The Failure of Christian Groups and Non-Profits on Pine Ridge Reservation

Human misery is to a certain class of profiteers what blood in the water is to sharks.  A drop of blood, the slightest scent of struggle, and the churches and non-profits are swarming to set up shop.  Nowhere can you observe this commodification of tragedy more than the Pine Ridge reservation.

So many churches and non-profits are here.  They claim their hearts hurt for the plight of the poor.  They claim to have the cure for our problems.  Wannabe saviors are always so all knowing and sagely.  Yet their solutions tend to benefit no one but the systems of oppression and their own wallets.  All too often the priest, the preacher, and their modern day successor, the non-profit leader, are apologists for colonialism.  They bring no gospel but that of capitalist-industrialism, and have no answers but swearing allegiance to the supremacy of American empire.  They want to make us into pathetic shells of dependence to gratify their need to have someone depend on them.  This goal is never honestly stated, but hidden behind Jesus, or sneaked through a school curriculum, or pursued a thousand other ways subliminally but surely.

I hope no one is fooled by the messiah image they try to sell.  I hope everyone is wary of promises to save souls,  promises to save people from their material woes, promises to save all from everything.  This desire to save often conceals a meglomanical desire to dominate.  The urge to save humanity is all too often only a false face for the urge to rule it, as journalist H.L. Mencken once observed.   Historical trauma, broken communities, the problems of three hundred years of quarantine, systematic enfeeblement, culture erasure, and death by bureaucracy are all ripe for the vultures to feast.

Pine Ridge reservation is drowning in saviors, drowning in missionaries and non-profit organizations. The reservation has hosted supposed saviors for most of its history. Yet going back to the beginning, few of these Christian groups or non-profits have been out for anything but themselves. Most have allied with the forces of colonialism rather than allied with the Lakota people.  These groups have served as functionaries of mental and spiritual genocide while the US government carried out the physical extinguishing.  Even when trying to help, these people too often haven’t questioned toxic assumptions about Native people, and wind up poisoning rather than helping.

Far more harm than good has been done by the presence of Christian groups and non-profits on the reservation (non-profits are modern era heirs to the legacy of early Christian groups). Christianity and non-profits on reservations have mostly been about profiteering, exploitation, religious indoctrination, and culture subversion.  Even organizations that come with good intentions seem to just become part of the corrupt system.  The rich preacher or non-profit leader who drives a brand new truck, lives an affluent life exploiting sympathy for the reservation’s various plights, is so common its cliche. A non-Native friend asked me not long ago if there was any organization worth donating to. I had to scrounge to think of even one, that’s how bad the corruption is.

Earlier this week I had a run in with one of the better non-profits around Pine Ridge reservation.  I confronted them about something someone who was leading a service trip with them said in this article.  I did this because it was such a symptomatic statement of the toxic attitude savior types bring to the reservation:

“They grow up not knowing how to take care of themselves or their children. They live in a cycle of poverty and they don’t expect anything because they haven’t seen anything else.”

As I told the RE-member organization, that’s an incredibly ignorant thing for a person to say.  I was born here, have lived in the area most of my 26 years of life, and know scads of Oglala Lakota who take care of themselves and their family. They manage this despite the struggle, despite facing a system stacked against them.  This resilience shows the opposite of the apathy, laziness and stupidity this person projects on us. I think anyone who really got to know the people here would say the same.

What is telling about this whole attitude is its inability for self-reflection.  The finger is pointed at Natives for who is to blame, not toward the structure of the American system.  Easier to patronize, and talk out of ignorance, than confront injustices perpetuated by a system many benefit from their place within.  Yet when it comes to reservations, the problem isn’t in the people who live there, but in the institutions surrounding the person, and even society itself.  More than someone’s used clothes, or a new outhouse, or some canned food, we need people to stand with us.  More than Jesus, we need people to question the false narratives that abound about Natives.  We need allies to call for justice on what is perhaps the biggest current human rights abuse of the North American continent.  As one particularly insightful commenter said on the article I linked:

“Everything you see, everything you feel so bad about for our people, is a direct result of the government and it’s ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man’ policies. (…)  Pick up a few books, educate yourself. Save your kids from going out into the world believing they know so much about everyone else. You’ll save a lot of people a lot of hurt when you stop assuming.”

Finally, I have to question if short term service trips like those mentioned in the article are of much use.  I wish the whole paradigm of thinking about such things would change.  I read on their website that RE-member charges $375 dollars a person for trips like these. For a 17 person crew like the one mentioned in the article that’s $6375. I also wonder, just how effective can 17 high schoolers be at attending to any needs of the reservation? I don’t mean to put down the high schoolers, or their desire to help someone. However, high school by definition is typically before someone has become advanced in any particular skill. Why pay so much to have unskilled high schoolers come all this way, when maybe that money could go toward hiring tribal members, already skilled in carpentry, building houses, waterworks, developing infrastructure? Perhaps its assumed we have no such people. The article seems to assume so. Yet there are people here skilled in every vocation, who are already connected to this community.  If a group really wanted to help, perhaps they would empower and enable these local people, rather than parade outsiders about the land.  At some point it starts to look like tourism, rather than whatever else it is supposed to be.

