In my first post, I talked about the Alternative Breaks Program at the University of Maryland and how my participation in the program is what fueled my passion for service. Today, American Indian Heritage Day, I look back on my trip to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which was probably the most eye-opening of the three AB trips I participated in. We worked with Re-Member, a nonprofit on Pine Ridge Reservation that seeks to improve the quality of reservation life for the Oglala Lakota People through relationships, shared resources, and volunteer services. The statistics on Pine Ridge are staggering. According to Re-Member’s website, as of 2007, Pine Ridge had:
- An unemployment rate of 80-90%
- Per capita income of $4,000
- Eight times the United States rate of diabetes
- Five times the United States rate of cervical cancer
- Twice the rate of heart disease
- Eight times the United States rate of Tuberculosis
- Alcoholism rate estimated as high as 80%
- 1 in 4 infants born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects
- Suicide rate more than twice the national rate
- Teen suicide rate four times the national rate
- Infant mortality three times the national rate
- Life expectancy on Pine Ridge was the lowest in the United States and the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Only Haiti had a lower rate.
During my week of service on Pine Ridge, I saw some of the poverty first hand while visiting the homes of elders on the Reservation, but I also got the opportunity to sit at the feet of those elders (and other speakers that Re-Member brought in) to learn about the history of the Lakota People and the reasons why they face so many struggles today. We also learned the Lakota phrase Mitakuye Oyasin, meaning “We are all related.” We saw how our history intertwined with the history of the Lakota and how our work on the Reservation would continue to affect the people we served for years to come. We, in turn, were changed as well.
Today, I won’t concentrate solely on the struggles the Lakota face, I will think about their rich heritage, the stories and traditions I learned on that trip to Pine Ridge. And I’ll encourage you to look into Tribes in your area, learn their history, and perhaps find a way to celebrate with them today.