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Powwow Ceremonies on Pine Ridge Reservation Honor Persons with Disabilities
by Joe Ehman
The 5,000 square mile Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (Rez) is located in southwestern South Dakota. The second-largest Indian reservation in the United States, Pine Ridge was created by Congress in 1889. Today the Reservation is but a tiny piece of land left from that guaranteed by earlier treaties. As gold and other valuable minerals were discovered, land was taken from the reservation.
About 20,000 people live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. 16,000 tribal members live there with non-Indians and members of other tribes. The Lakota Sioux who are enrolled tribal members, participate as citizens on the reservation and are subject to jurisdiction of the tribal government.
Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota, as they call themselves, means "friendly people" or "ally." Once nomadic, they roamed the Great Plains of contemporary North America and Canada. In their traditional belief, they originated in the Black Hills and were taught how to live by White Buffalo Calf Woman. It was she who gave the men the traditional values of bravery, generosity, and wisdom and to the women she gave values of truthfulness and childbearing.
The Federal Indian Reorganization Act of 1936 gives the Oglala Lakota Nation its authority. Members of the tribe contend that Pine Ridge is a sovereign nation. Issues surrounding sovereignty spark constant friction between Pine Ridge/Oglala Lakota Nation, the state of South Dakota, and the United States.
The Nation is governed by a tribal council which has 16 elected members that represent nine electoral districts in the Oglala Lakota Nation/Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: Pine Ridge, Eagle Nest, La Creek, Medicine Root, Pass Creek, Porcupine, Wakpamni, White Clay, and Wounded Knee. The tribal president and vice-president are elected at large and both serve two-year terms. Agencies and services similar to those provided in American communities are under the control of the tribal government. The tribe also operates 20 departments and the Oglala Lakota College.
Aspects of Pine Ridge confuse many people who are not familiar with reservation life. From 20th century court decisions, executive orders, and acts of Congress, the United States government has recognized tribal governments and American Indians as their wards. The national government is their trustee. The federal agency charged with administering the programs and trusteeship is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And, as history has taught us, the BIA does not always carry out its responsibilities in the best interest of their wards.
Contrary to the belief of many people who donít live on reservations, American Indians do not receive monthly checks from the federal government. Indians are eligible for financial assistance provided by the federal government, the same assistance provided to all Americans, such as TANF, SSI, Food Stamps, and farm subsidies.
The unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is extremely high at over 80 percent. In one-third of households no one is employed and household incomes average about $3,000 annually.
Poverty is often a result of little or no education. The people of Pine Ridge have a history of being abused in educational situations. In the American governmentís effort to anglicize the Lakota people, churches were permitted to operate missions on the Rez. Children were taken from their families and sent to church operated boarding schools, many of which were located in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The children were taught that their parents were savages, their only future would be in a trade, and Christianity would save them from the evils of their culture. These missionaries shaved the childrenís hair off to further alienate them from their culture. If they spoke their native language, the missionaries washed out the childrenísí mouths with soap.
Because the memories are still vivid, today when an Indian child quits school, the parents remember their experience and do not encourage the child to return. Therefore the high school drop out rate is over 50%.
Lack of education and low income create another problem on the Rez - alcoholism. Alcohol abuse is amplified by the bleak nature of reservation life. Contributing to alcohol abuse are the past government programs which promoted dependency. These programs were often paternalistic in nature and took away the traditional Indian maleís role in the family and community. Because of the high rate of alcoholism, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, car accidents resulting in death, spinal cord injuries, head injuries and other permanent disabilities are direct results of alcohol abuse on the Rez.
According to the old traditions, people with disabilities were seen as teachers from the Creator. However, the Lakota were Americanized and that belief changed. People with disabilities were seen as bad, as a punishment to the family for something they did wrong.
Although recently, to show their support for people with disabilities, the Oglala Lakota Nation adopted the Americans with Disabilities Act as their own law. All tribal offices, agencies, schools, and colleges are accessible. The goal: to bring people with disabilities back into the community as full citizens.
A great tradition on the Rez is the Pow Wow. People from all over gather for days at a time to dance, sing, pray, honor, and build a sense of community. Also common at Pow Wows now are honoring ceremonies for people with disabilities.
The drumming is like a heart beat. The songs are like a call from the past driving deep into the soul. The opening ceremony, called the Grand Entry, is lead by veterans wearing their combat uniforms carrying the Lakota and American flags. (Over 100 Lakota proudly served in the Gulf War. Countless others served in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Grenada.) The dancers follow wearing traditional hand-crafted regalia, the vibrant colors and intricate bead work create an indescribable sight. Dancers of all ages participate in many dance categories.
At a traditional Pow Wow, guests are fed at no charge. The food consists of fry bread, beef or buffalo stew, baked beans, wojapi pudding, and all types of salads and cakes. When the arena announcer calls for eating time, the chow line forms as follows: dancers and singers, veterans, elders, people with disabilities, and then everyone else. Often times, elders and people with disabilities have their plates brought to them out of respect, and children have their own chow line.
