Above is the Episcopal church compound near the heart of Pine Ridge village. When the reservation was first established, the Presbyterian, Episcopal and Catholic churches were granted substantial land holdings. It was assumed these churches would provide the moral backbone to assimilate the Lakota into a mirror image of European culture. A time existed when the Lakota religion was outlawed and even hosting a sweat lodge was an offense punishable by law. Merely to follow and keep alive our traditions, language and spirituality was considered subversion of the highest order.
What a contradiction. American society said we were uncivilized. Yet it wasn’t until under the iron fist of their toxic paternalism that our culture truly descended into decay. They said we needed churches to reform our savageness. Yet many Natives had no inclination toward barbarity until forced through the abuses of Christian boarding schools. They declared we had mental and moral handicaps in need of their hand to fix. Yet these handicaps were invented rather than inherent. A sickness from being shackled too long, rather than the natural condition of our communities.
The picture embodies the mixed messages leavened into most aspects of reservation life. The apparent meaning on the surface, and also important subtexts in the undertone.
I walk by this Episcopal church everyday, going to Sioux Nation grocery store, Big Bats gas station, or hiking up to Pine Ridge College Center for classes. “Welcome!” says the sign, behind a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. Ironic. How is one to feel welcome to something locked away like a gulag? Supposedly placed here for the betterment of our people, its huge acreage of reservation land is hoarded like a military fortress.
The welcome sign behind barbed wire is a metaphor for so many policies, so many institutions on the reservation. “Sovereignty, self determination”, says a set of polices from the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975. Yet how can we possibly be self determining, if we never have a say about what is best for us? The US government never sits down with us and forms a policy together. We don’t have much representation in regards to our fate. They never ask us what we need, or what would work for us. They decide what is best from afar, make their law, and we’re supposed to follow it.
Same with the legislation supporting tribes being sovereign on their lands. Far as the Bureau of Indian Affairs is concerned, Indians are a bit like a child with a trust fund, whose trustee goes about squandering the inheritance. Meddling organizations that claim to be Indian benefactors while profiteering off our misery are the wardens here.
Out of one side of their mouth the government says they want us sovereign, self-sufficient. Yet they are always lurking with the scissor to clip the wings of any idea that stinks of independent thought, a strong will, a passion for the life our communities. They say self determination, but their actions show their true values are perpetual subordination. They seem scared anytime we are not too enfeebled to have a thought that didn’t originate first in a bureaucrat’s paternalistic assumptions. Too broken to fight any injustice handed down from high. Too apathetic to notice how we’re robbed blind, and who does that robbing while we sleep.
Even places like schools don’t escape the mixed messages, the undertones. Education should be an uplifting. Education should be an acquiring of skills and knowledge to benefit our communities and society at large. Yet education on the reservation is more a holding down than an uplifting. I remember a cousin remarking, after having attended a regular public school in the US, upon returning to the reservation and the BIA school system: “I’ve had all this stuff before. Everywhere else, we learned this three years ago.”
There is nothing wrong with the minds of the Lakota. Like everywhere, we have some brilliant people, some average, and some below the mean. The schools are so far behind because of neglect, because of toxic assumptions, and the absence of opportunity to show our true ability, to thrive.
Seems these mixed messages and undertones are built into most things to do with the reservation. A person learns to look for them, to never trust first appearances, and to take all welcome signs with a grain of salt, especially if they lay behind barbed wire.