To sum up all that I learned while visiting Pine Ridge Reservation is impossible. This experience offered so many opportunities to learn and grow educationally and as a person. Visiting Pine Ridge Reservation was an amazing, eye-opening, humbling, and educating experience, among many other things. The first full day of being on the Reservation set the tone for the week as we journeyed to the site of what was probably the lowest point for the Lakota throughout history, the Wounded Knee Massacre. Hearing the story from a perspective that was not in a government issued textbook quickly taught me a lesson that would be reinforced repeatedly throughout the next few days; there are always two sides to a story. History is written by the dominating members of society, but that does not mean their version is the truth. As much as I did not want to believe it, in some cases my own country had been the villains, committing the horrors of ethnic cleansing and genocide on a race over hundreds of years. I quickly learned that the treatment of the Lakota people from the past has significantly contributed to their state of living today. After being forced onto reservations and from their rightful land, social problems began to increase, some as forms of coping mechanisms and others due to a lack of resources. The conditions on the Reservation are astounding. Poverty levels are similar to that of a third world country. There is one real grocery store for the entire Reservation of 40,000, and the prices there are nothing short of outrageous. Medical help can be hours away, and few people have the money to afford gas if they need to drive to a hospital anyway. Unemployment is nearly 90 percent. Rates of homelessness, gang activity, suicide, and teen pregnancies are above the national average. This was just the beginning of my introduction to a different culture.
Through various experiences over the rest of the week, I gained an immense amount of cultural diversity through exposure to a way of life that is so different and yet has many similarities to our own. In the end, despite differences in beliefs and ways of life, we are all similar and want similar things out of life such as love, and respect. This is similar to another valuable lesson that will definitely stay with me the rest of my life, “Mitakuye Oyasin.” This concept, meaning “all are related,” displays the Lakota value of friendship, love, and respect between people of all races, ethnicities, and cultures. Learning more about the history of the Lakota people and their struggles of the past and present, I have an even greater respect for their culture. Despite all of the prejudice and oppression they faced in the past and continue to face, almost everyone we met remained hopeful for the future and the opportunities it could bring.
Probably one of the most educational experiences of the trip was the opportunity to be a minority. In a world where I am accustomed to being a part of the majority it is quite the experience to be put in a situation that forces you to experience the other side of the spectrum and help you understand an entirely different point of view. This trip was extremely beneficial to me personally as a social work major by exposing me to a different culture, a variety of social issues, and a greater understanding of an often discriminated and forgotten group in society.
I could go on and on with stories and things I learned and gained from this trip; it was an absolutely priceless experience. On the Reservation I learned so much about another group of people but I also learned a lot about myself and life in general. I learned to slow down, enjoy life, and have an open mind and heart to everyone you meet. A big thanks to all of my brothers and sisters, such as leaders at Re-Member, the William Woods staff that provided support, fellow volunteers, and people on the Reservation for their involvement in this positive experience and for the valuable lessons I have learned. Wopila Tanka.