Bury my heart at the Cheyenne River Reservation
This post is dedicated to Dan, Brendan, Dimp, Katie, Gabs, Steph, Jenn C., Eva, Colie, John, and Anna, and to the children of the Cheyenne River Reservation.
* * *
Earlier this month, as thousands of college students descended upon Daytona Beach and Cancun, I was visited by the Ghost of Spring Breaks Past. Three years ago, my editor at the university where I used to work asked me to write about the school’s Alternative Spring Break program. Thus I found myself South Dakota bound, speeding down I90 in a cramped 15-passenger van with 11 strangers, 22 bags of luggage, and a guitar.
We spent a week working with children of the Cheyenne River Reservation, an expanse that covers more than two million acres of South Dakota’s poorest soil. Indeed, a per capita income of only $7,463 makes it the single most impoverished area in the nation; more than three-quarters of its children live below the poverty line.
At the time of our trip, a nine-year drought had left the land parched, and the winds whipped mercilessly across the prairie as our van rattled down country highways riddled with potholes. Once we passed the state capital of Pierre, we didn’t see another gas station or convenience store until we reached the tiny community of Eagle Butte, nearly 100 miles away.
With a population density of only 1.3 people per square mile, the reservation doesn’t get many visitors. A three-hour drive from Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, it’s largely isolated from the outside world. No one bothers with cell phones; they don’t work. I turned mine off as soon as we left Pierre.
* * *
The 1,900-mile journey from Boston to Dupree was exhausting. We’d intended to drive through without stopping, but a blizzard in Buffalo waylaid our plans. A kindly rector at Trinity Episcopal invited us to wait out the storm in his church. He brewed us a vat of coffee, set us up in the nursery, and wished us safe travels. After he left, we entered the dimly lit sanctuary and sat silently in the wooden pews. On the other side of the stained glass windows, the wind howled and the snow swirled, but inside we were safe and warm. It was during this quiet moment of reflection that I knew this group of kids was something extraordinarily special.
* * *
We departed the next morning before dawn, after shoveling the church’s parking lot and sidewalks. Dupree was 1,400 miles away, but the roads–and the weather forecast–were clear, and we were rested and refreshed. The states passed by in a blur–Pennsylvania, with its snowbanks that reached my chest; Ohio, which served up the most amazing breakfasts at Canary’s Family Restaurant; Indiana, birthplace of Michael Jackson and Larry Bird; Illinois, where upon seeing a toll booth sign, a sleep-deprived Cherisse blurted, “What does Ill-i-no-is mean?”; Wisconsin, with its midnight cheese stop; and Minnesota, which I slept through.
We crossed into South Dakota at sunrise and pulled into a gas station. As the kids ran inside to replenish their supply of junk food, I stood shivering in the frigid morning and gazed across the surrounding fields. Ohio had done nothing to prepare me for the flatlands of South Dakota. Acres and acres of nothing stretched before me, as far as the eye could see. I was less than 2,000 miles from home, but standing under the exposed South Dakota sky, it felt like two million.
* * *
After stocking up on groceries in Pierre, we began the final leg of our journey. The strip malls and cookie-cutter houses quickly gave way to farms, until they, too, disappeared into the barren landscape. With the exception of a few abandoned shacks, we saw no signs of civilization until we rolled into Dupree and pulled up to the Sioux YMCA, our home for the next week.
Our site hosts, Claudia and Wynema, showed us around the building and immediately set us to work washing walls and programming the YMCA’s four computers. A few short hours later, the children arrived for their after-school program, and we found ourselves involved in a rowdy game of freeze tag.
Those who know me–and readers of this blog–may be surprised that I chose to chaperone a service trip that involved working with children. But I very much wanted to visit a reservation, and out of the 30 trips from which I could choose, this one called to me most. And so for one of the first times in my life, I trusted my instinct without question. “I’m going to South Dakota,” I told my editor. “What about New Orleans?” he suggested. “They’re doing Hurricane Katrina clean-up.” But I remained resolute. “No, South Dakota,” I said. “I want to go somewhere that isn’t on the news every night–someplace… forgotten.”
Forgotten is a good way to describe the Cheyenne River Reservation–and the people who live there. With the exception of a few families, the population–two-thirds of which survives on far less than one-third of the average American income–is comprised of members of the Lakota Nation. The alcoholism rate among residents is a shocking 627 percent higher than the national average, and the high school drop-out rate hovers at 50 percent. Despite its rural setting, the community is plagued by gang activity, and violence–from vandalism to murder–is on the rise. Such dismal living conditions have contributed to feelings of hopelessness and despair, particularly among the youth. Teen suicide rates on the reservation are three times the national average.
