Thursday, June 10, 2010

Life on "The Rez"

I wonder what that dude with the scraggly hair and hoodie does all day? Was he motioning to me, or just generally waving his hands? Heidi returns from the gas station on the corner of the highway, clearly dissatisfied. “Well, didn’t they have a bathroom?” I asked.

“No,” she explained with angst in her voice, “The guy didn’t speak good English. I dunno what he did speak but he said, ‘it no work.’

“Do you wanna try that gas station across the street, or just look for the place?” I inquired.

“Let’s just get there and then I can go,” she declared, becoming increasingly frustrated with the combination of her physical condition and my incessant badgering. She threw the van in gear and we started driving up and down the streets of McLaughlin, SD, looking for any sign of the Natural Law Institute.

McLaughlin is a town of fewer than 800, set up in the traditional grid pattern. There are probably only a dozen or so city blocks in the town center, so we figured we could simply spot the place. But after driving up and down about half of them we became increasingly frustrated, and I more brave. “I saw some kids downtown. Let’s go ask them.”

Heidi pulled into a parking spot right in front of the downtown senior center where three Native youth were loitering about on the sidewalk out front. “Excuse me,” I inquired rather sheepishly, “do you know where Robert White Mountain’s house is?”

“Robert White Mountain? Go down to the school and hang a right. You’ll go up a block and see a red house on the corner. That’s his place,” a long-haired teen explained while motioning in the air at the same time. Two minutes later we were at the place which we would call home for the next four days.

“You must be Guy & Heidi,” said a friendly white woman who opened the door before we could knock. She was carrying a hefty toddler of Native descent. “I’m Beth, Robert’s wife. He’s just across the street checking out a sofa the neighbor’s giving away. He should be back pretty soon.”

The Natural Law Institute is a non-profit, and the brainchild of Robert White Mountain, a proud member of the Hunkpapa Lakota, the nation most well-known for the famous Chief Sitting Bull (who refused to agree to any treaties with the US, arguing that the white man would never honor the deals it struck with the indigenous peoples. In the late 1800’s Sitting Bull was killed at the orders of Colonel McLaughlin because he was seen as a threat to the peace on the Standing Rock Agency, which the Colonel was responsible for. More than a century later, a number of Sitting Bull’s descendants live in a town, on the Standing Rock Reservation, named after the man who ordered the great Hunkpapa leader killed. [Many of the Lakota people refer to the town as Bear Soldier, however it is legally known as McLaughlin.])

White Mountain formed the non-profit after seeing a tremendous need for a positive, Native-run, resource in the community. Among his goals: get youth interested in Lakota culture, empower the community, create sustainable community-based agricultural projects, create sanctuaries for the buffalo and end what he refers to as, “the Indian Wars.”

“I’m not Indian,” the hulking man explained with a rather serious look in his eyes. “Indian is a word they created. Indians are hopeless, helpless, uneducated and savage. I’m none of those things. I am Hunkpapa Lakota. I am not an Indian.”

After exchanging the obligatory greetings we helped White Mountain hoist a shabby and torn leather sofa onto his minivan, so that his nephew Chat could use it. “It’s pretty nice,” the nephew stated approvingly. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but think the only place that couch belonged was in a landfill. We dropped it off at Chat’s house, one of sixty in a new Federal housing development, before taking a quick tour of town.

“With 60 new families getting shipped in it’s gonna be HOT this summer. And they just spent another $26 million for a surge in police, for a total of 72 on ‘the rez’. Most of those are here because crime is the worst here in Bear Soldier,” Robert explained to me and Heidi as he drove us through Native neighborhoods, occasionally waving to a friend.

He was right: The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) recently received a $26 million federal grant in order to, temporarily, increase the police presence in an attempt to reduce crime by a whopping 5%. Robert allowed me to peruse a thick report, issued by the BIA, on the surge. No permanent solutions. No community involvement. Simply an increase in police presence, creating an even greater sense of a police state on “the rez.” This was the Indian Wars White Mountain was referring to.

“They say they want to improve things. Well, you don’t do that by sending in the cavalry. How is this any different than what they did here 100 years ago?” he quizzed the na├»ve Minnesota couple who had just arrived to get their hands dirty and learn about the Lakota culture while, perhaps, cleansing their psyches for not being like the Wasichu who came before them.

