“This is what true revolutions are about. They are about redefining our relationships with one another, to the Earth and to the world; about creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old; about hope, not despair; about saying yes to life and no to war; about finding the courage to love and care for the peoples of the world as we love and care for our own families.” —Grace Lee Boggs
When I think of a revolution, I think of one of the fundamental tools of freedom that is ignored and keeps us disenfranchised: solidarity. When we unite, we are more powerful. Joe Feagin argues that alienating racist relations make it difficult for people of different races to recognize their commonalities, and to achieve solidarity in fighting broader patterns of inequality that affect the vast majority of people in society, regardless of their race. The history of the Native people is a perfect example of this power, as we have all ignored the damage we have inflicted.
The Native people have been oppressed and dehumanized since the founding of this great country, brutalized and tortured by pilgrims on the Mayflower and forced to erase much of their cultural history and richness. The Lakota, specifically, currently possess 5% of the land originally owed to them by numerous treaties (See Fort Laramie Treaty for the most famous one). Our federal government has broken every single treaty and seized all of the lands that are usable, confining the people to “utilize” the Badlands — land that is so destitute it struggles to grow grass. Aside from its terrain, the land is the burial ground of hundreds of their ancestors massacred in an attempt to protect their land and their people. Many residents say the spirits come alive at night and screaming and the sound of gunshots can be heard at Wounded Knee, the site of at least 300 murders of the Lakota people. They are forced to subsist on meager and unhealthy food rations provided by the federal government. Their original food source, the buffalo, was wiped out in an attempt at assimilation.
In March, myself and six others traveled 14 hours by van to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, home of the Lakota Sioux Reservation. This was my final trip, my final ABI at Loyola, and I was terrified that I was overstepping, entering a community where I was not wanted. Alternative Break Immersions, transformative and wonderful in their foundation, often struggle to maintain the ethical boundary between learning and “providing service” — often coming to communities who never asked for help in the first place. This trip is infamously one of the hardest — groups are intentionally made small to minimize the impact, and each group member should have a foundational understanding of the ABI pillars, even if they have not been on an ABI before. And for a generally welcoming group of people, they have been taken advantage of too many times to trust everyone.
The group researched, read, and educated themselves for a few months before attending this trip, and we all believed we were “prepared”: we had an idea of what the reservation is like. But what I saw, I could not have imagined.
The first step in beginning a revolution is to become proximate. A famous quote by Max Warren states the important task in becoming proximate:
“Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on people’s dreams. More seriously still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival.”
AlJazeera states that “The US Census Bureau’s 2014 study found that more than 52 percent of residents in Oglala Lakota, the largest of Pine Ridge’s three counties, lived below the poverty line”. When looking at the news articles, the media, and often, the reservation itself, it seems that the Lakota people have everything stacked against them. “They are voiceless”, we often hear, “The Native people have not been able to recover”.
In many aspects, that is true. The Lakota people have suffered for years under the thumb of the Federal Government and the American people. Each vote for a President, whether it be Barack Obama or Donald Trump, is a vote against the well-being of all Native people in the United States. Every citizen who visits Mount Rushmore, who hikes a Black Hill, contributes to the history of oppression for the Native people. But what is important to note is that they are not voiceless — they have been speaking for generations, but no one has been willing to pass the microphone, to be proximate and hear their stories. I am, by no means, an expert on their story, but instead a messenger, an advocate for each individual to begin to listen to their stories.
The Lakhota (spelled in the Lakota language) consists of several tribes within a confederacy of three dialects: Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota. The Lakota is the largest and most Western of these groups and reside mostly in North and South Dakota. Historically, they should have more, their ancestral land spanning over four states. When Pine Ridge Reservation was initially created, the Lakota Sioux were given 140 acres and 3 cattle each, erasing their pivotal circular living arrangement and installing capitalistic values into a community. They were not allowed to leave the imaginary confines of the reservation and were forced to look at their sacred land, the Black Hills, for over 70 years, from their homes.They watched as their sacred Black Hills were torched and bombed to etch the faces of four presidents that aided in their torture and oppression. Any attempt to exit the reservation meant they could be arrested or killed. White people stole their land and any retaliation of defense would mean hundreds would be killed. Their children were kidnapped and placed in Catholic schools; beaten, dunked in vats of chemicals because Indians were considered “dirty”, hair shaved, and forced to speak English, not Lakota.