Having researched these statistics prior to our arrival, I expected the children to be… less childlike and more like the stereotypical stoic Indian. But they were young–and, like so many youngsters–resilient. They tore across the dusty yard, shrieking with delight as we chased them. They stayed until the sun began to set, scampering home only after much prodding from Wynema. “They don’t like to leave,” she told us afterward. “Here, they’re safe. At home… they’re not.”
* * *
I slept well that night. The cot was more comfortable than my pillow-top mattress back home, and the wind howling across the prairie lulled me into a deep and dreamless sleep.
* * *
Each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, the YMCA hosts a soup-and-social luncheon for the tribal elders. We helped prepare the hearty beef-vegetable soup while Bonita cut dough for frybread. A precursor to the funnel cake (or fried dough, as we call it in New England), frybread originated nearly 150 years ago, when the United States forced Indians onto reservations, away from their hunting grounds and farmlands. To prevent them from starving, the government issued them rations of white flour, processed sugar, and lard—the makings of frybread. It remains a dietary staple even today, a tradition that likely contributes to the growing epidemic of diabetes and obesity among Native Americans.
The elders and I watched in amusement as the kids slathered their frybread with peanut butter and Nutella. They’d burn off all that sugar soon enough, though; the children were due from school in just a few hours, and the games would begin anew.
We worked long hours that day. The Tribal Council met that evening, and we watched their children, even after the others had gone home. When we finally sat down to supper at 10 o’clock, we were surprised to find that none of us were really tired.
* * *
The next morning, we drove east to visit the elders who live at Eagle Butte Manor. Every Wednesday, YMCA workers organize a Bingo tournament for the elders, who play for hygiene supplies rather than for money. My partner’s name was Midge. She’d lived on the reservation her entire life, and had 10 children.
We played for more than an hour, the intensity increasing with each round. The elders focused intently on the game, their highlighters poised above their cards. At one point, a gentleman zoomed by the lobby on his motorized wheelchair. “Bingo!” he shouted, eliciting initial groans of disappointment among the players. By the time they realized it was a joke, he’d rounded the corner, cackling.
Midge and I won a round. She chose a toothbrush and toothpaste set as her prize. She planned to give it to her son. He had trouble with his teeth, she said, but he couldn’t afford to see a dentist.
* * *
That evening, we took a group of “Lakota Achievers”–members of a youth leadership program–to Eagle Butte to attend a college seminar that was being hosted by another group of spring break volunteers. Afterward, I saw Cherisse hugging one of the teenagers. She turned to me with tears in her eyes. “Her house burned down two years ago,” she said. “They’ve been homeless ever since.”
* * *
Thursday was our “free day.” We set off for the Black Hills before dawn and arrived at Mount Rushmore by mid-morning. The mountain was indeed a work of art, but I think Brendan accurately summed up what we were all thinking: “We took land that didn’t belong to us,” he said. “We took an entire mountain, and we carved our faces in it.”
Later, we stopped in Custer State Park, where we saw a herd of buffalo and played Frisbee on a frozen lake. I napped for about an hour during the drive back to Dupree. When I woke up, we were still on the highway. That’s strange, I thought, glancing at the clock on my cell phone. We should be on the two-lane road by now.
Puzzled, I peered out the window at the unfamiliar landscape. And then I saw the sign: “Wyoming welcomes you!”
“Are we in freaking Wyoming?!?” I yelled, waking my slumbering van mates.
From the driver’s seat, Dan gave a sheepish laugh. “Uh, we might have possibly missed a turn about 50 miles back,” he said. “I think we’re going to be late for dinner.”
* * *
I don’t think I shall ever forget Cherry Creek.
It sounds idyllic–like a town from the Lawrence Welk Show or A Prairie Home Companion. And while it’s true that Cherry Creek is a very small town–there are fewer than 400 residents–you’re more likely to hear about it on the evening news than a variety show.
Earlier in the week, we stuffed more than 700 plastic Easter eggs with candy, and on Friday we piled into the YMCA van and set off for Cherry Creek, where we planned to host an Easter egg hunt. Prior to our departure, Claudia warned us that we may be shocked by what we saw, but I don’t think any of us were fully prepared for what awaited us.
Like so much of South Dakota, the 35 miles that stretch between Dupree and Cherry Creek are barren but for the occasional tree. As Wynema expertly steered the van down the twisting roads, I marveled at the prairie’s stark beauty. That first morning in South Dakota, standing along the highway beneath that vast expanse of open sky unsettled me. By now, those feelings of isolation were familiar, and I found them to be oddly comforting.
