Roadtrip 2013

“Eyes Wide Open” by N&J.

Crow Creek Indian Reserve, Fort Thompson, South Dakota (Oct 19/13)  –  What are N&J feeling?… Sad to leave??… Ecstatic ??? … A bit of both. Certainly bittersweet. One thing is for sure, they have met some amazing & interesting people in the month and a half stay… some who were surprisingly different from the expectations.

click on pic to enlarge – right/left arrow to scroll thru the gallery

N&J’s neighbours, the ‘park’ residents have definitely taught a few things about ‘Life on the Res’. Not always what it appears on the surface; it can be very disturbing, but also very heartening. Thomas (a native elder in his 70’s who prefers to sleep outside), was the recipient of a late night hot dinner, an extra warm blanket, socks & some dry pants… courtesy of N. He was sleeping in a covered, outside alcove at the Elder Centre, 25 feet from Hobbes’s camp location. When the wind is blowing; which is all the time, the rain would soak the area causing all sorts of grief for the occupant. The next afternoon Thomas came over to give thanks for helping him out the previous evening. He quickly reaches into his bag and offers 4 granola bars, which was graciously accepted (did not want to disrespect his offer). Then proceeds to ask if N&J would like some breakfast cereal (showing a large box of Frosted Flakes). Thomas, who has nothing, gave all he had, with this heartfelt offering he was giving thanks. N&J were so touched and it was beautiful. On their last day, he called J over and wished N&J a safe trip home and thankful for being there. Irregardless of his social or financial standing in this community, he had thought about N&J’s journey and wished a safe passage. “God Bless you both” were his last words.

There were many challenges witnessing disturbing events. Some ‘residents’ were very belligerent, nasty and incoherent; brought on by many years of trauma, historical racism, along with the effects of long term alcohol use and addiction. At times, questioning by some as to “are you here to save the Indians?” and “white man why don’t you go home”, tried to keep focused on the reason for being there (Habitat for Humanity).

Another challenge was getting to know one of the residents who just had her electrical service shut down after she was unable to pay her power bill. This of course made things rather difficult considering she has 3 young children, a mobile home with most of the windows broken/missing (blankets over the opening to stop the wind), a smashed inoperative toilet, no light, no heat, no ability to keep or cook food. We had invited them into to the Elder Centre for some warm food & to get some ‘free’ clothing from the ‘Thrift Shop’ room downstairs. Afterwards we walked them home (10-15 minute walk) and experienced first hand the absolute nightmare they lived in. How can anyone raise children in this scenario, and expect them to have a chance in this world. This woman was working as a volunteer to be eligible for financial assistance. When she found out that her ex-husband might be helping out with some of the monthly bills, she up & quit her job. When N questioned her motivation… she said “I don’t need to work now, why should I?”. She now is a regular at the ‘park’ from 8am on…. beer in hand, still asking if she can borrow money. Her children come to the park after school to see if their mom is there 🙁

A multitude of cars pull in each morning at ‘Cirrhosis Park’, a young woman or child will quickly pop out and run into the bush to drop of a bit of food for their family member who is sleeping there. On some days they actually drop off ‘grandma/grandpa’ because their house is too full. A broken-down tent provides shelter for one couple but mostly these people sit on the cement all day, watching, waiting, drinking.

N&J experience this type of situations on a regular basis and wonder what the Tribal Council is doing to alleviate the problems in the community… the answer appears to be nothing.

One would believe the community is hopelessly doomed. But not all is as it appears. Many residents are actively pursuing an active life: jobs, schooling, family and community activities. They tend to be invisible as they are busy elsewhere with their daily routine. One such person was ‘Rodney’ who was the ‘Pow Wow’ grounds and gas station security guard.  Helping us rescue a small kitten, they had the chance to enjoy the sun and share stories.

