Fostering hope: Another view of Pine Ridge

by Twyla Baker-Demaray

posted on May 14, 2012

It was my honor to receive an invitation to visit Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Red Cloud School in Pine Ridge, SD recently.  My husband and I were asked to come and speak to the students of RCS about leadership, education, career goals, and overcoming adversity.  While I was very happy and honored to do so, I was wondering how I would talk to this group of kids about overcoming adversity. 

People throughout the U.S. are becoming more aware of the dire circumstances found on Pine Ridge Rez.  Photographer Aaron Huey documented it and spoke of his time in Pine Ridge in his TED talk (  Most recently, the Diane Sawyer report, “A Hidden America” showed stark images of a people ravaged by poverty, disease, alcoholism, violence, and hopelessness.

The reactions throughout the Native social network ran the gamut from sorrow and sympathy, to frustration and indignant anger at what some felt was an unfair portrayal.  In my visit to Pine Ridge, I hoped to connect a few dots for myself.  As a Native person born and raised on Fort Berthold Rez in North Dakota, I’m no stranger to what happens and the circumstances found on the rez.  As a kid, I remember witnessing a woman being violently assaulted by a man I assume was her boyfriend or husband in the parking lot of the convenience store where my mother worked when my father and I came to pick her up after her evening shift.  I know now as an adult that this incident was likely the tip of the iceberg in my hometown. 

While cognizant of the ills that exist on far too many reservations throughout Indian Country, I am also keenly aware of why I return there as often as I can, and why I miss it so much.  I have a strong sense of place in regards to my home; it is where my people live and where my culture and stories are.  It is where people continue to speak a language older than America, which is found in no other place on Earth.  It is, in a word, home.  I had a strong feeling that the people of Pine Ridge had the same affinity for their own homelands as I have for mine. 

I was curious, in my visit to Pine Ridge, what my own experience would bring to my understanding of the people and the place.  I’m no Diane Sawyer and I do not view the world through her lens; rather through a lens likely a bit closer to what the people of Pine Ridge know and experience.  I had only a few days in which to seek out some answers, so I decided my best option was to let the kids of Red Cloud School tell me who they are.

Red Cloud School is different from the other schools on Pine Ridge in that it is a private Catholic school that is essentially all about achievement.  According to their website, they have graduated 57 (!) Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholars, and many have gone on to pursue Ivy League educations.  Clearly, if I was going to find a bright spot on Pine Ridge, Red Cloud School was a good place to start.

My husband and I had been invited to Red Cloud by my friend, Wendell Gehman, a science instructor in the school who I’d had the good fortune of meeting at the National American Indian Science & Engineering Society (AISES) Conference.  Gehman had brought his high school AISES chapter members to take part, and I was presenting for the conference.  It was our good fortune that our paths would cross there.

Our first day at RCS included some one on one time with the kids, and speaking to a senior chemistry class.  We spoke rather simply and plainly about ourselves, and engaged the students in conversations about who they are and what they want to do.  In speaking to them, and really in just about any ‘motivational’ type speaking I do, I draw a great deal of energy and drive from my audience. 

These kids had a near overwhelming amount of positivity, hope, and quiet determination about them.  One girl wanted to be a pharmacist, and return home to work.  One young man wanted to be a nurse, and also said he’d like to work if not at home, then somewhere in Indian Country.  Considering the fact that almost 100% of Red Cloud’s graduates pursue post-secondary education of some sort, I have no doubt these kids aren’t just dreaming; they’re actively working towards making things happen– a stark contrast to the stereotypes one often hears about young Native people.

From the moment we stepped on campus and felt their excitement and enjoyed their warm welcome at seeing us- to the moment we left, I recognized the presence of a very strong spirit within each of these kids.  One student I met, Gabriella, had one of the strongest senses of self I have ever seen in one so young.  I asked most of the kids I spoke with a relatively simple, straightforward question; what makes you strong?  For Gabby, it’s her family.  She has a strong tie to her grandfather; he motivates her, inspires her, and from what I can tell, has great expectations and high hopes for her.  She is also a devoted daughter of a single mom, whom I had the pleasure of meeting.  Gabby told me her mother is who she draws her strength from and seeing as how Gabby will be traveling to Georgetown University this summer for a college prep experience at the age of 16, it appears she is stepping up to the potential that her loved ones see within her.

Another one of the students I spent time with, Savannah, was a fountain of sparkling energy; funny, sweet, and smart.  I asked her at the end of our presentation, what she felt.  She gave me one of the most honest, humbling, from-the-heart answers I have ever heard:  “It made me want to keep being who I am.”  I realized throughout our visit that these students had as much to teach me about perseverance, hope, tenacity, and determination, as I had to share with them.

Now I am fully aware that not all schools on Pine Ridge function under the same circumstances.  I DO NOT want to play down, or underemphasize the truly dire, crisis conditions that exist there.  Pine Ridge is one of the poorest places in the United States, in terms of income; it is disparately burdened by violent crime, suicide, domestic abuse, disease, substance abuse, and many other issues that the rest of the country very often turns a blind eye to, which both saddens and incenses me.  I think that what I was looking for when I went there was some sense of place, and evidence of a cultural capital that I know many places outside Indian Country are quite devoid of; and which in fact, scores of people travel to Pine Ridge every summer and throughout the year to find. 

I found it, and sensed it strongly at Red Cloud.  There are many heroes here, and they are abundant, if you simply look a little deeper.  I am only sorry that I didn’t have more time to spend with my friends there, though I look forward to returning.  My short visit and the experiences I had barely scratch the surface of what I know exists within and amongst the people of the Lakota Nation and the work they are doing to revitalize themselves in the face of staggering odds.  Pine Ridge boasts a number of people who have stepped up to leadership within their community, whether they are working towards cultural, environmental, and spiritual survival, human rights, language revitalization, economic development, or political advocacy.

I think the message that I sought, and found strong evidence of, was not to discount the ability of the Lakota people to do for themselves; while I think Diane Sawyer is great, and I appreciate that she and other documentarists were simply attempting to bring awareness with the images they conveyed of Pine Ridge, I think a vital, absolutely critical part of the picture was left out. 

There are many, many people amongst the Lakota who spend each day trying to do for their own.  Love exists there; culture abounds, everywhere you look.  Also, great adversity cultivates great leaders.  The leaders and innovators of Pine Ridge live in and see this adversity every single day, and because of their love for their people, their culture, and the land they come from, they continue to fight and advocate for what the people of Pine Ridge need, from morning until night.  Like my own home, there are people there who do not accept the circumstances they see each day, and believe they have the power to change things for the better. 

I do believe that light needs to be shed on the shocking difficulties they face every day, this is for certain; however knowing where I come from, I cannot discount the leadership, tenacity, drive, desire and persistence of our relatives on Pine Ridge to also determine their own destinies, on their own terms.  If there is anything I can say to the people of Pine Ridge, as a relative from the Red Nations, it is this; I respect you, I understand and support you, and very simply – I got your back.  I thank my hosts, Wendell Gehman and the science club students of Red Cloud School for their generous hospitality, and I look forward to the day that I can return.

Baker-Demaray, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation of Fort Berthold, North Dakota, is the project director of the National Resource Center on Native American Aging. She is also the principal investigator for the National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative, at the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Baker-Demaray is involved in groups such as the American Indian Science & Engineering Society, of which she is a Sequoyah Fellow. She is also a Bush Foundation/Native Nations Institute Rebuilder Fellow, and was recently named a Native American Top 40 Under 40 honoree by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. She received her PhD from the University of North Dakota this month.