To narrate the Lakota without highlighting their strength, resilience, and tenacity despite this oppression is a disservice to their narrative. The Lakota are not weak but are crippled by the actions of a federal government that have brutalized their people since the English arrival on the Mayflower. The people are not voiceless, but instead shut down and erased of any narrative other than one constructed by their oppressors.
After a Sunday service at the Oglala Catholic Church, a participant in our group asked a Lakota man how he feels about President Trump and the effect he could have on his community. His response was, “We have survived the last 44 presidents, we can survive this one”. Their survival is embedded, and necessary.
For the majority of the week, Loyola worked in classrooms at Red Cloud Indian School (RCIS), a K-12 Roman Catholic private school located on the reservation. While our focus was to teach coping skills, we also had the privilege in observing a typical class within each grade level. RCIS is home to Catholic and Lakota teachings, including Lakota language and culture classes in order to revive the language. The majority of RCIS graduate with honors, attend four-year universities and often, return to the reservation. This return to make their own impact is uncommon, as the average amount of students who leave the rez do not return, causing an intellectual “brain-drain”.
After school, we often spoke with residents of the reservation to better understand the culture we had immersed ourselves in or traveled to locations surrounding the reservation. We met Sister Barb, a nun who travels hundreds of miles every Sunday to pick up Lakota elders to attend mass. Sometimes, only five attend mass, but Sr. Barb makes sure it continues. We met Linn Cross Dogg, a mechanic at Red Cloud Indian School that candidly spoke of alcoholism and the way it permeates the community; almost every individual has a personal connection to alcoholism. Our car drove past FEMA trailers in which families of 6 or more lived in. The trailers themselves were intended to be used for up to a year until the government built houses, but many families have been living in their trailers since 1999.
Many fear becoming proximate because it often exposes us more than we would like. In Holy Rosary Chapel, located at Red Cloud Indian School, there are fourteen stations of the Cross that depict Jesus as a Lakota man in Lakota garb. Contrary to other Stations of the Cross, the Roman Army is depicted as 7th Calvary (a United States cavalry army regiment headed by General Custer). White people. Systemic oppression thrives in these places, in our history, but also in complacency in the present. The very injustices occurring in the 21st century are the result of our ancestors. Individuals outside the reservation have the privilege to ignore the injustices that occur within the reservation. They ignore history, or worse, change it, in an attempt to justify and absolve themselves of guilt and pain. Unlike many acts of trauma in the United States history, all Americans are complacent in allowing Native people to live in these conditions. All individuals: young, old, Black, White, Asian, live on the land belonging to those confined to a few square acres. Mother Theresa said, “Forgive us, Lord, if we unwittingly share in the conditions or in a system that perpetuates injustice”. However, the only we can be forgiven is if we acknowledge and work to eradicate these systems.
There is more I wish I could say, wish I could articulate. There is a reason it has taken me months to draft this post. For my group, there are often no words to describe the beauty, the pain, the reconciliation we experienced on our trip to Pine Ridge. Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. The Sacred, the Divine, or the Great Mystery. Instead of our testimonies, we were given the tools to begin the process of healing, of forgiveness, and of social justice. Garrett Gundlach, SJ said that “Some things in life aren’t invitations to change, they are imperative to change”. It is no longer our choice to determine if we help others or, more importantly, fight with others. Solidarity is pivotal and preserves ourselves and this Earth.
For ways to get involved, check out these websites:
- American Indian Association of Illinois: The American Indian Association of Illinois strives to transform American Indian education into an experience founded in native culture, language, and history fused with knowledge, excellence, and tribal values which will enhance tribal nations and urban native communities where American Indian families work, live, worship, attend school, care for their elders, and raise their children.
D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies: Its goals are to encourage the use of the Newberry collections in these areas of study; improve the quality of what is written about American Indians and indigenous peoples; educate teachers about American Indian and indigenous cultures, histories, and literatures; assist American Indian tribal and indigenous historians in their research; and provide a meeting ground where scholars, teachers, tribal historians, and others can discuss their work with each other. Fellowships and programs are available.
- Stand With Standing Rock: The fight to clean water access still is not over. Stay up to date with information regarding the pipeline and ways you can help.