My first experience in Pine Ridge was attending the Wild Horse Butte Pow Wow. I was introduced to the community and asked to participate in an honoring for persons with disabilities. My name was announced, a drum group sang an honoring song, and people came and danced with me. After the dance, I remained in the arena and everyone there came and shook my hand to welcome me. That was over five years ago, and I still go to the Rez.
Each visit brings more friends and amazing experiences and I am serving my second term on the Bear Creek Pow Wow committee. . To my knowledge, I am the first non-Indian to serve on this committee for a Pow Wow that is over 50 years old. I am humbly honored.
I have been honored by committee members, including past Tribal President, Charles Bettelyoun. Charles is a respected elder in the community. When I visit Charles I hear the stories of Wounded Knee and of the stand off between AIM and the FBI. The Lakota are an oral people and his first hand accounts teach me more than any history book. He also translates for me at the Pow Wows when the announcer speaks Lakota.
Both Lakota and English are used on the Rez. Even on the Lakota radio station the disc jockeys speak both Lakota and English. KILI FM radio broadcasts across the Lakota Nation, and for many is the only source of news. KILI covers important tribal and federal government meetings, translating them into Lakota for the elders who do not understand English.
The man who calls me "Brother" invited me to visit him. His name is Lyle Bald Eagle, and he is the son of a pipe carrier. Mr. Bald Eagle directs the Indian Vocational Rehabilitation on Pine Ridge. He has provided many ramps and roll-in showers for the disabled. His work conflicts with the federal government requirements for vocational rehab service provision. But, what works in the white world may not work in the world of the Native American.
Recently, Mr. Bald Eagleís staff was questioned about their qualifications to work as VR counselors. None of them have the almighty degree, although some are students at Oglala Lakota College. What they do have is knowledge of reservation life, of living with a disability, and of surviving the bureaucracy of the white man. However, according to federal regulations, these real experiences do not qualify them as VR counselors.
Part of the Pine Ridge VR program is to do outreach. Though this seems simple enough, there are obstacles. Dirt roads that wash out during thunderstorms and are not plowed in the winter are the only way to access the nearly 5,000 square miles ofreservation land. There is a lack of public transportation, and less than 50% of the Pine Ridge people have telephone service. The VR van is lift equipped, but when a VR counselor visits a client, that client may live 100 miles away. The Feds ask why the VR clients donít come to one of two offices (about 75 miles apart). Lyle responds, "No one in the house has a car."
A contributing factor to this lack of service is the length of time a tribal government serves. In accordance with the treaties, this time period is only two years. When a new government is elected, new members come in, appoint new people to head tribal agencies and new programs are started. This is insufficient time to develop and implement a new program. The people see that the new programs donít work, so they elect a new government in hopes of improvement. However, the tribal government controls most aspects of VR on the Rez and so the cycle continues.
Lack of an independent living center is also a problem. "Most people with disabilities donít have a place to call their own," explains Mr. Bald Eagle. "The vets have the Veteranís
Center, the elders have the Gray Feather Society, and the kids have many clubs and activities. An Independent Living Center is desperately needed for people with disabilities." Mr. Bald Eagle tried working with the tribal council, but the vicious politics derailed any hope of Americaís first ILC on a reservation.
However, Mr. Bald Eagle is a man with a vision. Currently, he is raising funds to start an ILC, one that will differ from the white manís. The travel distances will require some sort of housing arrangement. The lack of occupational and physical therapy rehab services mean that a gym, pool, and whirlpool are needed. Consumer controlled home health care services will also be provided by the ILC, including attendant training classes.
"Iím looking at Atlantis Community in Denver, Colorado and the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center in Topeka, Kansas as models to follow. But, the ILC here will be operated on Lakota tradition," Said Mr. Bald Eagle in describing his vision.
Hopefully, the political squabbles that prevented the tribal council from supporting an ILC may be temporary. Such disputes are no different than those that exist in the disability community and mainstream America as a whole. Often times such disputes reach non-Indian news, and are reported without the full story, suggesting that reservation political life is much different than politics in our national and state capitols.
The most visible part of Pine Ridge is the poverty. Few resources exist for economic development. Most of the water is not drinkable due to soil conditions. Many households are extended families (a Lakota tradition) of seven or more members living off a single Supplemental Security Income check. A few mom and pop businesses operate alongside a few tribal owned businesses employing some people. Most employment is with the tribal agencies: schools, social services, the BIA, and chartered organizations which depend on federal funding.
The starkness of the landscape provides a scenery available nowhere else on Earth. The rolling prairie, the Wounded Knee Massacre sight, the Badlands, and the Black Hills are views many Americans will never see.
Despite their bleak history and poverty, these people stay active in a rich culture; The people of Pine Ridge remain proud.