A future not based on blood

IMG_2522 21-year-old Dusty Rennie attends the pow wow every year. He is one-quarter Kaw.
In a tribe of about 2,700, there are only five three-quarter blooded members left, he says. No full-blooded Kaw remain. The Kaw language also is considered "dead," since no no one uses it in their daily lives.
Rennie has been wearing a braid since his football playing days in high school.
"There's a lot of respect in the culture, a lot of discipline," he says. "As long as I can (continue to) go to the pow wow, my kids are going to go to the pow wow."

Kaw Nation pow wow

Kaw Nation tribal members call themselves "People of the south wind." Their annual pow wow near Kaw City, Ok. attracts a diverse crowd.
Photography is not allowed during many of the traditional dances. I think it has something to do with respecting the sacred.
The dances blend movement, music and energy that will never be performed the same way again.








A modern day warrior

IMG_1842 Inila-Wakan has been many places and seen many things.
He chooses makes his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where as a boy he was forcibly put through militaristic mission schools and where he's watched friends and family members struggle with stolen land, homes and hope.
Many have succumbed to alcoholism. Many  have tragically died.

A roofer by trade, his calling now is to help preserve the future of his people, through change.
Among what he'd like to see is a less centralized tribal goverment that would allow social programs to administer their own budgets.

Another issue close to his heart is the fate of the stronghold area in the surrounding badlands.
The U.S. government took control from the tribe during World War II, so the army could use the area for bombing practice.
Nearby residents were given 10 days to vacate, with the promise they could later return, says Inila-Wakan. But after the war the area, which also contains Lakota burial sites, was declared surplus and the National Park service applied for and was granted control.

A few years ago, he took a knife and a sash and staked himself to the ground in the manner of a Tokala, a traditional Lakota warrior, to prevent park service employees from traveling into the stronghold area.
A tribal police officer approached and asked him what the stake was for and what would happen if the officer knocked it down.
"It's my connection to the earth and I'm not going to allow you to go in there," Inila-Wakan explained.
He was a human anachronism.

His actions and explanations that day split tribal authorities involved. More were in favor of his position, so the park service put its plans for the area on hold.
The issue is still being met over and no ruling has been made.

My time in Whiteclay

I got pulled over (again!) on a remote highway through the badlands area. The officer told me Washington to South Dakota is a drug trafficking route.
He asked where I was going and I told him I was headed to Whiteclay, had he heard of it? "Yes, I've heard of Whiteclay," he said with a frown. "WHY are you going there?"

He warned me repeatedly to be careful. "It's like nothing you've ever seen," he told me.
In many ways he was right, I guess, though I have been to Portugal and seen poor, disfigured and diseased people begging otuside the cathedrals. And there are many dusty, impoverished towns in Mexico.

What stands out about Whiteclay is how the ugly side of alcohol abuse (which, depending on one's tolerance, is pretty much as crippling as drug abuse) is on constant display.
No one even tries to hide it.
There's a "no open container" law. But the nearest Nebraskan police are stationed more than 20 miles away and they don't come around too much, I'm told.

I tried not to have prolonged interactions with anyone who was obviously drunk, the same caution I'd exercised anywhere.


But in the morning, during a free breakfast the BonFleurs host in partnership with Hands of Faith, another Whiteclay ministry, I talked, prayed in a group with and shook hands with lots of street people.

A guy who told me his name was Harrison showed me a cool way he tells his life story with a piece of paper, by folding it into a plane that first flies high then loses its wings due to alcohol abuse.
The ripped off pieces of wings spell the word "hell." But the remains of the original paper make a cross and by turning to Jesus, he says, the scraps can be rearanged to spell "life."
After showing me that, he rearranged the letters back to make "hell."

"So, which is it for you now?" I asked and he pointed to the rearranged scraps.
"Are you drinking again?"
He nodded and looked ashamed.

Harrison likes to say he's a perfect screw up and who am I to say I'm better? I've done my share of pavement biting. And from observation, I can tell you Alcoholism is a greedy bitch. Once she gets her claws in you, she tries to not let go.

All in all, I feel blessed to have met him and the others, who by the end of the day were probably lining the main street again like a menagerie of ghosts.

Sober, they were coherant, dignified, respectful. I do not feel they were trying to con me. They were not judging me or wishing me to fail. Sober, they were friends.

A culture in transition

"These Indians, if they do sober up,IMG_1892what's waiting for them? Nothing but more despair. I think we need to create jobs on the reservation," such as beautifying the reservation. There could be free buses to transport the laborers.

– Wakpamni Lake, South Dakota resident and leather craftsman Kelly Looking Horse, while visiting the thrift store in Whiteclay

IMG_1857 "I think an education is the key to us promoting ourselves and telling the truth. We have to speak up. A lot of us let other people talk for us."

– Artist, photographer and jewelry maker Andrea Two Bulls, Red Shirt Table, South Dakota



On life in Pine Ridge:
"We may be the poorest place by IMG_1929American standards. But we don't have to live by American standards. We live by Lakota standards and the most important thing is family."