In the Elder Centre a hot lunch is provided to seniors (62+) during the week. This includes Elders who come in personally to pickup food to take home, or eat on site; they also provide a ‘Meals on Wheels’ service to shut-ins. The Centre also has the Rummage Store downstairs (adjacent to the Habitat for Humanity guest centre) where people are given clothing, shoes & blankets.  Those who actively drink alcohol  are not permitted in the centre. Although these services are much needed, the building is grossly underused. So much more could be done…

Bingo is the only ‘visible’ community activity here, it is held 4 times a week at the Catholic Church.  In a smoke filled room, and no one talking, approximately 50 people attend in hopes of winning a few dollars. Any money they do have gets eaten up by this addiction.  We are told that families go without food or electricity in order to play.  Food stamps are sold off for a quarter of what they are worth just to get a bit of cash in hand for Bingo. The profits go to keep the church operational. Occasionally a bingo will be held to help Habitat.

On N&J’s last night they experienced a demonstration march through the town bringing to light the problem with ‘violence against women’. They joined the march as it wound its way though Fort Thompson ending up at the Tribal Centre where a weekend event was being held. Yeah just like in the ‘big’ cities, these problems exist and are being actively discussed by people in the community, although apparently no members of the tribal council where there. Met some incredible, articulate people at the centre. It was very heartening to see this event taking place, seeing people discuss it openly…. there is hope for a change.

In the past post N&J have mentioned the relationship with an Elder who has become a native liaison for the Habitat for Humanity project. With Chauncey as their guide they were able to experience the history of the North American Indian people. He is a direct descendent of Crazy Horse and Chief Medicine Bull.  With excitement he was able to share the stories of his people that have been passed down. Pictures of his family from the 1800’s wearing traditional adornments but with a European influence.  Teaching the language of the Lakota people, struggled with the pronunciation but learned a few words such as Ooshika (humble), Chante (heart), Han (hello), Pidama (thank you), and lastly N’s Lakota name ‘Witco Win (crazy woman!).  ‘Chauncey Medicine Bear’ has amassed a breadth of information on Native American spiritual balance and medicinal healing that has been passed down to him through many generations.

Taking a day off from working at Habitat, N&J took a drive w/Chauncey to Pierre, SD to visit native sites. Pic below is of a sweat lodge outside of Fort Pierre.

Chauncey made N two medicine bags of deer hide for which healing rocks are carried. N engages in a ‘ceremony’ that is conducted with cedar and sage for cleansing while the Lakota Peyote ‘Healing Song‘ plays.  A small ember fire burns as prayers for healing are lifted up.  A gift of tobacco, fruit and meat are presented.  The presence of the spirit called upon enters and the flame from the embers spark and there are ‘sparks’ before their eyes. With Chauncey’s blessing and direction N&J were able to make their own Native American hand drum.  The drum is made from elk skin mounted on a hoop made of wood from the ash tree. Elk hide string binds it together and forms the claw hand grip.  The drum ‘once a living thing’ takes on the energy of the person making it and takes on a new life in the form of sound.  Careful to only place good energy into our drums our sounds are unique to each.

N&J’s time working at Habitat for Humanity was very rewarding. They went in knowing that it was going to be physically demanding and that they would gain a considerable amount of construction experience… they were not disappointed. Jim Huntley (Habitat Executive Director) was instrumental in guiding them through the construction phases. Upon our departure he expressed his gratitude and appreciation for the effort contributed. Excited to hear about the future utilization of the volunteer centre that will enable next years building crew to complete homes for families.

Traveling 4500 km (3000 miles) to ‘volunteer you’re time’ is not something most people have experienced. The journey to the destination is exhilarating, the anticipation of the volunteer experience is both exciting and unnerving. Mostly volunteerism is about giving of time but ‘travel to volunteer’ poses a unique situation in that the stability of home life and community is stripped away. Complete immersion within a new community makes one vulnerable and exposed to the many unknowns that the new living situation brings forth. The challenges of living in a different culture while learning first-hand about the Native American’s history and way of life, definitely enhanced the experience.

With eyes wide open and not knowing what they were getting themselves into upon arrival… after 6 weeks, N&J’s eyes have been opened wider with new knowledge and understanding of the challenges here (and all over the world), the time and experiences here are similar… but different, they leave here changed… and the realization of that change will come over time… as another adventure awaits 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *