Spring Break Alternative participants woke up this morning with a roof over their head, a mattress under their body heat to warm them, and a full breakfast waiting to be consumed. For many on Pine Ridge Reservation, this was not the case.
Morning activities were curtailed due to weather conditions, as the snowstorm of yesterday left roads too dangerous for travel this morning. Overnight, a biting wind whipped snow horizontally across the open land, as the temperature plummeted into the teens.
Bunk bed assembly continued through the morning, along with a special project: the building of a new door for the outhouse that had been relocated the day before at a residence in the community of Porcupine. Several students took it upon themselves after the day's work to take meticulous measurements of the opening – and approached the Re-Member staff at the conclusion of the day to inquire on the possibility of building the door, and returning to the site to install it.
Under a crisp blue sky, and a blanket of fresh white snow, the team of Saint Anselm students constructed the door carefully. The workshop was abuzz with the whirr of power sanders and circular saws as others continued the task of assembling the components for beds.
Following lunch, the groups split up to best utilize the afternoon. One van returned to Porcupine to install the door, and finish work inside the house. Others remained at Re-Member, helping staff with an inventory of building supplies and other odd-jobs around the workshop.
Your blogger followed the crew back to the Porcupine house, and watched as they carefully installed the door. Outside for two-plus hours in the cold, the door was carefully hung, and subsequently covered in a coat of fresh white paint.In the center of the door was inscribed a Lakota saying: Mitakuye Oyasin. Translated in English, this phrase means "we are all related."
As darkness settled over the hills, and as the group transitioned into their evening with board games and the opportunity to work on native crafts, a man who introduced himself as Kevin rolled into Re-Member in his wheelchair.
Kevin came to Re-Member to offer his artwork and crafts for sale. As he laid charcoal paintings out onto the tables, he informed the group that he was selling his works for as close to forty dollars as anyone could offer. A few students sat down to talk with him, and learned that he was down and out. His situation was bleak, and it was learned that he had hitchhiked some ten miles in his wheelchair on snow-covered roads to offer his work for sale. Several participants purchased his works, everyone marveled at them.
As Kevin prepared to leave, he was offered a van ride back to his home in the community of North Ridge. Accepting the offer, he asked on the ride home to stop at the only grocery store on the reservation – Lakota Nation in the village proper of Pine Ridge.
The following recounts the experience of bringing Kevin home, as told by the group that accompanied him:
Driving into his community, stray dogs ran loose in the streets. Houses were sprayed with graffiti, many houses appeared dark from the outside. A number of residences were boarded up, abandoned and partially collapsed or in extreme disrepair.
With grocery bags in hand, the front door of Kevin's house was opened. Inside light bulbs flickered with an unsteady flow of electricity. A small heater sat in the middle of the room, responsible for heating the whole first floor of the house. Clothing, dirty dishes and trash littered the countertops, furniture and floors. Seven children were inside the house with their mother.
As the grocery bags were carried in, the kids tore at the plastic to get into the food. With grace, Kevin introduced his family, his wife, and his newborn child.
Kevin came ten-plus miles in the snow and cold to Re-Member with no promise that anyone would purchase his artwork. He engaged the group in conversation for upwards of an hour, and was prepared to hitchhike back to Pine Ridge to buy what he could carry to feed his family.
Last night, Kevin and his family had food in their home — in part — because a group of students from Saint Anselm College came to South Dakota for their spring break, and bought his artwork. The unimaginable was verified yesterday.
In Kevin's home, and in a grocery store that offers meat scraps for sale, and a sparse selection of fruit and vegetables the stark reality of Pine Ridge Reservation became grossly apparent.
Additional photos are available on our Flickr photo sharing site.