On hope for the future:
"There's a word, Taku Sku Sku, it means "Sacred Mover." I think that is the movement we need more than any manmade thing…. That movement would be God himself. The Sacred Mover comes in through the Spirit living in us — evil becomes good because of a transformation."

-Leon Matthews, pastor of Pine Ridge Gospel Fellowship

IMG_1898 "It's important to recognize history. There's a difference between honoring and commemorating… We need to get past the hatred and the grudges. We as natives need to be united."

-Floyd Chavers, U.S. Navy veteran, part Muskogee Indian and chaplain of Hands of Faith Ministries, Whiteclay, Neb.

Would Jesus visit Whiteclay?


Just over the Nebraska border on the outskirts of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservaton is a town with about a dozen residents and four stores that daily sell an estimated 12,000 cans of beer. IMG_1934
It's a dusty, intentionally forgotten place for most, dubbed "skid row on the prairie."
A group of alcoholics loiters in the parking lots and empty buildings, panhandling and leaving behind Hurricane and Camo cans.

Depending where you look, though, Whiteclay could be considered beautiful.
It's not just the golden fields in the distance or the dirt roads so littered by crushed aluminum and colored shards of glass, they sparkle in the evening sun.
There is a colorful mural on the side of busy not-for-profit thrift store, a soup kitchen that invites street people to eat, talk and pray. There's also an artists co-op and community garden.


The programs were started by Bruce and Marsha BonFleur, who in 1998 moved to the Pine Ridge Indian reservation from Florida with their two young children.
The BonFleurs were living a typical upper-middle class life ("comfortable and getting more comfortable," says Marsha) when Bruce got the "call."IMG_1915

"God said, 'I want to use you, with the help of others, to restore dignity to my people. And you will do that through the creation of jobs," says Bruce.

At that time, he did not know who "my people" referred to. He began researching Lakota nation and the idea came full circle.

The BonFleurs, who have backgrounds in business building, education and publishing, first worked in the Pine Ridge schools. In 2004, they opened 555 Whiteclay, a thrift store.

Because Whiteclay is over the Nebraska border, it is the main alcohol source for nearby Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Pine Ridge is the largest city on the reservation, with a population of 15,500. No alcohol is allowed to be consumed or sold, according to tribal rules.

Reports in the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper indicate an 80 percent alcoholism rate on the reservation – one of the highest rates in the country. Resulting diseases and fatalities make the average life expectancy there mid to upper-forties.

There have been riots and protests and lots of attempted legislation over the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay, yet it continues.

With all the bitterness and recidivism, it would be easy to get discouraged or even jaded here.
Neither words describe the BonFleurs.

"God didn't call us here to shut the beer stores down. He called us here to be a light," says Bruce. "In fact, when we came here, God told my wife, 'Stop looking around at what you see and begin to praise me for the transformation that's going to take place.'"

He says God had to work on cultivating compassion in him before he could be used — enough compassion to bring to his house for dinner a drunk man covered in flies and human excrement.

Their outreach is based on relationships and jobs. The thrift store employs six tribe members, part time.

With help from mission teams, the BonFleurs are working on a large garden area with a community stage. They are finishing a work shop and storefront for the Lakota Crafters cooperative. Artists will be aided by small grants and through a microlending system in which each crafter is loaned a couple hundred dollars for supplies. The loans are to be paid back after the crafts are sold, says Bruce.

The BonFleurs have a Bible-based strategy, too.
"555," the name of the thrift store, refers to the five smooth stones David in the Bible used to slay the giant – in this case alcohol abuse. Secondly, it refers to the two fishes and five loaves of bread Jesus used to feed the multitudes he was teaching. Lastly, it references five spiritual callings Christians believe God gives his people — to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepards and teachers.

To find out more, go to: www.lakotacrafters.com or www.aboutgroup.us


The burden and freedom of an evolving identity

Growing up in Portland, "I never imagined myself being anything but a city girl."  IMG_0617
Problems with my husband caused me to run away to a reservation in Utah.
I ended up here in Lapwai with my mom and dad.
"The disadvantage (of reservation life) is everyone knows your business. Everyone gets on you real hard. The upside is it's really close."
"I grew up going to sun dances (annual, four-day long ceremonial events) my whole life.
My kids (two sons living with their father in Portland) don't have that.
I feel they are at loss and wish they could be here with me."
I stopped going to the dances when I got married. I went to one while I was having problems in that relationship and it helped me make the decision to leave. It was a "healing experience."

— Natalie Emerson, 29, Lapwai

The cultural wisdom of our ancestorsIMG_0621 is not gone, but "it's way different now."
"Diabetes is a big problem – everyone eats ice cream and cake… When I was a kid (in Bridgeport, Wash.) we raised rabbits and grew asparagus. I used to fish there."

— Lee Plumley, Lapwai