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.”