From Pine Ridge to Pine Straw

Transitioning home from being at the Pine Ridge Reservation for a week as been incredibly difficult. For a week, I was emotional engaged with every observation, conversation, and moment. This engagement allowed me to grow my empathy, ask good questions, listen, and lead. In the moment, it was hard to know how exhausting this can be. Ultimtate, this is a focus, an intellectual high in which you don't want to leave. You want to lean in deeper, but the end of the beginning of my work with the Pine Ridge Reservation is here.


The hardest part is the guilt. I return to everything. I return to a place with easy services from gas to food. I return to my wifi, blazing fast and reliable. I return to my family, healthy, happy, and eager to talk about our next adventures in happiness. I return to the Masters. The golf tournament played each year that is the epicenter of privilege, tradition, and exclusivity. It is played on a course that has each piece of pine straw perfectly manicured while it seemed like everything at Pine Ridge was raw, exposed, and not what anyone would call manicured. 


My final hours at Pine Ridge were filled with incredible experiences, the same as the entire week. We saw programs and people that gave me hope. This included the teaching of William Peters at Pine Ridge High School in the area of Lakota Studies. Hope was also seen in the dormitory that houses children from 5-18 years old from throughout the reservation that needed a different place to live, so that they have a healthy space for learning. I felt hope in the new executive director of the tribe, "Tiger" Brown Bull, who has deep passion for his tribe. He is in charge of 59 programs and making sure that systems, policies, and procedures are revised to limit corruption and build a more efficient governance structure. Finally, I had a chance to listen to the beautiful voices of my colleagues on the trip as we appeared for an hour on community radio. Each of these incredible people were touched by the trip in a different way, but all of them are searching for ways to make a sustainable difference with our friends at Pine Ridge.

The drive home for me was over two days and 948 miles, and it provided a lot of time to suffer in the realities of Pine Ridge. The darkness of death and dying has oozed into everything there. I told someone that I wouldn't be surprised if everyone on the reservation suffered some level of post-traumatic stress. The depth and complexity of the poverty is like no other thing that I've experienced in the United States. Housing, health care, transportation, food availability, job opportunities, substance abuse, mental health and overall governance are all systems in tatters. The state of these systems makes the education system at Pine Ridge seem like the shining star of the reservation. 


So hard to feel my privilege again. So easy to forget about the week and move forward. I'm hoping that my deep care for the state of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation will allow me to find the right window to support the solution making mechanisms that are being attempted by those from within the tribe. 


Go to #pennlakota15 on Instagram or Twitter for other perspectives on the trip including over 100 images from the week.