The Catholic Chapel at Woonded Knee
NOTE: Wounded Knee - Pine Ridge Reservation SD is one of the most thought-provoking places I have ever been to. In 1890 Wounded Knee was the site of a horrific massacre and in 1973 the site of a deadly, 71-day, civil rights battle.
Pine Ridge is the eighth largest reservation in the United States, when I visited it is also the poorest. Unemployment on the reservation hovered around 80%, with 49% living below the Federal poverty level. Adolescent suicide was four times the national average. Many of the families had no electricity, telephone, running water, or sewer and use wood stoves to heat their homes in the bitter SD winters. The population on Pine Ridge has among the shortest life expectancies of any group in the entire Western Hemisphere.
On all of my road trips around the country I have been overwhelmed by the grace, humor and kindness of so many of the people I have met. People who have opened their doors and their lives to me in very unique and personal ways. None have touched me as deeply as those I met over the few days, I spent on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
As vast and remote as the location is, so often, when I stopped to view the amazing landscape or explore one thing or another someone approached me to see if everything was OK. A grandfather approached with his 4 year old grandchild in tow, offered me a drink and conversation. A 12 year old saw me pull up to an abandoned visitors center and walked over from her home, almost a mile away, to offer me information and sell me commemorative T-shirts. (I bought two)
On this trip I was driving east from WY, through the P. R. R., night was approaching and I realized I had no idea where exactly I was. GPS and cell phones are useless in much of this part of the country and the map, not so helpful, it pointed out only abandoned historical sites and high population areas. There are no highly populated areas on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was getting cold, I was tired, hungry and bonus - I was running out of gas. A group of teenagers hanging out on a roadside in what seemed to me to be the actual middle of nowhere, directed me to a small combination gas station/community center/diner/grocery store just down the road, just 27 miles down the road.
On arriving at the pumps my tank was registering empty and the note on the pumps read Credit/Debit out of order. Inside I was met with another note, ATM out of order. Having spent the last of my cash on the commemorative T-shirts I started to get a little anxious.
An event was letting out of the community center and the dispersing crowd was filling up the dinner/grocery section of the building. I stood out like a very uncomfortable thumb. I "browsed" while trying to formulate just the right words to ask the elderly woman behind the counter if she would accept a check for food and gas from this total stranger whose ID and bank was from 2k miles away.
Then from across the room, and over the heads of a few dozen people, I hear a woman ask "You need some money?" I did not need to look up to know the question was directed at me.
The entire room turned to hear my response. I smiled too broadly, my voice cracked "I have a credit card, and checks... I just don't have any cash". So obviously not a local, everything about me was screaming east coast. city woman, nothing I am ashamed of, but at that moment, in that place, I felt humbled and a little foolish.
With a kind glance and no additional conversation, the woman sent a young man from the crowd out to fill up my tank, and another was dispatched to fix me a plate of food from the buffet in the adjacent community center The first came back and politely asked for my keys so that he could move the car, both teens acted very much like this was just a natural daily occurrence.
While I ate, the building emptied out of all but a few shoppers and my hostess. When finished I took my plate and headed for the kitchen, I had only begun to ask about where I might find a room for the night when my hostess said "It's off season and most places are closed, you are too tired and it is too late for you to drive to any of the open hotels, so I made arrangements for you at a closed hunting cabin just down the road, someone will meet you and give you bedding and towels, you will have to make your own bed."
"That's not a problem” I felt one with the young men who 30 min. earlier had just done what they were told. No conversation, no hesitation, she was clearly the boss and I followed her directions.
I did offer her a check and was told with a look that she does take checks then she added "You'll pass through here again in the morning, the ATM connection will be working, you can settle up then." She sent me on my way with directions to the cabin just down the road. Just 39 miles down the road.
In the morning, I arrived to a still broken technical connection at the pump and ATM, before I was fully in the door one of two very young pre teenage girls behind the counter called out to me "Good morning! Grandma said to feed you before you get on the road", both girls grinning ear to ear, eager to dispatch the task assigned them.
"Good morning, thank you, and thank your grandmother, but I'm not hungry, I thought the ATM would be fixed?"
The older of the two girls smiled "They have not worked for months, Grandma said to feed you, what would you like for breakfast? "
Realizing challenging Grandmas orders was not gonna fly I sat down and aked for coffee and eggs. Both girls joined me for breakfast, they were bright, friendly, talkative, very inquisitive, I was charmed. The three us discussed all manner of things for the next half hour before business started picking up and I, with some regret, got back on the road.
My first task on arriving home was to send a thank you note, with a money order enclosed, to the woman who had arranged for my accommodations, filled my tank, my belly and whose granddaughters where a highlight in a trip full of highlights. A week later I received a note back in the mail "Treating you as our guest was my choice. I would offer to you that accepting a gift can also be an act of generosity, don't take from me my joy in giving". My money order was enclosed.
Post Script: August 12, 2020 09:07 - Sadly the quote below and attached article are about the Church I visited at wounded Knee.
Two Church Fires Believed to be Arson
By Mandy Scherer
Arson is believed to be the cause of two church fires that occurred in the early morning hours on Saturday, August 8, however, both fires are still under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives...