By SAMANTHA WENDER
A year ago this month, I made my first journey to Pine Ridge Reservation. There’s always a sense of excitement touching down on the tarmac, knowing a new world, one which you would never otherwise have the opportunity to explore so intimately, is almost in reach.
Like the rest of the team, I had read the statistics: 65 to 80 percent unemployment rates, rampant alcoholism, obesity and an education system struggling to provide the basic tools for learning.
Two flights and a two-hour drive later, I was driving through the Badlands with a duffle bag, a camera and a whole lot of curiosity. En route to Manderson, S.D., a town with just fewer than 650 residents, where more than 60 percent of them live below the poverty line, I drive through miles of plains. The land speaks, telling a story of oppression and resilience, one that I begin to understand better after spending days and weeks with parents and children, elders and spiritual leaders.
On the outside, the public housing units were worn, anywhere from 30 to 40 years old. A young father, no more than 23, told me he was covering the windows with sheets of plastic to keep the propane-fueled heat inside the home. He said the windows were installed upside down and often the family runs out of money and can’t afford to pay for warmth. He went on to tell me that heat was a luxury and some months he must choose between feeding his family of five or having heat.
Inside the roughly 300 square miles of the reservation are a handful of Oglala Lakota Sioux, who with their spirit, courage and delicate pride, will change the way I see many things. Trip after trip, I am welcomed into homes. I am told I am family. I meet with educators. A spiritual leader sends me back to New York City with braided sweet grass to bring positive energy into my home. I’m smudged, purified by the burning of sage, invited to attend meals and pow wows. I learn of the history and strength of a people, the realities and courage, but what touches me the most are the children.
Through the smiles and tears, hope and innocence, there is power in these young people – all desperate, in their own ways, to be heard. Thirteen-year-old Robert wants to be the first Native American president and buy his grandmother, who raises him and his seven cousins, a beautiful house. Tashina, 6, wants clean water for her family and bubble gum. Louise, 12, struggles to cope with addiction in her home and prays for the strength to go on and 17-year-old Alaina sings with courage through the chapter of her life she is leaving and the next she is entering.
It’s easy to speculate why the despair often outshines the valor when talking about Pine Ridge Reservation, but anyone who is given the opportunity to be immersed in Lakota culture, to see first-hand the humor and love, cannot leave unchanged.
Watch a “20/20? special, “A Hidden America: Children of the Plains” with Diane Sawyer tonight at 10 p.m. ET.