Our proud American history wasn’t always one of honor. We built this great nation on the backs of the Native Americans who occupied this land long before we ever arrived. Around the same time that slaves’ rebels took over slaver Amistad and we were already electing our 8th President, as a country we were marching enslaved Native Americans into camps or reservations. Over 60 years after penning the Declaration of Independence. Still the only history passed down in schools tends to highlight the gracious luncheon with Columbus, hints at the injustice and the occasional brave fight. What people don’t understand fully is the historical trauma we have caused to the Native American culture.
We moved forward with our ideals and never looked back at the damage we caused. Giving them substandard land and tying their hands, we washed our own of the disgrace from which we achieved it. However, this isn’t about shame or guilt…it is about acknowledgment, understanding and learning to do better.
Rooted in their heritage and pride, America’s first people straddle both the past and the present. Branded early on by Hollywood and societal stereotypes, our government ensured that the reservations where far from cities…like many third world countries. The vivid reminders were kept at a distance. On the Pine Ridge reservation, many live in impoverished surroundings where the rates of teen suicide are astronomical and many men consider 40 to be the year that rings in the end of life. With rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, the options appeared limited for future generations. Yet Our America with Lisa Ling shows us that it was anything but.
Now it’s important to realize that not all Native Americans have the same issues. However there is a population that can use our help. Since we were the ones who originally pushed them down, it only feels right to help them to their feet. I am certain our intentions were not to wipe out an entire blood line, but often the consequences of greed and war can lead down that slippery slope. If anything this needs to serve as a lesson on how to treat others and do the right thing regardless of circumstances.
Through the eyes of the show we were given a glimpse into the lives of those living on the Pine Ridge reservation. There didn’t seem to be much aside from dust, land and trailers which house our nation’s strongest and proudest families. There was little for anyone, including restless teens, to do on the reservation or “rez” as they called it. 80% of the people were unemployed. There were no jobs, no malls, movie theaters or supermarkets. Although the show didn’t highlight the SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club recreation facility, you could see that there were people who are trying to change the legacy of their people. However, with little else to do, many of America’s first people turned to alcohol. Being that the reservation is dry (meaning there is no liquor allowed to be sold), the nearest liquor stores rake in $4 million a year from those running low on hope.
Lisa Ling began by accenting those who were trying to make a difference in the Lakota community, starting with Eileen Janis who with a hand full of volunteers ran the only suicide hotline. A hotline that has received calls from children as young as five years old. In addition, the community set up a small powerful program for young girls dealing with the effects that were created by societies’ hopelessness and addiction. They are literally trying to pull these children up from the ground. During the ritual of the sweat lodge, Lisa Ling entered their spiritual refuge which was believed to offer spiritual answers, wisdom and guidance. This was the place to repair their spirits, minds and bodies. “We need to put hope inside their heart. We need to teach them our own spirituality of what keeps them going no matter how hard it is,” Eileen shared.
Our America continued by introducing us to a father, Roger Mills, who had turned his life around and struggled to make a better life for his children. As he and his 13 year-old son, Misun, prepare for a Native American Powwow competition, we observed the culture being handed down from one generation to next. We watched Misun transform into a proud warrior within his costume. His pulse could be felt with each beat of the drum and every step that followed. It was easy to see the beauty in their tribal traditions. But not all of the solutions for a better life were taken from their roots.
Pine Ridge local Joe “Crazy” Mesteth and others worked hard to bring lightness into the lives of the future generations on the “rez”. With support from the Stronghold Society, concrete was laid for a skatepark in the most unlikely of places. Hope was sprouting up all over the reservation. As children took to their boards, the rest just melted away. They were like any other kid in America grinding down the sides and catching air.
Fighting to regain control over their lives and improve the future of the community, natives took to their roots once again to remind their children of who they are. An eighth grade cultural studies teacher, Kip “Spotted Eagle,” stepped forward to help them on the journey. He hoped to instill the self-reliance that once sustained their ancestors. Young men set down their video games and headed out into their reality and learn to hunt for food, as their ancestors had before them. Living off canned foods given out by the government, many of the Native Americans believe that their health would improve if they could go back to their old ways of living off the land and forgo the processed supplements. This was about self-reliance, self-respect, the health of their families and so much more. We watched them make their first kill. They stood over the deer praying and silently acknowledging the heaviness of taking a life. “I sat there praying for it hoping it would have a safe journey. Because it gave its live up for us, for my family,” one of the boys shared. They were bringing home food for their family…and that meant more than many of us can even imagine.
Once again, OWN’s Our America with Lisa Ling shined a spotlight on a backyard we rarely think about in our great country, but do not mistake the stories of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for a stereotype. Not all of their stories are of addiction and poverty. There are many proud Native Americans embedded in our societies with their strong roots and rich heritage. Despite Pine Ridge’s past, the Lakotas are finding hope amongst their grim statistics and making changes that are certain to improve the lives of future generations.
Photo credit: OWN