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.

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


Deadwood to Sturgis to church


Deadwood, South Dakota – final home of Western legends Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It's a busy little city in the center of a ravine. Lots of bars and gambling and fake hookers peering over the street. I had fun walking through it one evening, though it would have been more fun if someone else was with me.

Sturgis was the next quick stop on my trip. I arrived exactly one month too early to witness the peaceful town of 9,000 swell to more than half a million during bike week.

In Rapid City, I checked out Chapel in the Hills, an exact replica of a 12th century Norwegian church that was built with money from a Lutheran donor. There is a prayer walk behind the church with stone statues and
encouraging sayings. I've had better success finding God in back
alleys, but that's ok.