Monday through Wednesday were work days. On Monday, Jack went out with a group of about ten others to help skirt a trailer belonging to a man named Bart. Bart had lived off the Rez for a while, but came back to be near his kids and grandkids. He was a horse rancher, and had originally planned to sell horses as his herd grew. Except that as the horses were born, he tended to give most of them away to his kids, grandkids, and other relatives and friends. He was very generous, and worked alongside us as we skirted his trailer, explaining that this project would have taken him months. As they talked, Jack asked him about what he saw as differences between life on and life off the Rez.
Humidity was a big one, the weather. There was much more money to be made off the Rez. But here on the Rez he was amongst his people.
“Did you encounter a lot of racism off the Rez?” Jack asked.
“Not in Minnesota where I was living,” Bart said. “But there is a lot around here.”
The two had a nice ongoing conversation as the day went on, and when the volunteers packed up to leave, Jack made a point of going to shake Bart’s hand.
“I’ll be honest,” Jack told him “You’re the first Lakota I have spoken to for more than a minute. And while I didn’t expect there would be many differences between us, I am impressed with your moving back here after being pretty comfortable out in Minnesota.”
“Family.” Said Bart. “This is our land. It called me back. There is a larger population of traditionals out here, and we are all family.”
Jack thanked him again for the conversation, and Bart called him “Wasichu Waste”, which he explained meant “Good White Guy”.
That night the Lakota speaker was a man named Will Peters. He looked like quite a character. He had long black hair drawn back in a ponytail. He wore a sleeveless t-shirt with Bob Marley on it. Both of his ears were pierced, and he wore sunglasses that hid his eyes. He was not too tall, but built like the sort of guy who could handle himself in a tough neighborhood. He had a tattoo of a turtle on one arm, and a medicine wheel on the other. Jack wondered if he was in a gang of some sort. When he spoke, he had a Lakota accent, and spoke like he was from the street.
Jack was therefore surprised to hear that not only was Will a high school teacher, but had been on the tribal council and between he and his wife had five college degrees. Jack felt foolish because he had always believed that one should never judge a book by its cover, but here he had fallen into that trap.
Will spoke of what the youth experience was like on the Rez. How hard life was when there was little hope of a future. How their culture had been attacked and oppressed not just a hundred and fifty years ago, but continuing through the years and was ongoing even today. He opened the volunteers eyes to the dysfunction of the tribal council, the stresses on the education system, and finally of the suicide rate amongst the youth. Multiple times higher than anywhere else in the country. One sentence that he spoke struck Jack right through the heart.
“Probably not one of you has been to more funerals for kids than I have. Do any of you know what it’s like to have to deal with a teenage suicide? It tears your heart out. Tears it out.”
Will’s words echoed in Jack’s head.
“Do any of you know what it’s like…”
Jack flashed back to one of his runs as a medic. A teenage girl had hung herself. They had worked her as best as they could. Even gone so far as to get an IV started and pushed meds. That had been the first time Jack had placed a ET tube, or breathing tube, in the field. He remembered feeling pleased that he had got it in on the first attempt. He remembered feeling a bit sick that he had felt happy about the tube. They couldn’t save the girl. The whole scene was nightmarish. But the other medic he worked with was phenomenal, and the two of them were able to do what needed to be done. Jack had seen other suicides, but this one stuck with him for some reason. He spent a lot of time wondering why that girl had taken her own life when she had so much going for her. She had often appeared in Jack’s dreams carrying the three month old SIDS baby.
As Will spoke, Jack couldn’t help but to compare him to one of his favorite people. Pastor Bill Yonker was a friend of both Jack and his wife, had in fact married the two of them, and was a terrific public speaker. He had the ability to tell a story such that the entire audience was hanging on every word. Will had the same power over a crowd, and Jack enjoyed the talk immensely. He also felt like he wanted to talk with Will and learn more. A sentiment shared by most of the volunteers, as after his talk he was swarmed by more questions.
Jack hung in the back of the crowd, not wanting to impose on others, but wanting to make sure he got a chance to talk with Will. He finally got his chance as Will was heading for his car to go home. They talked about suicides and Jack told Will that he did know what it was like. They only spoke for a few minutes. But in that time Jack mentioned that he would be back with a group in a couple of months. Will said that he had to get going, but told Jack to be sure to talk to him again the next time he came out.
The whole group went on a tour of the Rez on Thursday, visiting the college and the radio station, having lunch where Black Elk Speaks had been told. Seeing and learning more and more about what had happened on the Rez from the past to the present.
Something happened to Jack that week. He wasn’t sure exactly when, but he soon felt like Re-Member was another home for him. At first since he did not have a group to debrief with, he talked to the staff. They shared stories with each other, and by the end of the week Jack considered them friends, if not family. Later in the week he was ‘adopted’ by a college age group from Hope College in Michigan. He became fast friends with many of them, and at the end of the week they invited him to join them up on the hill for their final debriefing meeting. They were a pretty special group of young adults, and he told them so. He had some very eye opening experiences, and realized that the Lakota people on Pine Ridge were pretty much invisible to the “outside world.” He made a pledge to himself to try and change that however he could.
Before he left, he asked if there was anything he could bring back when he brought his group in a couple of months. Any supplies or just raise as much money as he could. What could he do?
“Shingles” one of them told him. “We have many roofs that need repair or replacement, and we are running low on shingles.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Jack promised.
After all of the groups had gone, Jack joined some of the staff at the Lakota Café for breakfast before he left. As he sat at the table with them, he felt a little sad that he had to go, but so very thankful for having met them.
As he drove home, he listened to the CD of music he had purchased from Will. It was filled with very powerful lyrics about life on the Rez along with some love songs for his wife. Jack knew that it would take months to process all that he had learned and experienced. He had been on many mission trips, but none had sunk into his heart like this one seems to have. He wondered what the future would hold for him and the Rez.