by Elise Seyfried
Rosebud. What a lovely place name! You might look at the name on a map of South Dakota and imagine miles of colorful flower gardens. You would be wrong.
The real Rosebud is a Lakota reservation in the southeast part of South Dakota and one of the poorest places in the U.S. A few weeks ago, a group of high school youth and adults left Philadelphia to spend a week on the reservation. We went to serve, to help wherever we could. We lived at Tree of Life, a ministry of the United Methodist Church that has been in the town of Mission for 30 years.
Some of us ran a Vacation Bible School (VBS) in the town of White River. Some of us worked onsite, helping with food distribution (Tree of Life feeds hundreds of people daily) and doing some painting. Our days were full of activity but also full of revelation. For you see, things on the reservation rarely go as planned.
The Oreland residents working at Tree of Life spent a large part of their time unloading pallets from semi trucks, donations from various corporations. And what was donated? Fresh fruits? Vegetables? Not when we were there! The trucks were loaded with cast-off items that could not be sold in stores. Many, many pairs of high heels. Cases and cases of Mountain Dew soda. The Mountain Dew will contribute to the rotting teeth and the diabetes that afflict 80% of the Rosebud population. There is nowhere to go that would warrant dressing up in high heels. Halfway through the week, the food distribution center was shut down. Tree of Life had run out of food.
Day camp in White River was not smooth sailing, either. We’d brought the same curriculum we’d used home in Pennsylvania earlier in the summer. There, 50 little ones enjoyed our VBS. They were brought and picked up by attentive, loving parents. Here, the children either walked a distance alone or piled in to our van after a free lunch at the community center. Some of the older ones (some only 11 years old) were already becoming hardened by life and did nothing but cause trouble.
They mocked our planned activities. They pushed and shoved and cursed. We tried to keep a vision of their home lives in mind. Raised by teenage moms or overwhelmed grandparents. Some beaten. Some neglected. What would it be like to BE Jeremiah First-in-Trouble or Anessa Little Boy? The eyes of our lucky suburban kids were opened as they realized that, but for an accident of birth, they could easily be living there.
So now we are home, haunted by memories of the people we were trying to serve. Hoping that things will get better (even though I was there 11 years ago, and nothing much has really changed). During my years of leading youth on church mission trips to such diverse places as Alaska, Guatemala, West Virginia and New Orleans, there was always the sense that things were even a little better after we had worked there. The week on the Lakota reservation was a very humbling week for all of us, because here there was not the gratification of making an obvious difference at all.
This Rosebud is full of thorns. There is little chance of it ever blooming. The problems are so deep-seated. As one Lakota leader explained to us, “Rosebud was created to fail.” The people were driven away from their sacred Black Hills and down to some of the least arable land in the state. The elders remember being placed in “Christian” boarding schools, where all of their native culture (their clothing, music, customs and spirituality) was systematically taken away from them. And now, generations later, the struggle to just survive beats their desire and energy to resurrect their beautiful, ancient ways. In so many areas, the odds are stacked against our Native American brothers and sisters.
Still, where there is life, there is hope. Education is a key; while the high school dropout rate is astronomical, there is a university, Sinte Gleska, on the rez for those who persevere. Other great needs are access to decent health care, enough jobs and decent food. For now, the Indian hospital is substandard (built, in fact, over a rattlesnake pit), and doctors and dentists are scarce. Unemployment hovers around 90%, largely because there are so few job opportunities, period. And food? There is now a grocery store, but prices are high and fresh produce scarce. There is a long road ahead for the Lakota people and no magic wand (or magic group of volunteers) to make it shorter.
In the end, we did what we could, and then we prayed. And we continue to pray with and for the people of Rosebud. There is a commonly heard Lakota phrase, “tiospaye,” which is translated as “all my relatives.” May we remember that, though they may live in a desolate place 1500 miles away, they are all our relatives, too.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She can be contacted through www.eliseseyfried.com.