In August, I had the opportunity to visit the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota and stay in the town of La Plant. During the winter, I consulted on a garden project at the La Plant community center through the amazing Connecticut-based non-profit Simply Smiles. My immediate connection to the group is that my younger brother, Zach, works for the organization. So, I took a week-long reprieve from my farming responsibilities, packed up and headed west to work with the kids and community of La Plant. I've been back for almost a month now, and I've slowly been trying to articulate a response to the oft-asked question from friends or family of "How was it?!" Well, life-affirming may be the best short, vague response, but I've given it some more thought, and here's my story.
On the more than three-hour drive from the Rapid City airport to the community center in La Plant, I was struck by the vastness of the landscape. The rolling hills, the prairie grasses, and oh, the vibrant yellow monocultures of sunflowers. In contrast to the rest of the pale, sage greens and grays of the vegetation, the sunflowers were a shock to the senses. Sure, it's a little melodramatic, but as someone with a background in sustainable ag, I found this imagery more disheartening than picture-worthy. It was evidence for everything wrong with our food system: Crops grown for feedlot livestock, biofuels and cooking oils. The lack of vegetative diversity. And, let's not forget, this was once sacred land that has since been transformed, leased or owned by farmers who have historically practiced growing methods that strip the soil of its health and vitality.
It's fine that at this point you might be thinking, "Cool it, Debbie Downer. You got to go on vacation. What does this have to do with the Reservation?" Just keep reading, and don't be rude.
With my younger brother behind the wheel of the van, fellow volunteers in the back (including my former Fairfield professor, Dr. Bayers, whom I can now officially call Peter without it being weird!) and new friends, the Iron Wings (hey, Sierra and George!) who reside on the Reservation, we followed the winding roads. It should be noted that because of the lack of traffic, drivers usually wave to passing vehicles, a comforting I-know-we're-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-but-you're-not-alone sort of custom.
After a quick bathroom break and leg stretch, I had two realizations. 1. I ain't on the farm anymore. 2. I was really doing this: Sleeping on the floor of a community center with mostly strangers, using pit latrines for the week, and going out of my comfort zone. Oh, and I was also really excited at the prospect of seeing a rattlesnake. (I didn't see one, but I heard one when I decided to take pictures from within the tall grasses...)
"A holistic approach"
During our stay at the Rez and community center, our mixed group of volunteers had a few main tasks: Finishing building and renovation projects, organizing the community center, and planning activities for the town. On our first full day, Bryan Nurnberger, the Simply Smiles president, founder and ever-enthusiastic, fearless leader, gave us a tour of the new house, a project for one well-deserving community member. I was not only impressed by the near-completed progress of former groups from the summer but also Bryan's description of the "holistic approach" to the process. He suggested that this house served as a physical symbol of future stability for the family and community.
And, this was more than just a white man's optimism, master plan or great expectation. Renovations of trailers or the building of new houses isn't considered charity or cost-free for residents. Upon completion of a new house, the homeowners will pay $100 a month for 36 months into a communal fund, which goes toward future Simply Smiles housing projects. As long as the house is maintained and the payment schedule is followed, the homeowners can keep their homes at the end of 36 months. If the home is not maintained, the payment plan is extended. The completion of a safe, sound and warm home and respective process represents much larger prospects. This includes the strength and cohesiveness of the family unit, the impact of being employed, the confidence in having a new job and providing for one's family, and the potential to inspire others and forge much stronger communal ties.
As a farmer, I found this concept attractive. A healthy farm is one that recognizes the interconnectedness of plants, animals and human ecosystems and realizes that we are all part of a living system. Rather than a linear cause-and-effect relationship, the farm functions and runs well when it nurtures and nourishes every element of the entire system. The Simply Smiles vision is no different.
After our morning project assignments and a quick lunch break, we got to play with the kids in the afternoon. As a former camp counselor and long-time babysitter, I know how to handle kids. I was not, however, prepared for being told that I was ugly, my eyes were weird (they're two-different colors, and, yes, I was born that way) and sucker-punched in my ribs on the first day of camp at the community center. I basically got my ass and self-esteem kicked by a 12-year-old. I was on her turf, and I was being studied and judged. But, despite a, um, rough start, it did get better.
