After three days of basically driving from sunup to sundown, I have now made a successful escape from the winter winds of South Dakota. I hightailed it in front of a snowstorm which drove me west across Wyoming. Now I am back in the California foothills where it is starting to green up from the winter rains.
It was quite an experience for me to spend these past six weeks with the Lakota people in Eagle Butte, SD. Eagle Butte is the Tribal Headquarters for the Cheyenne River Lakota tribe and it is very remote: 90 minutes drive from Pierre and 2 1/2 hrs from Rapid City, with no Casino and very little thru traffic or tourism in the area. Eagle Butte has 80% unemployment and extreme poverty which I, quite frankly, had never seen the likes of.
The Cheyenne River Youth Project, (CRYP) where I worked for six weeks, is doing great work to try to stop the tide of youth suicide which comes from broken family ties, abuse, addiction, and a lack of hope in good options for the future.
The history and plight of our Native Americans has bothered me ever since I first learned about it. I was looking for an answer to what can a white person do? I ended up doing some good computer work for them and participated in a Santa Claus project bringing really nice gifts to the aprox 1500 children on the rez. The gifts arrived in big trucks from Church groups in St Louis and Denver, we wrapped everything really nicely and got it distributed to the children who often didn’t get anything else for Christmas because of their family situations. My computer data-entry work gave me a very clear view of the poverty there, as well as the reality of a generation of parents missing due to the scourges of alcohol & meth addiction. The grandmothers are raising large groups of grandchildren on unbelievably low incomes in very inadequate housing in quite an extreme climate.
I was shocked to realize that Lakota people my own age had been forcibly removed from even reasonably well-to-do parents and sent to boarding schools far away where they were only allowed to speak English and were all subjected to abuse. I had thought that horribleness happened long ago, not in my own lifetime! Even now, Lakota children are being taunted as “prairie niggers” by white kids when they leave to rez to go to a basketball game or such. This is not just history (horrible as it was), this is today too.
The work at the Youth Center had its small satisfactions, like giving a coat to a half-frozen grandma on a cold day or buying beaded earrings from someone to help them pay for membership for their kids, but it still didn’t feel as though it was making any kind of real difference in the situation there.
Before leaving Cali for this job I had experienced an intuitive nudge to go work at CRYP, but also it came with an intuition that my role would be something about helping in the return of the buffalo. This prompt seemed somewhat ridiculous at the time and I therefore didn’t talk about it. Who me? That’s crazy, said my judgmental mind. When I first arrived at Eagle Butte, it was clear to me that these Lakota are part of the Buffalo Nation in that they inhabit the ecosystem that the buffalo belong in: the prairie, with all its wild temperature fluctuations and high winds. But the buffalo were, initially, nowhere in sight.
Because no hints about it came to me while I was working at CRYP (I was, after all, totally busy indoors with the tasks they gave me to accomplish), I felt on the last day that I had to take some initiative to respond to my previous intuition, so asked for permission to visit a family who lived out on the dirt roads across the prairie, on the far side of the rez. That is how I got to meet a Lakota elder named Fred DuBray, his wife Michelle and their daughter Elsie, a current Stanford undergrad (oh what a small world!)
I didn’t know before meeting the DuBrays, but it turned out that Fred has dedicated his adult life to bringing back the Buffalo, was instrumental in establishing the Intertribal Buffalo Council, and personally runs a herd of 500 buffalo on his land overlooking the Missouri River. When I was there the wind was blowing so hard that it was not easy to stand upright, but as Fred put it, it was my lucky day, because the bulk of the herd walked by, right in front of the dining room windows! A rare occurrence.
Fred was helpful in connecting me with the organizations and people who are working in the areas of restoring buffalo populations to the prairie. It turns out that restoring the buffalo is an essential element of reclaiming the health of the whole of the great plains of our country – an area which was devastated by the homesteading and plowing which caused the dust bowl.
It turns out that buffalo grass, which eventually comes back in areas where buffalo graze, has roots that are six feet in depth and which hold the soil in place during droughts and high winds. It turns out that not just the reservation towns, but all the prairie towns are in terrible shape. Town populations keep dropping each year and ranchers survive through government subsidy programs, not through real success in farming. Cattle farmers find that cattle are not well suited to the climate and their habits and needs harm the prairie long-term. Meanwhile the ecological value of a healthy native prairie ranks very high in the balance of nature in the big picture, in the same way as the saving of Amazon rainforests.
Since meeting Fred, I discovered the most wonderful YouTube videos online about restoring the buffalo and the prairies in various areas across the US and Canada, many with great success. I would particularly like to recommend the 15 min film American Bison – The Return of the Buffalo. At the end of this one you will meet Fred DuBray. Michelle also tells me that there is a new upcoming episode of “Nature” from PBS which Fred is participating in called: “American Buffalo, Spirit of the Nation“.
Driving back to California from SD, it was the winter solstice – the longest night of the year and the beginning of the return of the light for a new cycle. It was a tiring trip but a wonderful one because of feeling that I was on the edge between my old life and a new one which I could not clearly see yet, but which hovered at the edges of my consciousness, feeling compelling, uplifting and exciting.
California has welcomed me with new greens rising out of the previously parched earth, and with a chance to rest as much as I need to.
Wishing everyone wonderful holidays, and sending blessings to you all for a joyous new cycle in 2019.