I thought about the kids back in Dupree, particularly the teenagers who spoke so passionately of leaving the reservation to see the mountains, the ocean, the desert. The plains–with their razor-sharp grasses and dry, brittle soil–were all they knew. Few had traveled beyond Pierre, and many never would. Their world was small, their community smaller.
Without warning, we crested a small hill and rolled into town. With the exception of a few boarded up houses and trailers, their lawns littered with garbage and rusted-out vehicles, the place appeared to be deserted–and eerily so. We pulled up to a windowless building at the end of the street and unloaded the eggs from the back of the van. Women and children milled inside, patiently awaiting their monthly rations of soap, tooth paste, shampoo, and laundry detergent. While Wynema and Steph dolled out supplies, Jenn, Eva, and I headed outside to hide the Easter eggs along a hillside that overlooked the town.
The garbage was overwhelming: beer cans, broken bottles, food wrappers, cardboard boxes, tires, busted machine parts. Avoiding the piles of excrement–left by horses and dogs that freely roam the countryside–was like playing a complex game of hopscotch. As we tossed eggs onto the ground, our gazes met across the soiled landscape, and our eyes communicated what we couldn’t say out loud. Here? We’re going to let the children hunt for eggs in this filth?
But in the end, that’s what we did. They sprinted up the hillside, gleefully snatching the colorful eggs from the trash. It was all over within 10 minutes, and the children returned to the parking lot, their eyes shining as they clutched their bags of loot. I remained at the top of the hill for a few minutes longer, blinking away tears. That such unadulterated, unabashed joy could exist amidst such poverty, that these beautiful hills could be marred by such waste–it nearly broke my heart.
Further down the hill, the kids were talking to one of the townspeople, a 19-year-old who, for purposes of privacy, I will call A.J. Clad in baggy pants and a blue flannel shirt, he stood with his arms crossed against his chest, a blue bandana tied around the knuckles of his left hand. He was a Crip, he told us, but prison had reformed him. He rapped for us–about growing up in Cherry Creek, his family, what he’d done on the streets. He wanted to join Job Corps and sell his music, he said, so he could come back home to help his siblings.
But A.J. didn’t get to do any of those things. Six weeks later, police arrested him for intentionally setting a house fire that killed his 2-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister. He was sentenced to life in prison the following year.
An article in the Rapid City Journal quoted A.J.’s defense attorney as saying he grew up suffering “horrendous treatment” by his mother, whom she said abused him, introduced him to alcohol, and encouraged him to join a gang. The boy had no semblance of family life and basically grew up in various institutions from the time he was 10, she said.
I have pictures of the children who died in the fire. I have pictures of A.J. Three lives, extinguished. I weep for them.
* * *
We returned to Dupree that evening a little quieter than usual, and the children were waiting for us. But we didn’t send them home, not even after the sun went down. Instead, we let them walk us through town. The little ones ran ahead, while the teenagers hung back and chatted with us. One little boy tugged Brendan’s hand and pointed to a green house across the street. “We used to live there,” he said. “There was food.”
It was well after dark by the time we returned to the Y. Joining hands, we formed a huge spiral hug. And then, without a good-bye, the children were gone.
* * *
We left Dupree at three o’clock the next morning. I was the only one who’d bothered to sleep that night, and so I drove us the 140 miles south to the Badlands. We arrived just in time to watch the sun rise over the canyon.
* * *
In less than two months, Brendan and Anna will graduate. The rest of the kids (who aren’t really kids anymore) are scattered across the country. Dan works for Boeing in St. Louis. Cherisse landed her dream job working for the Philadelphia Eagles’s Youth Partnership Program. Gabby and Eva are Americorps volunteers in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. Steph is teaching English in Korea, and Jenn C. works for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington D.C. Katie and John chose to stay in Boston, while Colie randomly ended up in Champaign, Illinois. And I, as everyone knows, ditched journalism and went to dog grooming school.
Much to the surprise of nearly everyone who wasn’t on the trip with us, the 12 of us have remained close. In fact, I celebrated my last day of work at the university by hosting an ASB reunion at Jenn’s parent’s house on Cape Cod. Everyone but Jenn C. attended. We cooked incredible meals and built a bonfire in the backyard and stayed up until dawn playing Mafia. We watched the herring run in Brewster and ate fried clams along the pier in Provincetown. And at sunset we climbed the dunes along the National Seashore and stood in rapture as the wind blew in from across the Atlantic. I could think of no better way to end my career at the university than to spend a weekend with the people who made it all worth the experience.
Thank you, my beautiful Lakota Achievers. Let’s go back soon, shall we?
To learn more about volunteering at the Cheyenne River Reservation or to make a donation, visit the Sioux YMCA Web site.