Wasichu (wa-shee-choo) is a Lakota term and has come to refer to white people, although the literal translation is “fat eater” or “one who eats the fat.” And, that’s exactly what the settlers who came across the plains in the 18th & 19th centuries did. They exploited the land, settled on buffalo migratory lands (which was also used by the indigenous people for hunting), and brought with them delights such as smallpox and the poison which still plagues 90% of the Standing Rock Agency’s native population: liquor. From there came broken treaty after broken treaty, herding a proud nomadic culture onto a small patch of barren land (much of which isn’t even Native-owned today). And when resistance to the government’s actions continued there was a systematic destruction of one of North America’s last great mammals: the buffalo. The bison population was nearly wiped out completely, all in an attempt to quell the “savage” Natives who had the audacity to refuse the gracious handouts which were being offered them. It worked: Sitting bull was murdered and the remaining Lakota had little choice but to move onto the agencies/reservations, or face certain death. “As the buffalo goes,” White Mountain explained to us, “so go the Lakota people.”

As we were being educated in the home of Beth & Robert a siren, like those for severe weather, went off at 6pm (“slow time.” The reservation sits just west of the Missouri River, which divides Central and Mountain Time zones. While McLaughlin is technically in Mountain Time many of the Natives go by “fast [/Central] time,” while the whites and governmental agencies go by “slow [/Mountain] time.”

“Don’t worry. There’s no severe weather. That’s just the old curfew siren. One goes off at 6 and another at 10. Back in the day they could shoot an Indian if they were out past that time,” White Mountain explained.

“So why does it still go off?” Heidi wondered.

“Who knows… Probably just nostalgia,” he guessed.

Time after time during our short experience at Standing Rock Agency I was overwhelmed by the conditions faced by its inhabitants. White Mountain is a firm believer that we are all responsible for ourselves, but the fact is these people start out squarely behind the 8-ball. With very little business or industry in the area unemployment runs rampant…somewhere in the area of 85% (contrasted with the statewide unemployment rate of 5.3% in South Dakota.) With so few opportunities many people are forced to take a government handout to survive; this totals about $400/month. (Taking any employment means the loss of this benefit, and with very few FT, well-paying opportunities most people choose to take the monthly check and stay unemployed.) These conditions merely perpetuate a feeling of despair, and a lack of motivation to make a change for the better. Sadly, it really is no wonder that 24 people committed suicide in McLaughlin within 21 days last year.

In the center of town there is an entrepreneurial center, designed to help people create their own small businesses; it often sits empty. Many of the indigenous people have the opportunity to attend classes at Sitting Bull College with no cost to themselves, yet they lack the desire to get educated only to sit at home unemployed afterwards. (In fact, most qualify for an additional stipend upon completion of courses. Previously, the stipend was paid out ahead of time and often wasted on booze.) The fact is that many of us would buckle under the pressures which are faced daily by the Hunkpapa Lakota, along with many other proud nations which have been relegated to small patches of land that also lack the opportunities these United States are known for.

The Natural Law Institute serves as a beacon of hope in an otherwise sad and depressing land. With various (and extremely small) grants the institute has begun a fruit orchard, planting 98 trees last year. A community garden sits empty in the Bear Soldier South housing development, waiting for its occupants to begin reaping what they sow. Another larger garden is situated next to the home which houses the Institute: much of the food will be distributed to the community, either through large meals or for personal use. Additionally, White Mountain had teamed up with animal rights activist Jane Goodall, in an attempt to create a refuge for some of the few remaining genetically pure bison, which roam the plains near Yellowstone. But, with large federal grants going to increasing the police presence, rather than positive community projects, the progress is slow-going.

With the exception of some curious- and bored- neighborhood girls, the majority of the work performed at the Institute is done by White Mountain, his family, and volunteers from outstate. Until the community rallies around this man’s vision The Natural Law Institute will certainly be fighting an uphill battle.

To learn more about the Institute, or to help, please check out Please share this with anyone and everyone you know so we can help put an end to the Indian Wars.