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One Spirit: Empowering the Lakota People Through Action

One Spirit: Empowering the Lakota People Through Action

In the southwest corner of South Dakota lies the eighth-largest territory designated to the Native Americans. Established in 1868, the Pine Ridge Reservation is home to a majority of the Oglala Lakota Nation. According to the US Census Bureau, the territory is among the poorest counties in the nation. A majority of the Lakota live on the Pine Ridge reservation, and most still honor their ancient traditions in their daily lives.

On Independence Day, Mr. Trump hosted a celebration at Mount Rushmore. The monument at Mount Rushmore was built between 1927 and 1942—the director of the project, Gutzon Borglum, was close to the Klu Klux Klan, and likely a member himself.

The colossal monument to colonialism, depicting the faces of four former American presidents, is carved out of the granite Black Hills, that hold sacred significance for the Native American Lakota Nation. Legally, the region belongs to the Great Sioux Nation, of which the Lakota are a part, under a treaty signed in 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

This year, Mr. Trump’s rally came at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19 were sweeping across the nation. While free face masks were handed out at the event, protective covering was not required, and neither was social distancing.

“We are more than three hours from the nearest critical care facility,” said Julian Bear Runner, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, ahead of Trump’s visit. “To expose our people to the virus would be devastating. And for our more vulnerable members who have underlying medical conditions, COVID-19 is far more deadly.”

Indigenous people began organizing protests against systemic racism and the use of their sacred lands in the wake of Mr. Trump’s announcement to rally at the monument for the fourth of July. They strived to form a collective resistance against the celebration of Independence Day, which innately discounts the trauma and betrayal that Native American’s have endured since the continent was first colonized, and miles of sacred land stolen from their rightful owners.

While protesting has proved beneficial in battling systematic racism—so has the partnership with a reliable organization shown to create a platform of self-sufficiency and sovereignty. With such aid, cultural empowerment is achievable.

One example of such an organization is the One Spirit program, just two hours away from Mount Rushmore on the Pine Ridge reservation. In 2011 the Tribal Council of the Oglala Sioux Tribe unanimously voted to formally recognize and support One Spirit, whose mission “is to help the Lakota [nation] meet the basic needs of their people and provide a culturally rich life for their youth.”

This means supporting the Lakota people in their own “goal of achieving food sovereignty and self-sufficiency in their communities” while promoting intercultural relationships. This includes school immersion programs and the establishment of youth centers. The organization envisions a future where all residents have access to basic food, water, and heat; employment and economic opportunity; and a revitalization of their language and culture.

Currently, the reservation (which is about the size of Connecticut) is home to about 40,000 people. They are “often without heat in the winter and adequate food all year round. Diet-related health problems are epidemic, and the suicide rate is 5 times higher than anywhere else in the country. The high school drop-out rate is around 75%.”

The organization “consists of around 40 volunteers from all over the world, plus another 40 enrolled tribal members,” while their unique Okini program “allows donors to donate directly to real people.” 90% of all donations go directly to the Lakota people and programs that serve their community while “the other 10% covers administrative costs like professional bookkeeping (CPA) services, web hosting, computers, etc.”

Enough funding for the people on the reservation could allow One Spirit to “put up the youth centers, the fields for growing crops, and the food bank—so [the reservation] is no longer considered a food desert.” Gaining control over the reservation’s economy and establishing food sovereignty is a priority of One Spirit. Decreasing the number of youth suicides is another essential goal.

Jeri Baker, founder and director of the One Spirit organization, has been working with the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge reservation for 15 years. She emphasizes that One Spirit’s goal is, first and foremost, to employ the people on the reservation.

“We are a virtual organization, and the people off of the reservation do not get paid,” she explained. “People volunteer their expertise and their time to help the Lakota in their mission which is to make things better for all other people.” One Spirit consists of people all over the U.S. who volunteer their time and energy. One Spirit also has sister organizations in Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

Baker explained, “the people on the reservation are truly our partners. We work together in everything we do, and it is they who identify everything that is needed—not us. We do not send people [to the reservation] to do the work for [the Lakota people]. They do it all. . . .we respect who they are. . . . we help them to get what they need.”

Amanda Carlow, a Lakota Tribal member on the Pine Ridge reservation, appreciates that One Spirit does not bring in volunteers to “do the work” for tribal members through on-the-ground-efforts. Instead, the people on the reservation are able to work for themselves and find empowerment through such labor.

 Carlow wishes a greater effort could be made at one time instead of overtime. “It’s really small steps here and there,” Carlow admitted. However, she also commented that she “think[s] all of the steps [forward] are really empowering.”

Baker finds herself in complete agreement: “The most frustrating aspect is having things happen slowly due to the lack of funds.” Baker mentioned the youth center that One Spirit constructed in one part of the reservation, yet admitted they need five more centers to provide access to the entirety of the youth on the reservation. Such centers would allow children to participate in cultural activities and encourage them to feel empowered by connecting with their heritage. Funding definitely plays a part, “with the right money we could have more youth centers put in and we could have the crops up and running [for the food bank],” Baker says.

Baker seeks increased publicity and media attention for minority communities such as the Lakota people. She wishes for an increase in features discussing what the Lakota and other minority communities contribute to the country, instead, and who they are as a group. Carlow says, “a lot of the publicity that is about the reservation or the Natives is usually some sad story. It’s rare to see a focus on the good things highlighted or the people who are leading the big fights.”

One Spirit stands in solidarity with all minority communities and movements such as Black Lives Matter. As a tribal member, Carlow notes that the challenges minority communities face are similar— “not to say that everyone walks the same path,” she emphasized. Carlow went on to explain that to the Lakota, standing solidarity is “really about standing with our own people because that’s who we are too. . . . we are all related in the soul. We should be treating everybody the same. We are standing for, just, people. We are standing for their rights.”

Carlow finds cultural empowerment through “the resilience we have in knowing who we are and who our ancestors were, and how we look out for our future generations in the decisions that we make. It’s not about me and who I am today; it’s about the people who are coming after us as well. I think it’s really something that connects us to each other, and to the earth, and to future generations.”

Battling systematic racism comes in many different forms. It could be rushing to sacred grounds to protest the graffiti in granite; it could be gaining self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. One Spirit demonstrates that a community may find the strength to battle such systematic racism with the aid of a reliable organization, focusing on the importance of cultural empowerment and overall community health.

Riley is a contributor at Honeysuckle Magazine and The 12th Street Journal. Originally from Vermont, she is currently a creative writing student at The New School.