The first thing you notice when you approach the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the sky. It’s so big it feels like it should curve at the far edge, like the way the earth itself curves from space. But there is no edge, just an infinity of blue, God's own protective dome of sky, covering the only layer of life in the known universe.
And then, of course, you see the poverty. It’s what visitors like me always see first. And it’s impossible not to see it. The dilapidated trailers, the streams of trash strewn along the side of the road, an army of black plastic bags caught and dying on the fences, blown to tatters by the relentless wind, the endless line of shuttered store fronts in the dusty little reservation towns.
Pine Ridge is a place of desolation and hardship. Even the Indians will tell you that. (And for the record, that’s how the local people describe themselves. Indians. Or Lakota.)
But it is also a place of astounding beauty. Physical beauty, spiritual beauty, a place where pine breaks (for which Pine Ridge is named) ribbon through the stark prairie like huge prayer flags, and ordinary people engage in acts of compassion and sacrifice every day.
We have come here on a service trip, and serve we shall. We are a group from Warren Wilson College, ten students, four staff leaders (including me, the chaplain of the college) and three members of Conscious Alliance, a food-distribution agency based in Boulder, CO, with whom we are partnering in this venture.
Today is Sunday. On this, our first morning, we helped unload roughly two tons of food -- a mountain of pasta, applesauce, baked beans, roast nuts, oatmeal, dried cherries, salsa -- from a 21 foot rental truck and into a storage shed on the property of Floyd and Natalie Hand.
The Hands are our hosts. Floyd is a “spiritual interpreter” for the Lakota, and both he and Natalie have made it their life’s work to help ease hunger on “the Rez” and to serve the Lakota people in every way they can, which includes inviting groups like us to come, to bring in and distribute truckloads of food and in return to learn about Lakota culture.
The food we distribute is only meant for emergencies. But there are always emergencies on the Rez. This is the poorest county in the United States. There are almost no jobs here. Money to buy food and pay heating bills is scarce. In the winter, the temperature can get to 40 below and it hovered down around zero just last week. When 30,000 people live this far out from basic services, surviving this close to the edge, every day is a kind of emergency.
In addition to serving as chaplain to the college, I’m also the pastor of the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church. At the very time “my” congregation was in the midst of the 11:00 worship service, I was hauling pasta sauce and pinto beans from the back of a truck. I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to serve my congregation for a vault full of rubies, and I love preaching nearly every Sunday, doing what I can to feed my own flock.
But I have to say that it felt good to put legs on – or my back in to – what I believe. Knowing that the boxes of food we packed today will help keep at bay the wolf of hunger that stalks this country was deeply satisfying, and felt like its own kind of sermon.
We took a break from sorting and sacking all that food to attend a tribal council meeting. We could not have done this without Floyd. As a respected tribal elder, his invitation gained us entry into this sacred space. So this was a rare opportunity for a group of “wasichus” (the Lakota word for “white people” – one member of our group, Deborah, is originally from Kenya -- but otherwise we are all white Americans) to see how tribal governance works first-hand.
At issue today was how to respond to a rapidly developing corporate plan to mine uranium – the new gold – just outside the boundaries of the reservation. The mining efforts will not only deface the land itself (a profound sacrilege to the Lakota) but they are also likely to pollute, and render toxic, much of the groundwater in the area.
The conversation was impassioned, and often in Lakota. It was peppered with references to the wasichu and to Lakota sovereignty, and animated by references to the manifold sins visited on the tribe by the U.S. government and by the church -- the perceived instrument of government oppression. There was a joke about Custer and the blond students in the room, and another one about styrofoam communion wafers. We laughed a little uneasily.
It was an honor to attend this meeting, for this is the front line in the Lakota’s ongoing effort to reclaim their homelands.
But it was also hard to attend this meeting, for it quickly became for me the frontline in my ongoing effort not to feel devastated by everything that’s happened to the Lakota in the name of so many things that are dear to me – America, God, the church.
While we were sitting and listening to the discussion, an old Lakota lady – 88 to be exact – approached me and one of the students I was sitting with. “Why are you here? What do you want to know?”
Her old eyes gleamed with a kind of intensity that initially made me think she was angry. Here we are, discussing our future as a tribe and even now, after everything you've done to us, you white people still can’t stay away – you insist on coming here and breaking into our circle.
But I soon realized her questions were genuine. She wanted to know why we had traveled so far to come to the Rez. I said we wanted to learn more about Lakota culture and history. But what I felt was this: Grandmother, what I want, what perhaps we all want, is to atone for our sins, to somehow, in our own small way, promote healing between your people and mine.
We chatted a while longer, and then before she left us she said simply and sincerely, Thank you for coming. We’re glad you’re here.
You’re welcome, Grandmother. It’s an honor for us to be here.
We then served lunch to the circle of elders. Once they were all served we sat down, a little to the side, and ate, too -- Indian fry bread, fried chicken, pulled chicken, beef soup, tripe soup, potato salad, baked beans and a chokecherry soup for dessert that was so good it made you weak in the knees.
After lunch we returned to the Hands’ home and property for a little bit of Sunday fun. We rode horses – Floyd and Natalie’s daughter is a gifted rider, even racing at summer pow wows – and played basketball.
And I wished life was always this hard, this good, this simple – that hunger could be cured with some hard, heavy work; that historical divides could be bridged with some honest questions, some fried chicken, and the breaking of Indian fry bread; and that people who look like the children of white gold miners and buffalo hunters could ride horses and play hoops with the children of Indians, until everyone is so tired all that is left to do is to go to bed and dream dreams of peace on earth.