The majority of children in La Plant are victims of circumstance. Here is the scenario at a glance: Drug and alcohol abuse run rampant. Domestic and sexual abuse are frequent. Most children are raised by grandparents or extended family. (If you want a passionate, informative primer on Lakota culture and history, I strongly encourage you to watch this TED talk by photojournalist Aaron Huey, who has spent a significant amount of time documenting the Pine Ridge Reservation.)
Then, there's the odd, sometimes illogical social divisions within the community. Tension readily exists among families who live in the housing project known as The Community - or a cluster of houses built and maintained by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) - and families who live sporadically in the wider region known as The Country. There also exists clashing ideologies. This exists in any culture, but they seemed to be exacerbated and more confusing to grasp on the Rez because of the persistent infusion and melding of Euro-American cultural norms into Lakota practices and belief system. Personal views on politics and religion are difficult to peg. One elder whom I spoke with held a strong recognition and understanding of traditional native beliefs, yet she was also a God-lovin' Christian. And, it was a little jarring to see the predominance of cowboy culture, extreme American patriotism and the occasional Confederate flag next to the practices of powpows, chief rides and drum circles.
Death is also a looming and known presence. Rates of suicide are three times the national average. Among minors, suicide is often looked at as a way out. Members of the Simply Smiles staff were devastated by the death of a beloved 12-year-old, Tanner, at the end of last year as a result of persistent bullying. Death due to poor health (i.e., diabetes, stroke and diet-related illnesses) are inordinately high compared to that of the rest of the U.S.
Perhaps the most astounding and disheartening statistic concerns funeral attendance. Off the reservation, children can expect to attend an average of four (4) funerals before they reach adulthood. On the Rez, a child attends an average of 122 funerals by the age of 18. It should also be noted that in a town with about 200 residents, La Plant has four cemeteries. During my one-week stay, I saw two hearses drive by the community center along Highway 212.
When such hardship and despair are commonplace from a young age, what are the prospects of Lakota youth? Well, while there are no quick solutions, there are glimmers of hope, which is the underlying mission of Simply Smiles. The Simply Smiles summer programs are a much needed escape and safe space for the children, away from the boredom, monotony and uncertainty of their home lives during the school-free months. The Big Red Bus - the unofficial mascot of Simply Smiles - picked up the kids at their homes and brought them to the community center for sports, games, arts and crafts, reading and garden projects. A swimming trip to the nearby Missouri River was a highlight of my experience, as we, the volunteers, paired up with our little buddies and witnessed pure joy on their faces. They got to be kids and not worry for a few hours.
At the end of summer camp, the bus would drop the children back at their homes. And, fortunately, there were often town-wide nights or meals for which they could return with or without their relatives. Wednesday morning was town-wide breakfast, complete with Bryan wielding a spatula holster for omelets. Wednesday was swimming day for the town and Thursday was movie night. Friday, the final night of the summer program for the year, was a pizza dinner and the much-anticipated guitar recital, run by the very talented Kristen Graves, Connecticut troubadour and Bryan's better half.
BINGO night on Tuesday was one of my favorite activities. My swimming buddy, Ashlyn, asked me to play with her. And, not to gloat, but she won, not once, but twice, after never having played before! It's typical of American millenials to expect rewards, the luxury of choice and to be constantly doted on as individuals. So, many of us may view prizes such as coloring books, a Wal-Mart gift card or a T-shirt as less than an adequate recognition of our successes. Yet, as was reiterated several times throughout my stay in La Plant, especially when Ashlyn won, it's about that prize or shared moment that can represent, establish and reiterate an individual's sense of self-worth and become a defining moment in his or her life. They matter, are cared about as individuals and as a member of the community. This acknowledgement has the potential to reverberate into other parts of their lives. As Sam Steinmetz, one of my brother's co-workers and long-time friends, suggested, "We're going for the little victories."
To return, for a moment, to the significance of the Big Red Bus. It represents that we're all on board, quite literally in the transport of the children and, sometimes, their family members to and from home. Figuratively, the bus and its bold color is a symbol that Simply Smiles, its staff and its volunteers are not going anywhere. The kids have come to recognize the bus and organization as a part of the community. Bryan, Kristen, Zach, Sam, Josh, Gaby, Jamie, Dave, Emma and the volunteers have forged meaningful relationships with the children and many of their families. As the home base, the community center is a common ground, where family feuds can be set aside for some peace and laughter.
