Life and death on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The blue house on the top of the hill is a now-familiar place on the once-unfamiliar Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Kevin and his wife, Josephine, live here, and I have come to know their hearts.
Right now their hearts are grieving because their son’s memorial service—the dedication of his tombstone—is tomorrow, Father’s Day. Their son died at age 21, leaving behind a little girl. My husband, Chase, and I are here because they invited us white people into this Oglala Lakota tradition. My introverted self might feel uncomfortable, but I feel like these are my distant relatives.
Chase and I deliver a bed and art supplies that were donated for Kevin. Beads for Josephine. We are trying to supply them with art materials to aid them in their struggle to support their family. It is difficult to make a living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, as the unemployment rate hovers around 80 percent.
Then we leave for our next stop.
We started coming up to Pine Ridge in 2010 on a short-term mission trip that Summitview helped organize. Dara, a friend whom I met on this trip, told me there are two kinds of people who come to the Rez: those who are uncomfortable and never come back, and those who leave a piece of their heart there and return again and again.
Chase and I came back the next year, first to help Santa deliver toys to the Loneman School, and two years later to help distribute donated school supplies. We have met several families since then, and in the past year, we have delivered donations five times to cover needs expressed to us by friends on the Rez.
Barbara is a new friend we met in March. We bring a porch swing for her takojas (grandchildren) and an outdoor play set I found for free on Facebook. The boys are delighted with the porch swing and they sit on it with Chase while I take pictures. Chase carries in the twin beds we brought. Barbara gives Chase a lanyard that she beaded—orange and blue for the Denver Broncos. When we were here last, she said she was going to make this lanyard for Chase. She remembered.
We stop next at Henry’s small ranch. He has horses, as well as three calves that he is bottle feeding. We deliver cowboy boots and a mattress. As twilight deepens, Chase and Henry play with their great-grandson, as I talk with his wife, Nora, in front of their house. We swat mosquitoes, and she tells me about some health issues she is having. I empathize with her, amazed how this reserved woman feels safe enough to open up to me. I am white. She is Lakota. But we are both people with beating hearts made in God’s image. We are the same.
My friend Dar is supposed to drive to Chadron—where we spend Saturday night—to meet us for breakfast the next morning, but when I call her, she says she doesn’t have enough gas to get there.
None of this bothers me. I have learned that on the Rez, plans change as many times as I take a breath. These people roll with ever-changing life, and so must I. We make a new plan to meet on the Rez.
Dar brings her brother to breakfast. Over bacon and eggs, Dar asks if we have seen the Badlands. We say no, and she suggests we go for a drive.
Chase is concerned that we don’t have time. The memorial service starts at noon. I tell Chase that the earliest it will start is 2 o’clock. He is skeptical but invites Dar and her brother to get in our truck. We drive north.
“This road is bad,” says Dar. “Lots of bumps. You will need to take it slow.” Chase doesn’t take her seriously, so with the first bump, all of us go flying against our seat belts. Hysterical peals of laughter escape from us. Chase continues to fly over the bumps, and we make new jokes after each one.
The Badlands are vastly beautiful from the vista Dar takes us to. I feel small as I take in God’s creation. We take pictures with our phones. Dar strikes up a conversation with a biker in leather who says he is from France. I find out from the conversation that Dar has been to Europe. I’ve just assumed she’s always been on the Rez.
We fly over the bumps back south, giggling like children on a school bus.
Chase and I arrive at Kevin’s at 12:30 p.m. but don’t leave for the memorial until 2. Kevin apologizes for “Indian time,” but I just smile and look at Chase.
We drive out to a lonesome hill where family and friends gather under a makeshift tent with tables laden with food. This is where the memorial service—what the Lakota call the “Giveaway”—will take place. We are on the land Josephine inherited from her family. She and Kevin want to build a house on it some day. We drive up another hill to the cemetery. There is a headstone covered with a red and black star quilt, which are given at significant events, such as birth, marriage and death. A man says a prayer, and I am thankful it is in English, as I only know a few Lakota words.
After the prayer, the star quilt is removed, revealing the new headstone. We all stand in silence. A few girls and women begin weeping and holding each other. The rest of us remain as we are. Chase and I helped the family purchase this headstone. In the silence, I say a prayer of gratitude that we were able to help this family obtain closure. I pray that from now on their tears will be of solace and not bitterness.
The man who prayed suggests we go back down the hill to eat. As we start to leave, I see a woman pulling weeds on another grave. I stop to help, and a few others follow suit. My hands get stuck with some burrs, but I don’t care. I want to help this woman because she knows more than one of the dead buried here. Most of the graves are adorned with flowers, solar lights, strings of beads. Death so often overwhelms the Lakota, often coming like a thief in the night, stealing their young people away. The main highway through the Reservation is lined with white crosses planted there in memory of people who have died along it—many of those deaths from suicide. The suicide rate for teens in Pine Ridge is four times the national average. Infant mortality is 3-5 times the national average. Life expectancy on the Rez is the lowest in the United States and the second lowest in the western hemisphere (only Haiti is lower).
Kevin and Josephine’s son struggled with alcoholism, as many people on the Rez do. However, he had found Jesus, only to be taken from them a few weeks later, the cause of his death unclear. Here is the tragedy of Pine Ridge Reservation: even the most promising changes can unravel in an instant, leaving behind a grieving family, a headstone in a cemetery and perhaps a white cross along a desolate road.
But there is hope among the crosses. Each time we see him, Kevin asks us to pray for the Rez. He is certain only Jesus can heal the people of Pine Ridge. Amidst the news of another recent suicide is this hope. Earlier that day, Kevin spoke to us with great joy that the unthinkable had happened: Nebraska had revoked the liquor licenses of the liquor stores in the town of White Clay. Just south of the border from the Rez, White Clay had long supplied liquor to residents of Pine Ridge, contributing to the tragic alcoholism issue. Kevin felt strongly that this was evidence that Jesus is on the move in Pine Ridge.
We drive back down the hill from the cemetery to the tent. At a Giveaway, it is Lakota tradition that the family of the deceased will provide all of the food after the memorial service. In addition, the family provides gifts for the relatives and friends. The children play games for prizes that the family also supplies.
It is nearly 7 p.m. when the gifts start to be distributed. Chase and I still must make the five-hour drive back to Colorado, so we talk about leaving. Then our names are called. We come forward, and Josephine and her granddaughter (her deceased son’s daughter) present us with a handmade star quilt made with various shades of green. Our thank-you gift. I hug both Josephine and the little girl, clutching the treasure to my chest.
We take our leave of the family and begin the long drive back to Colorado. Again Kevin apologizes for “Indian time,” but we tell him not to worry about it. It will be a long drive back home, and we will get home very late. But in Lakota fashion, we will just roll with it.