ve seen some bright spots,” Tamerius added.
Rogers, who lives in Plainfield, Illinois, when she’s not at school, is majoring in business and social work. She said she’s talking to her friends and family about returning to Pine Ridge.
“I want to get people involved,” she said. “They need all the help they can get.”