Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mitakuye Oyasin

I spent a week in March in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It's an Indian Reservation, the second poorest in the country, the size of Connecticut. Just to give you a very brief intro to Pine Ridge, the average life expectancy there is 48 years old, the second lowest in the western hemisphere after Haiti. Half the population is under 18. The teen suicide rate is four times as high as anywhere else in the country and suicide in general is twice as high. There's a town just across the Nebraska border, 2 miles south of Pine Ridge, called White Clay. White Clay has a population of less than 100 people yet it sells 11,000 cans of beer a day. A DAY!! We went to White Clay. It's maybe a block and a half long and has a handful of businesses that all look like outbuildings on a farm. I found out yesterday that the day before we got there in March a Lakota man was found dead in White Clay. I don't know if he was killed or died there or what but it's a sad commentary that while we were there we never heard about it. It's not uncommon and it's not uncommon for a white man to shoot a native and get away with it if it doesn't kill the man. That's the short story of Pine Ridge, the side that you'd read about if you ever googled it.

The side that I remember, the side that stole my heart and made me feel right at home was their concept of Mitakuye Oyasin. It means "we are all related." Every evening our group would sit together in the common room and discuss what we called "roses and thorns." The good things and the bad things that we'd seen that day. The thorns were always about the living conditions, the homelessness, the fact that the white people who worked at the hospital lived in beautiful houses less than a block from the homeless shelter for children which was covered in graffiti and broken windows. The third world conditions pushed many of us to tears. But the roses almost always talked about the spirit of these people. While so many of them are basically destitute, the hope that they exhibit in their life and their work (despite the 90% unemployment rate many of these people are artists) was impossible to miss. Neighbors gladly opened their door to invite in a family who was homeless, leading to the staggering statistic of 16 or more people per 400 square feet of living space! They know if they don't help their neighbor who is going to help them when they themselves are down and out. They're a family, rather by blood or by dedication it does not matter. They stand side by side and lend a helping hand.

The last evening we were there we didn't do roses and thorns. Instead we talked about what we had learned while we were there and what we would give them if we could give them anything. I was one of the last to go. What I learned while I was there was that I had more family than I had ever met before, both the people who I had traveled there with and the people I had met there. It truly is a small world. While I was there I ran in to people who were connected to my own past. It dawned on me that had this person whom I'd never met before not been the person they were, my life may have been completely different. And this was before I even met them. The family I had found became family through a common thread running through our lives, the love of the very land we stood on, the belief in the sacredness of all things and a shared history of life on the reservations in the U.S. Also, a hope for a future that heals the wounds of the past and brings together a country, a broken land, to share in a world where all people are welcome to live, to believe and to love.

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