Breaking Down Walls - Students Learn While they Work on a Reservation
Ask Ian Holmes what he did on his summer vacation, and he’s proud to fill you in.
A University of Oregon senior, Holmes organized a road trip with seven of his fraternity brothers from Sigma Phi Epsilon, starting in Eugene and ending up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where they spent nearly a week making life more bearable for some of the poorest people in the United States.
They built a wheelchair ramp for a Native American teacher who couldn’t get up and down the steps of his wood-frame house by himself.
They dug 250 feet of trench — 3 feet deep and 8 inches wide — to bring electrical wiring to an extended family living in two single-wide mobile homes, a family that hadn’t had running water or electricity for two years.
They filled the open space under another mobile home with insulating sealant and built a wooden skirt around it so it would retain heat better in winter temperatures that hover as cold as 30 degrees below zero.
When they finished, they felt warm, happy and determined to do it again.
“I wanted to go on this trip because it was something different than what usually happens on college campuses, to go halfway across the country and do something to help other people,” said Robby Brown, a UO junior from El Dorado Hills, Calif., who also was part of the “Sig Ep” team. “I expected to go and work, but we actually also learned a lot about Sioux culture and how they live. We actually want to make this trip an annual tradition for the fraternity.”
It was both sad and shocking to see the living conditions on the reservation, Brown said. “I knew about Hurricane Katrina and how the people in New Orleans didn’t get the help they needed afterward. But these people have lived like this for generations. How is America considered the greatest country in the world when people have to live like this?”
The Pine Ridge reservation in south-central South Dakota is big. Ted Skantze, resident director of Re-Member, a nonprofit organization that works with the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation that occupies Pine Ridge, puts the size at 2.5 million acres, covering an area 45 miles north-to-south and 90 miles east-to-west.
In terms of living conditions, “it’s one of the worst of the worst in some of the poorest counties in the United States,” Skantze said. “Life expectancy here is 47 years for men, 53 years for women. It is part of the Third World, in the middle of this country.”
Statistics on the Re-Member website paint a depressing picture of life on the reservation. Unemployment is upwards of 90 percent — compared with about 4 percent in South Dakota as a whole — and per capita income is $4,000 per year. Alcoholism affects as many as 80 percent of the reservation’s population, set at 28,000 by the U.S. government and 38,000 by the tribal government. They have eight times the national rate of diabetes, five times the cervical cancer and twice the heart disease as people in the nation as a whole.
The suicide rate is double that in the rest of the country, but suicide among adolescents is four times the national average. Infants are three times more likely to die than babies elsewhere.
That’s pretty much why Skantze, 59, and his wife, Kristin, 58, picked up their lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., nine years ago and plunked them back down in the middle of the desolation that is Pine Ridge.
“Kristin is a nurse practitioner, and I was an independent contractor,” Skantze said. “Like most people, we first came here as volunteers. We decided it was a place where we could do some good. We love it here, love the people, love the focus of this project that gives back to these people who have been invisible in our society for so long.”
The Skantzes had heard about Re-Member, started in 1997 by Keith Titus, a minister who used to take church groups to other countries to do home improvement projects for the poor there.
“One year, on the way back, he happened to drive through the Pine Ridge reservation, and he decided he needed to help these people in his own country,” Skantze said. Learning that propane to heat poorly insulated homes in cold weather was prohibitively expensive and firewood scarce, Titus decided he could move some of Michigan’s abundant firewood west.
“The first year, he took five or six people with him in his own van with a big trailer of firewood,” Skantze said. “The project grew from there.”
Now, 15 years later, there are six year-round staff members — including the Skantzes — with a total of 15 to 20 during the warmer months, when many volunteer groups sign on to come and give a few days or weeks of their time to improve living conditions on the reservation. Some of the employees carry on the firewood project, cutting and splitting wood for the harsh winters. The project still provides 80 to 100 truckloads of wood each winter.
“One of the things we started doing early on was building bunk beds,” Skantze said. “Many of the children here sleep on the floor, in corners, with just a blanket. We have built 5,000 bunk beds so far.”
With the bunk beds, the children get new sheets, blankets, pillows “and a book if we can manage it,” he said. “Sometimes universities donate mattresses from dorms they have refurbished, and that helps.”
Although Re-Member’s founder happened to be a minister, and many church groups still come to volunteer, “This is not a religious organization,” Skantze said. “These people have their own spirituality, their own religion, and there is no evangelism here — that is something we should not be doing.”
But they do try to provide some education for the people, more than 1,000 annually, who come to the reservation to help. In addition to the work, the trek includes lectures, tours to the Wounded Knee mass grave site, Badlands National Park and the reservation itself.
“We share with them information about social issues, government, history, spirituality and culture,” he said.
“These people are at the bottom of the (societal) food chain — they’ve been at the bottom of everybody’s list for the last several hundred years. They are great people, wonderful souls, and they need to be understood. We are trying to break down those walls by building these relationships.”
The walls came tumbling down for the guys from Sigma Phi Epsilon.
“When I ran for vice president of our fraternity last year, I pitched the idea of going there as part of my campaign,” Holmes said.
“People were interested and intrigued with the idea — I won, and I started planning the trip.”
On the way to Pine Ridge in late August, the crew camped in eastern Idaho, Yellowstone National Park and a KOA campground in Wyoming.
They took a quick tour of the Black Hills and Wounded Knee and then set to work on the projects they’d been assigned.
“It was really eye-opening for all of us,” Holmes said. “It’s part of America, but the poverty is overwhelming. But we had braced ourselves for what we were about to see, and we were ready to work.”
In fact, “I think we got a good reputation for the amount of work we were able to do,” he said. “We accomplished more than we thought we could.”
Not that it was all pleasant. The group got caught in a heavy hailstorm and endured temperatures as hot as 105 degrees. “But it was rewarding to do this work and really respond to the needs of the people in places like this.”
Skantze in turn was impressed with the “kids who came from Oregon.”
“Those kids got it,” he said. “It affected them — I know they felt it. I’m sure they’re going to continue to be ‘givers’ as they get older.”