My daughter Stacey and I are planning to go on a short-term mission trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota this August. The trip will be with about 20 other people from my church, Fairfield First Baptist, and is through Next Step Ministries. This is the first in a series of blogs I’ll be writing about the trip.
Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Lakota tribe, and located in Oglala Lakota County (formerly Shannon County), South Dakota, which is the poorest county in the United States. Some statistics:
- Pine Ridge has 8 times the United States rate of diabetes.
- The alcoholism rate is estimated as high as 80%.
- The median income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is approximately $2,600 to $3,500 per year.
- The unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is approximately 83-85%, and can be higher during the winter months.
- About 97% of the population lives below Federal poverty levels.
- 1 in 4 infants is born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects.
- The suicide rate is more than twice the national rate.
- Teen suicides occur at a rate of 4 times the national rate.
- School drop-out rate is over 70%.
- Teacher turnover is 800% that of the U.S. national average.
- Infant mortality is three times the national rate.
- Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States and the 2nd lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Only Haiti has a lower rate.
- There are an estimated average of 17 people living in each family home (a home which may only have two to three rooms). Some larger homes, built for 6 to 8 people, have up to 30 people living in them.
- Over-all, 59% of the Reservation homes are substandard.
- Over 33% of the Reservation homes lack basic water and sewage systems.
- 39% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation have no electricity.
- At least 4,000 new homes are needed on the Reservation in order to combat the homeless situation.
The Oglala are one of the seven subtribes of the Lakota tribe, who along with the Nakota and Dakota, comprise the Great Sioux Nation. Prior to the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806, the Lakota had little contact with non-indigenous people, other than a few traders. At one time, the Lakota controlled a vast area of the Great Plains, including parts of Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.
In 1851, the United States government negotiated the first Fort Laramie Treaty with the Lakota and several other tribes in order to secure the safety of travelers on the Oregon Trail. The Indians were to receive an annuity in the amount of fifty thousand dollars for fifty years. The U.S. Senate promptly adjusted the compensation from fifty to ten years, then failed to actually deliver most of the commodities promised as payment, and did not enforce other treaty provisions.
In response, the Lakota and others attacked settlers, causing public pressure on the US Army to punish them. A series of battles between the Lakota and the U.S. Army followed.
The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie ended this war. The treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation, which comprised the entire western half of South Dakota, including the Black Hills. The Black Hills were (and are still) considered sacred by the Lakota. The treaty provided for hunting privileges in areas of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota until the buffalo were gone, as well as for schools, clothing, blankets, and food rations. It also called for land allotments to be made to individual Indians.
Despite the fact that the 1868 treaty required that ¾ of all adult Lakota males had to approve any land deals, and that the Lakota overwhelmingly refused to sign the new treaty, the U.S. Congress ratified Indian Appropriations Act of 1876, which cut off all rations for the Lakota until they ceded the Black Hills to the United States, effectively stealing the Black Hills from the Lakota.
The government also began the systematic destruction of the buffalo herds that the Lakota relied on for food and shelter. This forced the Lakota onto the reservations in order to receive food allotments, or to starve. Once on the reservations, the government again ignored treaty provisions by reducing food allotments, causing widespread illness and death due to malnutrition.
The Dawes Act of 1887 forced the Lakota to divide the Reservation land into allotments for individual Indians, and to sell off “excess” lands to white settlers. It was designed to force the Lakota to become “civilized” by becoming farmers and abandoning traditional tribal structures and traditions. However, because the land was unsuitable for farming, and due to severe drought, the Lakota were reduced to near starvation.
