The Lakota Way: Conservation of a Culture, People and Planet

07/26/2012 09:22 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2012

Lakota pride. Those are the words Patricia Hammond read on a pick-up truck bumper sticker while living in the tallgrass prairies of Iowa with her daughter. Similar to how that sea-green 1950s Chevy zoomed by her, memories raced through her mind of her prideful Lakota heritage. She knew what she had to do and she knew it was inevitable. She was going back home. After all, her mother's story was not that much different. She too fled to California only to move slowly back to her home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

"The Lakota way is entrenched in one's connection to family," Patricia told me. "It's what keeps us strong." Patricia remembers how her mother sacrificed so much to be closer to home. They went from living in a quaint community of San Francisco to living in a Lakota public housing community outside of the reservation, and then even closer to the reservation in the house that her grandfather built. Patricia remembers that as she got closer to reservation, the luxuries of life dwindled. Her mother would have to walk two miles to wash laundry in the nearby creek that struggled to keep a steady flow. Gaping holes in the roof of her grandfather's home helped Patricia experience all four seasons of the year fully while what she knew of household electricity had been lost. Patricia remembers gathering hay to make her bed each night, which would be two feet high in the evening and two inches by the morning. Nevertheless, she admires her mother for her strength. It is her mother's strength that keeps Patricia looking forward even today.

Eventually, Patricia made that last move to the Pine Ridge Reservation, where her parents and siblings were welcomed back into the family. "We were a NAHA community," Patricia noted, as if she was speaking her native Lakota language. "The Native American Heritage Association, churches, and everyone you could think of was always giving us handouts."

Oyate, or the Lakota people, were unemployed and the federal government controlled so much of life on Pine Ridge Reservation, as on all other reservations, such as healthcare, education, environmental health and many social services.

Patricia, in search of herself and the world, she was emancipated at the age of 16 and left the reservation. She got a college education, she had children, but ultimately she found herself coming back to that place that still shocks her -- her home.

Still today, semi-trucks cross the border onto Pine Ridge Reservation dropping loads of donated supplies and equipment. What would be a South Dakota highland prairie becomes an outdoor thrift shop as the Lakota rummage through the materials in search of things they could use. There are ngodly amounts of toothpaste and clothing, piled unorganized, unsightly, and unprotected by the weather. However, some perishable items are left in warehouses. After a day or two, most of the donated material becomes unwanted rubbish and sent to the landfill.

"We can't use that," says Patricia. "Well, we could, but it's mostly useless junk anyways." Patricia knows that while some of the things are useful, these donated items not only become a tax-write off but also more waste in the Pine Ridge Reservation landfill.

But Lakota seem to be worrying about more serious things than companies abusing their landfills. The quality of life on some reservations is comparable to that in the developing world, with issues of infant mortality, life expectancy, nutrition and poverty. Eighty percent unemployment, $6,286 per capita income and an infant mortality rate five times higher than the national average describe Pine Ridge Reservation's economic and social situation. Alcohol and drug abuse are seen as means to dull the pain of everyday life; but, in fact, they increase episodes of domestic violence. Whiteclay, Nebraska is just 200 feet from Pine Ridge Reservation and has a town of only 14 people, yet sells 12,500 can of beer a day. That's 4.5 million cans per year. Ultimately, many decide to take their very own life.

No one knows the true population of Pine Ridge Reservation because of mistrust of the U.S. government. Estimates have ranged from 15,000 to 40,000 people, while the best answer is likely 28,787, according to a Colorado State University study. In fact, even former U.S. House Ethics Chair Jim McDermott recalls reading a federal government study analyzing the health of minorities that he claims was distorted. "It was so deceptive that the first sentence was 'There are few problems,' but then they said there are many positive things such as 'Indians have a low cancer rate.' They didn't mention that Indians have a short life span, so the fact that they aren't even living long enough to develop cancer isn't factored in," said McDermott in the documentary Wounded Heart: Pine Ridge & The Sioux.

Patricia hates seeing so many of her people in despair, but the economic activities on Pine Ridge Reservation are far and in between. Although Pine Ridge Reservation consists of 8,984.306 km2 of land area -- which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined -- only 340 km2 are suitable for farming. This fact stems from how the Lakota people believe the U.S. government cheated their people. In a clear treaty, the Lakota people were supposed to receive the Black Hills, an agriculturally rich region of western South Dakota, as restitution from their forced migration. Now, they are left with barren Badlands where the softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water starkly contrast the oasis of pine-clad mountains on the Great Plains of the Black Hills.

Some venture capitalists would love to exploit Pine Ridge Reservation's uranium deposits. In 2007, several Lakota organizations and individuals and others began opposing uranium mining applications from Cameco, the largest America uranium miner, in front of the federal Atomic Licensing Board, according to the Lakota Country Times, the first independent Native American newspaper in the country. According to Debra White Plume, a spokesperson against uranium mining and other natural resource exploitation on Pine Ridge Reservation, recent drinking water quality tests reveal alpha emitters (radiation) are already above the legal limit in a dozen homes across the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Women are the culture-keepers of the Lakota people. Patricia remembers her mother passing down stories of how the buffalos would roam the Plains in herds three miles wide. Although American bison is no longer endangered, they may never fully recover to their former populations of 30-70 million. The near extinction of the bison meant more than just an animal -- it is just another case in which the oyate remember how their culture has been convoluted and subordinated in their own country. Patricia even remembers going to Red Cloud Indian School and being taught by all but one of her teachers that she could not live both the Lakota and Christian life.

Now, processed meats and foods and lack of access to fresh foods and vegetables give rise to a diabetes epidemic. The nearest grocery stores for most Lakota are an hour or more away. However, gas stations dot Pine Ridge Reservation with less healthy options.

There are many efforts going on to energize the economy and renew the spirit of the oyate. Many Lakota believe that resorting back to the Lakota traditions of hunting, spirituality and language is a part of the solution. Patricia has some ideas of her own. She's powering a movement to get youth engaged in small gardens. Moreover, she and her partner, Jason, are building a sustainable coffee shop, Old West Gyspy. Patricia believes her efforts will excite people about caring about our Earth, thus reminding those involved that there is something bigger than them and ultimately giving them back their faith. You can support one of Patricia's charitable dreams for the Pine Ridge Reservation by donating here. Of all the foundation dollars infused every year to worthy causes -- and less than one percent of all philanthropic money donated in the U.S. goes to Native American causes, concerns and organizations.

Nevertheless, there is so much to learn from the Lakota people. A man is judged on the difference he makes to a community. Women are honored and respected as leaders. Children are redirected instead of spanked. Elderly are celebrated for their wisdom. Gays have always been given special rights for unique gifts from tunkasila, the most powerful God. However, oyate's most powerful connection is their belief in tiyospae -- their entire family. There is no clear definition of the word brother and sister. This could truly mean cousin or even an aunt or uncle. In fact, it is this strong belief in family and the support system family provides that keep Lakota coming back to the reservation.

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