If anyone doubts its as bad as I say, apply this simple litmus test: tons of Christian groups, non-profits, have set up shop on the reservation. Add them all throughout the years and it might total above a hundred. Yet can anyone say what all these groups have accomplished? Can anyone point to anything that they have changed? All these groups, talking big about the problems they will solve, have done next to nothing. Every problem that Christianity and a horde of non-profits promised to solve still remains a problem. Which just shows precisely how useless these Christians and non-profits have been to the reservation.

UPDATE: RE-member did respond to some of my points.  They seem at least somewhat distressed at what their affiliate had to say.  This is a portion of their response relevant to what I’m talking about here:

“Thanks for your note, and for sharing this link with us. We certainly cannot control what an individual will say before, or after they visit us, but we do our best while they’re here on Pine Ridge to give everyone the resources they need to become advocates (alas, not experts) when they head home.”


71 thoughts on “The Failure of Christian Groups and Non-Profits on Pine Ridge Reservation

  1. I have been looking for a program that will work outfit my family and I can help the native Americans and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. But after reading the article and the comments, I doubt that I will follow thru with helping. Damn if you do and Damn if you do.

  2. I am a Christian who would love to help the people of Pine Ridge. This is a well written article and you make a great point about using the money to hire more skilled Native American men…that would both get the work done better and give them work. Might try and do just that!

  3. Dear Tom,
    I believe that Lakota people need is :
    -from the Government ownership and rights on their land, water and air;
    -federal founds to start and maintain a Native American economy (shops, hotels,constructions, farming YES! farming (watch into aquaponics) that will give overtime independence;
    -What they DON’T need is the word of God. They have always been closer to Him than many other “God’s people”

  4. I have read this article twice now and I understand the point made by the author and his perspective, but I differ. When people come out there, we do NOT expect to change things that have happened over hundred of years. What we are trying to do is provide hope, love and caring. I see children that just soak in that love while we are there and the smiles that are on their faces. Can we change their condition or economy–probably not, but that change can only come from the Native people themselves. You MUST stand for your rights to your land, get the government out of your business and find honorable and morally stable leaders to help wand care about your people. The self-greed within the tribe is not healthy either and we know that is the case. The change has to be within, but without HOPE, it will not happen. Hope has given the Native people strength, but you cannot deny the evil and deep depression that pledges the reservation. Sometimes we only met someone once–but during that time, was it pleasant and loving or mean and hateful? Every day in my prayer life, I pray for the Lakota people. I pray they will find the strength to lift up and do the right thing for themselves and their people and especially the children. The children are the legacy and future of the Natives, and we must lift them up in love and care and self-esteem each day. And I have to disagree with Laura–it is God’s word that gives us ALL strength–Native or not and it is the MOST IMPORTANT thing they need! With God–All Things Are Possible! With God, there is HOPE!

  5. I wanted to come to this reservation last summer as a volunteer but was unable to because of a hamstring injury. I feel this author is distorting the reality of what christian service is. I am an immigrant from Romania and we have areas which are probably worse. it is through our Lord’s saving grace we are saved..brought to health..and generally become prosperous. I see a certain amount of rebeliousness which certainly isn’t a bad quality if channeled in the proper direction. I know that the christian service continues on. these trips are beneficial to both us and those they serve.

  6. I doubt that any Church volunteer is getting rich or profiting from their trying to help. However. giving the means to help the Lakota help themselves is a good idea. That is, if they are wanting to help themselves.

  7. Empowerment is key to any group working with another group. Cultural understanding and respect must be a component of any “help” offered. It is important to work along side one another so conversations may occur. No one should enter into another culture to say the only solution is “my way.” The Lakota people are strong, self-supporting and very capable of nurturing their families. I would come to your reservation to learn more about you. It bothers me to even refer to your homeland as a reservation. I have gone on mission trips to other countries and inside our US. I always thought of my efforts as being “many hands working together can get a lot accomplished.” Plus, I get to know you and you get to know me. I never want to look down on people or call others insufficient because we are different. Anyone is welcome to come to my home or town to help us get work accomplished. Please do not view yourselves as being put on display like a show pony with people making criticisms or opinions. Continue to be proud of your heritage and brave in your pathways of living as I seek to do the same for myself and my family. Don’t let some bad people ruin it for everyone.

  8. I agree that we are misguided if we come to serve others with the notion that we have the answers. I believe the Lakota are to be celebrated, respected, and supported based on their perspectives, traditions and needs, not those of a capitalist-industrialist society. In all honesty, I would love to serve by learning from the Lakota and their strengths. It seems to all be matters of respect and perspective.

  9. if anyone of you are interested… one spirit has a list of families in need that you can sponsor” they will give you the info on the family and what their needs are and you are in direct contact with the families, i am going on 3 yrs. being a sponsor and i love it” but i am also moving out there because when i was on one of the reservations out there 3 yrs. ago it broke my heart to have a 5 yr.old boy come to our door asking for food’ it made my heart sick,never in southern calif. have i seen a child ever go hungry and i believe it’s all of our duties to take care of our first nations ppl before we send any money to africa and post their pic on our frig. as if your something big” our ppl need our help and by giving help is the first rule of being a ”’believer”’ not going to bible study or sponsoring a youth group trip,… but helping where the help needs to be!!!

