“Did Jesus ever sand wood?" Random thoughts flow in and out of consciousness as I sand parts for a bunk bed project at Re-Member, a volunteer organization on Pine Ridge Reservation. http://www.re-member.org .
In a remarkable way, life has taken me to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. A year ago, I had never heard of the place. But then newly home from the Peace Corps, I picked up a biography about Bobby Kennedy and began reading.
I learned that one of the last stops before Kennedy’s assassinated was at Pine Ridge Reservation. Back then, it was one of the most poverty stricken areas of the country and remains so. Kennedy shunned press as he visited families. He spent most of the afternoon in one to one conversations. It’s most surprising that he spent this time while the California Primary, a cliff hanger, was pending. I was moved and registered the name, Pine Ridge.
Then a few months later, I was flipping TV channels and happened upon Diane Sawyer’s program. She was doing a piece on Pine Ridge.
What’s amazing to me is that I never watch Diane Sawyer and here I am watching a show about Pine Ridge.
Some more time passes. I’m a regular NPR listener in the morning. Surprisingly, I hear a segment about the foster children’s program in South Dakota. It seems that South Dakota Child Welfare gets a subsidy for every Indian child they have in the system creating an incentive to break up native families just like it was routinely done in the 19th century. The story focuses on …Pine Ridge.
Three times in a row Pine Ridge surfaces in my consciousness when in over 60 years of life, it had never appeared. What’s going on?
Then finally, good friends from Maine, who have gone on work projects to help Katrina families, tell me that they are thinking of going on another work project. Where? Pine Ridge, of course. I can be dense at times, but eventually I get the message. I say, “I hear ya…Sign me up. I’m going to Pine Ridge!”
Pine Ridge is locally known as the “Rez.” It’s what’s left of the land that Lakota people inhabited for millennia. Once, a proud people followed the buffalo from the Missouri River on the East to the great Rockies on the West. They inhabited the unfenced and flowing prairies of this great land. Now in comparison, they are herded onto a postage stamp.
I’m sanding wood with a dozen other volunteers. We've come from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine. For a week we will reside in dormitories at Re-Member, work on projects and learn. Native speakers give us a grad school introduction to Lakota ways, culture and history. It’s eye-opening to say the least.
Days begin early. It’s up before dawn taking turns in the communal bathrooms – one for females and another for males. Mostly, it works because people are here not for the accommodations, but for the service and learning.
Ted, Re-Member’s Director, asks us to conserve water. There’s been no rain for months. The water table is low and the pump is stressed from 34 groups coming and going throughout the summer is showing. “Try to keep showers to less than 3 minutes, if you can,” Ted suggests. Not bad advice for water use anywhere.
After breakfast we gather for “Wisdom of the Elders.” Ted reads quotes and tells stories from Native Leaders. Often insightful, many of us jot down notes for later reflection. I scan the walls looking at pictures of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Rain-in-the-Face, Little Big Man and others native leaders. I imagine them speaking through what seems like a deep sadness in their eyes.
A computer printout of Treaty Titles cascades down the wall. It’s more than 500 titles long. Most were broken by the American Government. Red Cloud said, "They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it."
Here’s an excellent TED Talk - http://youtu.be/8tEuaj4h8dw Take a few moments to re-member our history.
A picture of a boy stares from a shelf behind Ted’s left shoulder. As I listen, I wonder what happened to him? If he lived into old age, what wisdom might he have spoken? If not, was he another victim of Manifest Destiny and Indian removal?
Our days are used to contribute to ongoing work projects. One group is working on an innovative housing method that’s rooted in traditional ways – a straw house. Its’ constructed with square bales of straw overlaid with a clay mud mixture. It’s cheap materials, but labor intensive. Another group skirts a trailer with insulated paneling. It’s on-your-hands-and-knees work, but considering the energy savings, it’s worth it and tangible help to families.
My group is cutting and sanding parts for bunk beds. Families are often doubled and even tripled up. Too many children have no bed to call their own. Imagine. We make 7 beds in two days. On the third day, we deliver them to homes. Each delivery is complete with sheets, blanket and quilt or comforter. There’s even a box of bed-time stories so that mothers and children can pick a few.
A child beckons a volunteer towards her new bunk bed. She sits there stroking the smooth sheet and points to a stack of books under the bed. “Mine,” she says.
I think about all the hands that make these beds possible and the children who sleep in a safe place. I find myself wondering again – “Did Jesus ever sand wood?” Maybe he did, but more importantly he lived by healing, sharing kindness and seeking justice for the small and forgotten. I get emotional and deep in thought.
As we return to Re-Member, an intense dust storm kicks in. White-out swirls make it nearly impossible to see the road. It feels other worldly.
Finally we turn and I see the Re-Member sign through the dust. I think I understand why I am here. Through life we collect a lot of dust and clutter. But sometimes we're forced to see a sign and remember. There’s is a lot to remember at Pine Ridge and now maybe something I can do.