Our land is what keeps us together.

by caitlynpickens

For the third day of class, we took the kids on a field trip to the tribal council. This was a really great experience for both the students and for us because we got to see the inner workings of the tribal government and meet the president of the Oglala Lakota, the biggest tribe of the Sioux.

The president, who is elected by tribe members, is named John Yellowbird Steel. In his speech to the students, he stressed how essential the land is to the tribe: “The land is most important. It’s what keeps us together.” President Steel and the other council members also repeated (over and over again) how important it is for the students to get educated: “Your job is to learn what your teachers know, and keep learning.”


Lisa, President John Yellowbird Steel, and Chanda


Terri Dawn


me, President Steel, Tracy, Anica


Some of the goals that the tribal council spoke of are as follows:

  • education about health within the district, especially to combat the high ratio of diabetes on the rez
  • staying true to the Lakota culture, tradition, and language
  • creating safe, gang-free neighborhoods
  • health care
  • cell towers
The president also mentioned the ongoing fight with US government regarding the theft of the Black Hills territory from the Lakota in the 1800’s, when gold was discovered. To read about the betrayal of the Sioux in the treaty, go here. The basic jist of the story is that the US government gave the Sioux the Black Hills territory, which they consider sacred, to them in a treaty in the 1800s. When gold was discovered in the region, white settlers invaded and stole the territory. Today, our national monument of Mount Rushmore stands on the grounds as a constant reminder to the tribe of the betrayal. The Oglala still hope to get some, if not all, of the land back from the government. The Supreme Court has offered the Sioux some $160 million for the territory since the 1980’s in an attempt to rectify the situation; the Lakota refuse to accept monetary compensation. President Steel will be meeting with President Obama on June 25 to further negotiations.

Some of the good news that the president shared with us was regarding a grant that the rez received, which will give every town $100,000 to put toward building youth centers for their kids in order to keep them in safe spaces during *non-school* hours. The students all seemed very excited about this, and so did their teachers.

After the president and the council members spoke, the students got to have their pictures taken and have a Q&A time with the president himself. The kids wanted to know things like: how much does the president make? ($42,000); what does a typical president’s day look like? (lots of meetings, can start as early as a phone call at 5 am); will curfew be enforced this summer? (yes).

Another cultural difference I have noticed about the rez is the disregard for time. Truly, no one is in a rush to get *anywhere*. There is a lot of construction on the roads in the rez, and this means that “pilot” cars are needed to lead the traffic through the dirt roads, causing huge delays in traffic patterns. Just getting to the location where the tribal council met took an hour and a half. In public schools that I’m used to, teachers would be panicking about having students back to campus on time; on the rez, three of the students in our class are siblings, their father drives the school bus, and he can just drop everyone off whenever the school day ends (whether on time or not). So strange.

In the evening, Tracy, Anica and I went to Chadron and Fort Robinson, places recommended as tourist sites for us by the teachers Lisa and Chanda. Fort Robinson is the site of Crazy Horse’s death, where he was stabbed in the back by white soldiers after he had surrendered. The history told at the Fort, especially the descriptions of the events with Crazy Horse, frustrated both me and Anica, because it cast the natives as blood-thirsty savages who had to be tracked down and killed by whites.

Fort Robinson did have a couple of redeeming things: (1) a natural history museum with two mammoth skeletons locked in battle and (2) a farm with buffalo.

On our way back to Porcupine, we stopped at a cemetery in Wounded Knee, which had a small graveyard and a memorial to those who died in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

While we were there, a man who was visiting his family’s gravesite approached us, told us his name (which was a last name that was common in the cemetery), and asked us for money to get him to Rapid City, or even as far as Pine Ridge. We tried to tell him no, but he kept insisting. Finally, Tracy gave him $5 in cash. We all felt a bit sad about it, knowing there was a good chance he would use it on things we did not intend him to (like alcohol, or drugs). It made me wish we could be doing more to help these people, but also glad that we might make a difference in some of the kids’ lives.