  10. Thanks for the insight. I appreciate what you have to say. I have been reading lately about a plan to repopulate the buffalo in the Pine Ridge Reservation – collecting funds to purchase buffalo from Texas to bring to the reservation. Is this something you see as useful? I really do want to help and I completely acknowledge that the issues at Pine Ridge are entirely the federal government’s fault and should be acknowledged. We have to repent before we can begin to restore. In my opinion, this lack of insight into our own government’s atrocities is the biggest problem facing our nation today. So many of our other issues arise from this arrogant ignorance of our own evil past.

  11. The reason I am writing this is because I saw a horrible video this morning about the Lakota people on facebook. It brought tears to my eyes and my heart felt really heavy. I did a search for the Lakota people and Christian ministry; after I skimmed through some ministry charging money for students to come and “help” them, I then found this website. Let me say that I believe, based on the fact that I have learned that the mainstream churches are ALL in error because they choose not to follow the Holy Spirit, but they follow their own agenda. If people really wanted to do it His way, they would already know that they must sacrifice what they would prefer to do. They would seek the Lord, they would have quiet meetings with Him to get instruction, and then they would follow through. NO church or ministry that I know of is doing this. The Lakota people do not need pity or religious condescension. They need the TRUTH, just like everybody else.

  12. Disturbing to this cultural anthropologist that Christians assume no responsibility for the theft of the land, traditions and spiritual practices which served natives so well for so many generations. They are the ones who stripped the land, raped the women, killed the men, women and children for greed. And still they persist in wanting not to redress their injustices with big bucks through national, state and local government coffers – fairness. Leave the people money and they will heal themselves according to their beliefs.

  13. Another hate-filled, bitter Indian. No wonder nothing much has changed since 1971 when a drunk Indian passed us on the highway. Ten minutes later we passed him. He was asleep or passed out, parked diagonally across the highway. You see, it’s all MY fault- I’m white. My starving Irish ancestors immigrated to farm in Iowa. We “stole” their land that they stole from some other tribe. We all just need to sign over our property to the Indians, or Uncle Sam, whom they hate, needs to cut a big ‘ol check. That will end the poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, family violence, and suicide, you see. No wonder I get rude or no comments when I stop for gas on any reservation. My greeting gets silence or ugly looks. You make me wonder why I’ve given $350 in 2017 so your elderly would have heat, or a family would have a mattress. Yeah, evil white man owes you, doesn’t he? I had planned to give $50/month to an evil ministry, sharing Jesus Christ and His love to you, but I’m reconsidering! Cut out the “poor me”, lazy, entitlement mentality. Get your hiney off the reservation and go where the jobs are. Quit dropping out of evil white man’s school and do something! I grew up poor, but I’m not now. I’m sure it’s part of the white guilt thing I should be feeling, right, you whiner?

  14. It cracks me up, that the christians who reply on here still see through the eyes of a religion. We should of learned true spirituality from the Native Americans, rather than trying to spread the religion of christian colonialism. I wish i could go there and learn something from them, instead of thinking im bringing something for them to learn from me.

  15. I’m curious what you think about the similarity of the plight of black Americans and native Americans? I wonder if native Americans can learn from Walter Williams perspective? He’s studied the plight of blacks most of his life. Here’s an introduction

    Curious of your thoughts…

  16. I’m a Christian minister, the problem is what they say. So many White people who are Christians think that they need to make everyone a WHITE CHRISTIAN but the Bible doesn’t say to do that. And they have done that for many century’s since they got here. I love our Creator Jesus and that is what I believe his name is and there is nothing wrong with that, and I have a great relationship with Him. When I peach the Good news I share it in a Native way. And God tells the people they are good and they can be who He made them to be and they do not have to give up their heritage and culture in order to be saved. You don’t kill the Indian to save the man. That is hog wash. And the whiteman preachers are so guilty of that its not even funny. God is the one who made Natives, and God made the Red, the Black the Yellow The White races. All colors are sacred. And the Creator doesn’t want anyone to tell another they need to become a whiteman to become a follower of the Creator. That is from the Devil and is nothing more than Bad Medicine. Creator wants all to come to Him and become a better them by being who he created them. The only thing Creator doesn’t like is mans sin. That is what Creator Jesus Chief Cornerstone died on the Cross who did the final Sundance for. That is the real message not the other hogwash that they tell us Natives. Our Creator loves us and we are good. The Drum is awesome and Powerful and our Regalia, Ceremonies and heritige is awesome and becomes more powerful when we include our Creator. That is the difference….

  17. Talking about Christianity and running it down is a bit off here. I believe your speaking of “churchianity”, which is a bad usually destructive influence anyplace. Unfortunately many are deceived in believing that in order to be a Christian we must seek membership in a 501 C (3) org which reports in a building 11 am on Sunday. Jesus taught us to follow him. We are to know and follow the word of the Lord.

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