Pine Ridge: A Gift of Transformative Generosity

At the beginning of June, I had the privilege of spending a week on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The trip was the culmination of a ten week class offered through the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO called The Church and the Colonial Residual: Pine Ridge, the Black Hills, Missionaries and Indian Justice.

I felt a bit nervous about the trip, as I did not want to be one more person of privilege who came, saw and got the t-shirt from Pine Ridge. I did not want to take anything away from the community, as if they were simply historical pieces of memory only worthy of a digital picture for my online photo album. Due to the deep generosity of the people, however, I found that it was nearly impossible to spend time there and not take multiple gifts and insights away with me as we left South Dakota. Furthermore, to reject these gifts of transformative generosity would only serve in perpetuating the pedagogy of privilege.

Several Catholic organizations and communities have settled in Pine Ridge, setting up schools and other social services to help provide education and support for the community. There seems to be mixed feelings among residents regarding their presence, although no one we spoke with questioned the good intentions of the current existing groups. The introduction or more accurately, the infliction of Catholicism upon Lakota communities was part of the colonizing, ‘civilizing’ process. Although many now claim Catholicism as their own religious belief, having to reconcile the differences between the Catholic religion and Lakota culture, beliefs and spirituality still remains a burden of current day colonization for others.

Inside the reservation, the lack of infrastructure, employment, equitable access to land and social services are clearly outweighed by the kindness, generosity, honesty and hope I saw and felt from the people with whom we interacted. They were the first ones to talk about the sad realities of alcoholism, drugs, domestic abuse and other crimes on the reservation that are plaguing their communities and tempting their youth. They were also the first to suggest solutions and the resources needed in order to support and implement them, emphasizing first communal as well as personal responsibility as a means of overcoming the multi-layered problems.

Outside of Pine Ridge, dialogues surrounding the complications of reservation and Indian life are filled with arguments falling on the spectrum between the American language of law and personal responsibility and unhealthy communal dealings of post traumatic stress; the latter conveniently ignored and dismissed because of its ‘subjective’ nature and elevation of Indian communities as people who were wronged. Wronged meaning terrorized. Terrorized meaning strategically killed off, ‘tamed’ and shaped into being ‘useful’ individuals; the epitome of the great American narrative.

Lakota people themselves fall along the same spectrum, as they too have been taught the stories of the great Western expansion, the lure of Manifest Destiny for courageous pioneers and the dominance and superiority of American democracy. Although their elders try to teach them otherwise, their own ancestral, human identities are only included in this recorded history as warlike savages eager to kill. They hardly even exist within the current day American narrative except for serving as a professional or college sports mascot or fan ‘battle cry’ or cheer.

At this point I can no longer pretend that I am only a passive observer of these complicated issues of injustice. My personal work must be rooted in an analysis of communal systems of oppression and privilege. I must continue to question and challenge the structures and communities with whom I identify and benefit from, including my religious tradition.

What would it look like if the Catholic response to issues of injustice on Pine Ridge was a financial contribution to the people of the community, while non-Indian persons spent time and energy casting new light on past and current injustices of the U.S. government in its dealings with Lakota people? Surely these injustices, rooted in racism and the myth of meritocracy, are considered worthy of the progressive Catholic title of: social justice issues? Why then is it more acceptable to participate in mission work than to question and challenge the very laws and systems which perpetuate these injustices? Being able to ask these questions is, in itself a privilege.

And yet, the gifts and insights given by the people of Pine Ridge were very clear: the heart for community, lifting up and embracing of one another’s gifts and differences, taking care and sharing responsibility for one another, two-leggeds and four-leggeds alike, still exists. Community-centered worldviews are prevalent in a variety of countries and cultures, including the Lakotas on Pine Ridge. Although they exist in a different form than life prior to the European invasion they continue to diligently, consistently walk on Grandmother’s Road; a road of compassion, humility (the original concept did not include the Christian connotation of the word), fortitude and deep generosity. In spite of hardships, in spite of failings; this remains the spirit of the Lakota people.

I am called to learn from my own historical family origins as well as my American Indian brothers and sisters as to how to live with integrity, compassion, a sense of justice and mutual responsibility. My response to injustice must be rooted not only in love but in a critical historical and social analysis of the commonly accepted American narrative which continues to re-enforce itself through laws while shaping our society today. Only then can my own gifts and contributions have the possibility of becoming truly transformative.

I respectfully and humbly give thanks for my Pine Ridge experience and ask for guidance from those who have come before me and forgiveness from those who come after me as I continue on this life journey.

Interested in learning more? Check out the following resources:

Missionary Conquest by George E. Tinker

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge: Family Ties, Warrior Culture, Commodity Foods, Rez Dogs and the Sacred
by Vic Glover

The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living by Joseph Marshall, III

Amy is from Denver, CO and enjoys spending time with her family, both in the Denver and Seattle areas.  A lover of nature, she and her dog Benny have enjoyed exploring many of the Colorado hiking trails this summer.


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