For the community and broader Lakota culture that have been so neglected, abused and disenfranchised by imperialism and heavy-handed, rigid religious ideologies, the Big Red Bus and Simply Smiles, especially as a secular organization, are much needed vectors of change that have already forged new, inclusive and thoughtful ties. Simply Smiles is neutral, meaning that is not affiliated with any religious creed, political organization or any potentially polarizing entity. This is one of the organization's strengths and what I view as one the driving forces behind its ability to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time.
And, if you were wondering, the same girl who "welcomed" me to the community rewarded me with the biggest hug that I've received in my life at the end of the week. From being punched to a hug in a week? My whole body hurt the next day, but I'm still marking it as progress in our relationship.
"Why don't they just leave?"
Shortly before my trip, I came across a quote by the Tibetan Buddhist nun and scholar Pema Chodron: "True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings." This statement became more profound through my gradual understanding of the economic realities and social context of the Lakota and community of La Plant. Unemployment on the Reservation is insanely high at 95%. Yet, when I've shared this and other findings with some of my friends and family, the most common response is "Well, why don't they just leave?" It's an earnest question. It's also one shaped by unfortunate racial and cultural stereotypes and, more importantly, our inability to understand the concepts of rootedness to land and kinship ties.
How many of us can say that we feel rooted to a place? Not many. As a cultivator of food, I'm fortunate that I feel connected to the soil, the elements and the crops. I feel seasonal patterns and shifts and remain humbled by the interconnected web of players in the ecosystem. I am deeply connected to my hometown, especially when I'm in woods of the Litchfield Hills. So, I "get" the rooted thing. But, I also have the option to pack up if this whole farming career doesn't work out. So, what if the land is the only thing I had?
In Lakota culture, the concept of kinship starts with an intrinsic realization of the self, and extends to the family, home and natural and social community. The history of indigenous cultures in the U.S. is marked by, well, let's not sugarcoat it, slaughter and genocide. The forced removal of individuals from their land, much of which remains unsuitable for cattle crazing and crop production, left the Lakota and other Plains cultures with the inability to feed themselves and endure. (The next time you fly over South Dakota, look out the window. You can see the grid-like patterns of overgrazing and crop overproduction. Not the most fruitful growing conditions.)
The impacts of history are still felt and the wounds are still raw from the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 1890. During one community meal, I could see the visible pain and sadness on the face of Barbara, a much-loved elder of the community, as she talked of Wounded Knee, placing her hand over her heart. If the land is a marked symbol of your past, present and future, would you just walk from it?
La Plant: A love story
I've had a few weeks to process another question: What do I do now? Will the garden project transform the future course of history of La Plant? Sadly, no, but it's a start and part of the greater projects of Simply Smiles. I haven't stopped thinking about the people and place of La Plant since I returned to Connecticut and my farming job. The wonders of Facebook have fortunately allowed me to keep tabs on some amazing people on the Rez and individuals whom I now consider friends.
As cliche as it sounds, I left a part of my heart in South Dakota. I often worry about the cute kids who helped me harvest in the garden, who invited me into their pretend houses that they made under picnic tables ("Come into ma' house!"), who played water balloon toss during Field Day and who even called me weird. I worry about the elders in the community, their health and the importance of their insight, stories and legacies on the future of their culture and younger generations.
I'm not worried, however, that I'll lose my passion for La Plant. On my connecting flight home from Chicago, I jotted down a few take-aways from my experience while still fresh in my mind. In terms of my involvement with future food projects on the Rez, I considered - and am now currently working on - a graduate capstone project that researches the food and subsistence history, patterns and culture of the Lakota and how it shapes current and future food, fiber, health and nutrition patterns and policy.
But, there's also the little things about being a thoughtful, considerate person that might have the most lasting effects. I learned progress and change are not born from guilt or pity, but compassion. I also learned that if I really wanted to care for my new friends and stay committed to the place of La Plant, I'd need to practice this simple, living mantra: Be present. Be mindful. Listen. Smile.