Despite our spring break desire to sleep in, we roused ourselves at seven and were heading west by 8:30 a.m. We knew that a major winter storm was taking aim at western South Dakota , so we stopped as little as possible on our eight-hour drive. The filtered sunlight yielded to clouds at Sioux Falls, and by the time we crossed the Missouri River, dark clouds were rolling overhead.
As we passed Pierre, the state capitol, the radio was advising travelers to find a safe place for the night. We still had another three hours ahead of us, but we hadn't yet seen any snowflakes, so we pushed on. As we turned south through the Badlands, a light drizzle began to fall, but the above-freezing temps kept the roads ice-free, and we rolled into the town of Pine Ridge around 4 p.m.
We followed our precise directions up a driveway, with ruts deep enough to bottom out our little Ford Focus, to the little bright blue three-room abode of Peter Hill ’00, who would be our host for the next three days. Peter, originally from Pennsylvania, has been teaching social science in the local (Red Cloud) high school since just after his graduation from Carleton. He explained to us the details and conditions of life on Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Lakota Nation, which is South Dakota's largest Indian reservation. Shannon County, the most populated county in the reservation, is also the poorest county in the United States.
Following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the massacre at Wounded Knee, many of the remaining Lakota people were force into the confines of Pine Ridge reservation, an expanse of badlands and dry grasslands the size of Connecticut but containing little of economic value. Unemployment hovers around 85 percent, life expectancy is in the fifties, and per capita alcohol and drug consumption is among the highest in the nation.
All is not negative,however, as aid campaigns have done much to improve conditions. Habitat for Humanity works on housing projects, and education organizations sponsor people like Peter to work in the local schools. We settled into sleep just as the predicted storm hit.After a leisurely morning enjoying Peter's pancakes, we headed out into the blizzard to talk to Basil Brave Heart, Peter's landlord. Basil owns more than 800 acres of land—an uncommon feat on the reservation, which has been fragmented over time among families or leased to non-Lakotas. His land had been leased to cattle ranchers who overgrazed the land, but he was eventually able to revoke the lease and buy surrounding land.
With the help of an organization called Village Earth, he imported a herd of 12 buffalo onto his land. The Lakota tribe has maintained a herd for some time, but Basil's family is only the second one to have its own herd.
Basil offered to show us his herd, and we jumped into the back of his pickup and started off into the snow. The ride was quite an adventure: despite four-wheel drive and Basil's skilled driving, we slid left, right and sideways as we tackled the steep hills. The landscape was breathtaking in the snow. Short tan brass poked out of the snow everywhere, and the ridges were topped with pines (thus the name of the reservation). A red-tail hawk flashed its colors at us, wheeling against the strong winds and snow. We never did find the buffalo, but we returned home in high spirits regardless.
At Peter's place we watched a PBS documentary about Pine Ridge called Homeland. It seemed to be a good slice of life on the reservation, highlighting housing issues faced on the rez. Peter helped bring it alive with occasional comments like "I taught his son last year."
Driving around the town of Pine Ridge later, we could see the lack of affordable housing the movie had explored. Finally, Peter's fiancé Mandy showed us around the reservation hospital, where she works as a midwife. We talked about some of the traditional beliefs surrounding childbirth, like encapsulating part of the umbilical cord into an amulet so that the child would have a strong sense of home. At least half the nurses are Lakota, thanks in part to the resrvation's college, but none of the doctors are, which leads to some trust issues .