Around ten years ago, my husband and I were on a vacation at Isla Mujeres, on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Early one morning, a man walked by our room and I started a conversation with him. It turned out that he was on a Mission of Love trip, building for the Mayan people. He gave me a hand carved wooden heart and introduced me to Kathy Price. Thereafter, I followed the good work of the Mission of Love. But reading newsletters wasn’t enough for me. I always wanted to go on a trip. This year, I finally contacted Kathy and she said, "Let’s make that happen!" I didn’t realize how often I would hear those words and come to understand that when she said them, she did indeed "make it happen."
On Friday, October 5, Kathy and Sieglinde Warren picked me up at Rapid City Airport. My only instructions from Kathy were to bring an open heart and expect the unexpected. I found myself, that first day, having lunch with Leonard Littlefinger, who would run the Lakota Immersion School that the Mission of Love is building. His grandfather had been one of the few survivors of Wounded Knee. I felt that I was in the middle of history and I hadn’t even arrived at the Pine Ridge Reservation! We arrived at dark and I began to meet the other MOL volunteers I would be working with. However, one man who arrived wasn’t there to work, but just to visit with all of us. He remembered my face…even after ten years! It was Louis, who had given me that wooden heart and had started me on the long journey that culminated in my taking the trip to Pine Ridge. "Expect the unexpected"? It was already coming true!
To understand the problems facing the Lakota people, one would need to understand history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, geography and a lot more. But to EXPERIENCE the needs of the Lakota people first-hand, one need only to go to the Pine Ridge reservation and meet these courageous and loving people. Because I was with the Mission of Love, I was able to do just that. Kathy and her group work hand in hand WITH the Lakota. I was welcomed with warmth by every Lakota person we met. Most of them know of the work of the Mission of Love. When you work with people, even if you are only sweeping floors or making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while they do the difficult jobs, you become a team. Sharing meals and rides to the various sites means sharing stories and laughter. So, even though I haven’t read a lot of books about the Lakota, I feel that working with the Mission of Love helped me see clearly the enormous struggles they face daily to feed and clothe their families, drive safely to get medical care, and eke out a living in the inhospitable environment that is their reservation.
Both the US and Lakota politicians, past and present, have let down these people for years, resulting in crushing poverty. There are terrible roads, everything is MILES apart, there is no public transportation, the people are hungry, ill-clothed, and some are almost completely dependent on charity. Yet, they are hard-working, if they can GET work, they are incredibly proud of their history and culture, they are extremely spiritual, they are funny and have great wit.
One of my jobs was helping an 81-years young electrician, Howard Boyle. He came to the reservation to be a minister long ago to help the Lakota and never left. He is still helping them. From Howard all the way to Varden, who is only 16, the people worked with energy and enthusiasm. I never heard complaints, although the work was difficult and the days were long.
We stayed in a beautiful place; next to the Lakota Prairie Ranch. I had my own room with color cable, coffee maker, etc. The food at the Ranch was wonderful. However, it took over an hour and a half to get to our work sites. On these trips, I would learn more about the challenges faced by the Lakota people. We would pass a broken-down trailer and I would learn that fifteen people lived in it. The need for homes has been at a crisis stage for years. Thanks to Peg and Bob Elston, I learned even more about the Lakota during these drives, for they had Lakota stories on an Ipod for us to listen to.
John Rosensteel, one of our group, drove two gravestones from Ohio to South Dakota. These were a gift from the Mission of Love to a Lakota couple to honor two of their parents. The entire group of volunteers was invited to a beautiful dedication ceremony in a 35' high tipi. There was a fire going...and there was drumming, singing, praying, and then eating...bapa, which was a white venison soup, and other traditional foods. "Expect the unexpected?" The only tipis I had ever seen were miniatures in gift shops. I never imagined myself in one. One of the teenage boys we worked with was a descendent of Sitting Bull! I saw pictures of Leonard’s grandfather who had survived Wounded Knee...I was at Wounded Knee at sunset and it is a lonely, sad, hard little spot. It is so easy to picture Big Foot, sick and cold, flying his white flag, with his starving people in the snow just hoping for food and shelter, only to be gunned down. I heard real stories that were passed down from survivors to the people I met. I was honored to stand at Wounded Knee with Susie Shockey, one of the Lakota people who worked with us all week. I can’t describe how it felt to stand at that mass grave with such a warm, strong woman like Susie. She shared so much with me…stories of her life and Lakota words and so many funny stories. If there was one "unforgettable" person for me on the trip, it was Susie.
There was not one time that anyone on the reservation was less than friendly and polite to me. I felt numbed at times by the visible poverty and lack of transportation and jobs. Most times, it was impossible to believe I was IN America. But all Americans should see this reservation. All Americans should make the trip to Wounded Knee, Red Shirt, Porcupine, Potato Creek and other places that are barely dots on a map. I learned that there ARE people willing to help and I am very glad I had the opportunity to spend a week with them. Looking back, I guess that all I really did was sweep some floors, make some sandwiches, stick my hands into light sockets, and empty some trash. I didn’t build anything, or even build a part of anything. But the miracle of the Mission of Love is that each person does his or her own little acts with an open heart towards those around us. "We are not here to save the world, but to touch the hands that are within our reach" is how the mission statement reads. I touched so many hands last week with my small acts of kindness…and felt my hand touched in return with appreciation, with warmth, and with love. If we would all just do this, the world would be a better place.
I came with an open heart to the Pine Ridge reservation, and I left with a heart full of memories, laughter, kindness and understanding. JAB, October 14, 2007