Indian Givers

by David O'Hara

I came back from Fall Break with shingles.

My doctor says that shingles is a recurrence of the chicken pox virus. Its symptoms include blisters and a heaping dose of pain. My doctor also says that shingles is brought on by stressful situations.

Truth is, my Fall Break, which I spent at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Southwestern South Dakota, was pretty stressful.

Here's the crazy part: I want to go back.

Eight of us from Augustana College spent our break at the Lutheran Retreat Center on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (aka "the Rez.") Our trip was a "service-learning" trip sponsored by the Augustana College chapel.  More about the service part in a minute.  First, here's some of what I learned:

The first thing that hit me on our trip was the beauty of the landscape.

Maybe native South Dakotans are immune to the beauty of this state, but as a recent transplant to the Midwest, I continue to be blown away by it all. On our way to Pine Ridge a bald eagle flew alongside our van, maybe twenty feet away from us. As we entered the Rez we drove through sudden, majestic badlands and gently rolling plains. At night the stars were breathtaking. The landscape makes me want to worship.  I wonder what it was like to live in a tipi, following the bison across the prairie 500 years ago.

The second thing that hit me on the Rez was the poverty.

The Rez is in some ways like an inner city, complete with visible signs of poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, and crime. The wail of sirens punctuated each night we were there. The windows at the Retreat Center are covered by a heavy steel mesh, and its doors are always locked. The only road with streetlights is the one that leads to Whiteclay, NE, a cluster of maybe eight ramshackle buildings that clings like a tick to the underside of the Rez. It's just two miles away from the town of Pine Ridge and the only place around to buy alcohol.  Alcohol is illegal on the Rez, but in Whiteclay they sell some four million dollars worth of alcohol every year.  The consequences of this parasitic business were all too visible on the Rez.  They installed the streetlights because there were too many accidents on that road.  It seemed that each time we went out somewhere, someone came up to us to ask for money, or a ride, or food.

It's no wonder I came home with shingles.

So why do I want to go back? Because I have so much to learn from the Lakota.  The third thing that hit me was the remarkable generosity of the Lakota people we met.

On Sunday we attended a small rural church. After the service, the congregation invited us to eat with them. Over lunch, everyone in the room introduced her- or himself. When her turn came, one Lakota woman lamented that we hadn't come a week earlier, when her family was giving gifts.

Until recently, the Rez was the poorest county in the entire U.S.  (Now it ranks as the fourth poorest.)

So there we were, a bunch of random East-river strangers from one of the most affluent counties in the state, most of us as white as a pair of brand-new BVDs, and these folks want us to stay to lunch and give us presents.

Imagine that an unexpected group of people whose race and culture were different from your own doubled the size of your congregation some Sunday.  Would you invite them to stay? Maybe your church is like that, but I know my church doesn't tend to invite strangers to stay after the service so we can give them a hot meal and a gift or two.  I say this to our shame.

We wanted to be able to give something back. Sure, we did some small service projects: we built a wheelchair ramp, painted a kitchen, and spent time playing with children. But these things felt small in comparison to both the severity of the Rez' problems and the magnitude of their spirit of hospitality. We received much more than we gave.

So we asked Larry Peterson, who directs the Retreat Center, what we could give. He'd heard the question before, and he repeated to us the same answer he has heard from myriad Lakota voices: "Just come and be here with us for a while." As one elderly parishioner put it, our presence there gave her hope.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau complained that our culture depends on cheap alms: we want to address all social ills with a handout, but those handouts often only perpetuate the problems they are meant to address. He said, "Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them."

That congregation, and many of the others we met, embodied Thoreau's words. By welcoming us to be there with them, they spent themselves on us. In other words, they addressed our impoverished sense of giving by showing us how it's done.  Generosity is one of the cardinal virtues of Lakota culture.  Though their culture has been largely destroyed through a cruel combination of oppression, violence, and neglect, this element remains surprisingly intact.  The Lakota have a phrase they use to conclude some religious ceremonies: "mitakuye oyasin."  It translates literally as "all my relations," and with it they remind one another that we are all connected to one another.  We need one another.

Pine Ridge is a hard environment to visit, but in the darkness small lights shine more brightly, and the Rez has a number of small lights in a dark place: especially a number of hardworking, caring, generous people.

You might want to go and experience this for yourself. Yes, you might get shingles, but in my opinion that's a small price to pay to experience such generosity.

Mitakuye oyasin.

This article was written for the 11/05 AUGUSTANA COLLEGE MIRROR. It appears here by kind permission of the editors. David O'Hara is assistant professor of philosophy and an instructor in classical Greek at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD.


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