Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pine Ridge

In July 1971, my husband, our 2 children and I moved from Los Angeles to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. My husband was a doctor working for the US Public Health Service and he was assigned to the PHS hospital there. We lived in a government housing area next to the hospital. It was my first experience with another culture.

When I learned of the assignment, I had some fears---even some nightmares about Pine Ridge. I was sure that everyone there would hate us, because, after all, "we" had destroyed their culture. In one nightmare I dreamed that people were burning something in our front yard. The experience was much better than I feared.

Because we lived in a neighborhood of outsiders, we were quite isolated from the natives. My son was 5 and needed to be in kindergarden. Other doctor's wives told me that the best school was at Holy Rosary Mission, located outside of Pine Ridge village. One of the nuns there had trained in Montessori techniques and had a pre-school/kindergarden class. She wanted some "token" white children to interact with the native children so I enrolled my 3 year old daughter along with my son.

Eventually it came out in conversation that I had a teaching credential and they were desperate to have a qualified teacher in the middle school. They hired me and I started the Monday before Thanksgiving. I was the 4th teacher that year for 3 science classes. The principal asked me to cut down on tobacco chewing and swearing in class, and also to do my best to keep them in the room. I confess it was hell. I went home crying nearly every day. But gradually I became determined to stick it out. I made a deal with the kids that if they would do their science lessons for 4 days, we would take a nature walk every Friday. It was during these weekly outings that I became friends with the students. (By the way, I was paid $2 an hour, $6 for 3 classes.)

My best experiences on the reservation were getting together with the students outside of school. I taught several of the older boys to drive, using my old VW yellow van. (They promised not to tell anyone.) I also let them have parties in my basement with unlimited soda! And I went horse back riding with them. Since then I have often thought my actions were inappropriate in light of my lifetime of experience as an educator. All I can say now is that it was this experience in Pine Ridge that I fondly remember.

I was particularly astonished to learn that so many people in Pine Ridge had been sent to Los Angeles for jobs. (Pine Ridge had, and still has, a very low employment rate.) The poverty was extreme. I experienced a similar culture shock in reverse, moving from the city of freeways and fast life, to a place on the prairie where homes were scattered over 4,353 square miles and life was lived at a much slower pace. Today it still bothers me that I can't figure out how a way to improve life there. They are out in the middle of nowhere and don't even have the option of a casino. The best thing that has happened since I was there is that there is now a 4-year college.

(Please forgive this overly long post.)