People of my generation and older grew up watching many “Cowboy and Indian” shows on television. Usually, the Indians were portrayed as the “bad guys” fighting against the “good guys.”
I learned a different perspective last week when I visited the Lakota Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The Lakota Native Americans live primarily in the Black Hills area that is known as Pine Ridge. It is estimated that their population is about 170,000, spread throughout states bordering South Dakota.
The name Lakota comes from a word conveying “feeling affection, friendly, united, allied.” They are part of the Sioux tribe, and by treaty is a semi-autonomous “nation” within the United States.
How long have they been in the United States? Their traditions suggest that they date back to the 12th century CE, and that they existed as hunters and agriculturalists.
Who and what are the Lakota today? They are a prideful yet impoverished people, trying to keep their traditions alive, even as they confront great challenges, both from within and without. Among the people there is widespread despair as jobs are hard to come by and poverty is rampant. They are afflicted by alcohol and drug use, with an estimated unemployment rate over 90%. The dilapidated trailers in which many people live are without electricity, running water and toilets. And while our government does provide financial aid and housing, it is far from adequate.
So why do they stay? Like Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, living on the land is their “tradition” and most cannot imagine being cut away from their sacred ties to the land and their spiritual customs.
The Lakota people whom we met were warm and open to talking about the sorry condition of their people; even as each had a story of impoverishment, if not despair.
As for treaties that have been signed between our government and the Lakota, virtually all have been broken; add to that Western expansion throughout the centuries which has resulted in ongoing challenges and confrontations over land.
We visited the Lakota as guests of an organization known as “Remember.” These people organize “Mitzvah” trips for groups from throughout the country who perform various tasks which help to improve the quality of life for the Lakota. Tasks include fixing broken homes (trailers), building deteriorated steps, building ramps for those who are physically impaired, and befriending the Lakota people. We are considering organizing such a Mitzvah trip sometime in the late spring or early summer for adults and older teens. Might you be interested in joining us for a week? If so, please contact me or Hugh Lewis. I can only promise you that you will be richly rewarded as you will have an experience that will deeply touch your heart.
The Torah repeatedly tells us: “Remember the heart of the stranger for you were strangers.” I regret that the Lakota have become as strangers in their own land. Let us open our minds and our hearts to these good people and embrace them as part of “us.”