In 1890, in part due to the desperation of the Lakota people, a religious movement known as the Ghost Dance arose. It was believed that the dance would reunite the Lakota with spirits of their dead ancestors, make the whites leave, and bring unity, prosperity, and peace. Unfortunately, many white settlers felt threatened by the movement, fearing it would lead to a new round of war with the Indians. The military was called in. On December 15, 1890, 40 Indian policemen tried to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, a supporter of the Ghost Dance, killing him in the process. After Sitting Bull’s death, about 200 members of his followers, fled and joined Chief Spotted Elk, and attempted to travel to Pine Ridge for protection. On the way, they were met by a 7th Cavalry detachment under Major Samuel M. Whitside. On December 29, 1890, while camped next to Wounded Knee Creek, the military attempted to disarm the Indians. After a scuffle, a shot was fired, then the military opened fire on the Indians. A massacre ensued. In less than an hour, at least 150 Lakota men, women, and children had been killed, and many more wounded. Some estimates put the total casualties (dead and wounded) at around 300 of the approximately 350 Indians in Spotted Elk’s group. Many of the women and children fled into a nearby ravine, where they were systematically hunted down and shot. The Wounded Knee Massacre effectively ended all Lakota hopes of a return to the pre-reservation way of life.
Religion on Pine Ridge Reservation
Approximately 46% of the residents on Pine Ridge Reservation are affiliated with a religious congregation. Nearly half of those are affiliated with the Catholic Church, and a little over a quarter are affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The rest are spread between various evangelical churches, mainline Protestant churches, and a smattering of others.
The Oglala Lakota are very spiritual people. Although not affiliated with a church, most hold to some variation of traditional Lakota beliefs, and many affiliated with churches combine some traditional beliefs with their Christian beliefs.
According to Lakota tradition, the Lakota were given their culture by a sacred person, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who gave the people the sacred pipe along with a promise to teach them the ceremonies and standards for living as a united tribe. This pipe links the Lakota to their relatives the buffalo, who would give their very lives to sustain their kin.
The Lakota language has no word for religion. The sacred are not restricted to certain times, places, or activities – the Lakota held and many continue to hold that all is sacred. Religious revelation through personal quest, dreams, and visions remains an important part of their dynamic belief system. Lakota religion teaches that everything has a spirit, and many Lakota worship the spirits. The Great Spirit is the most powerful of all – the traditional Lakota God.
There are many Christian organizations that do mission work on Pine Ridge. Most center around building projects and other ways of trying to improve the living conditions on the Reservation. Many of the Oglala appreciate the work these groups do, but many others have a deep opposition to Christianity and Christians. Many feel they have been stripped of everything they once had, and that their traditional religious beliefs are all they have left. Others resent that religion, especially Catholic and Episcopalian churches, was shoved down their throats in the deliberate attempts to “civilize” them by forcing them to give up their traditional ways.
Why this matters
Because I will be spending a week in August on the Pine Ridge Reservation as a missionary, I felt it was critical that I learn as much as possible about the people I will be ministering to. The Gospel isn’t about changing culture; it’s about introducing people to Jesus Christ. Part of evangelism involves understanding the people being evangelized in order to be able to present the Gospel message in a relevant way. The message doesn’t change, but how it’s presented must be tailored to fit the understanding of those with whom it’s being shared. Part of always being ready to give a defense of the Gospel to everyone who asks us about it (1 Peter 3:15) is to anticipate the probable objections to the Gospel that a particular group might raise, and to prepare Biblically-solid answers.
In Lakota culture, one must earn the right to be heard. The way to earn that right is by building relationships, and relationships are built through understanding and trust. At this point, my goals for the trip are: 1) help improve someone’s life through building projects; 2) build relationships through service and friendship; and 3) when given the opportunity to be heard, present the Gospel in a way that it can be understood and received. My hope is that the preparation, study, and prayer I have undertaken will allow me to have an impact on someone’s life with the Gospel.
There is great spiritual warfare on the Reservation. The worship of spirits opens the door to demonic activity. Many of the suicides at Pine Ridge have been directly attributed to bad “spirits” telling people to kill themselves. Please pray for the Lakota people on Pine Ridge Reservation, and for the Christians (both natives and non-natives) working to spread the Gospel and improve living conditions.
The righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
Filed under: Evangelism, Mission Trips, Pine Ridge Reservation | Tagged: Christianity, culture, evangelism, Gospel, Indians, Lakota, Mission Trip, Native Americans, Oglala, Pine Ridge, Short-term mission | Leave a comment »