A couple of years ago, I spent the day before Thanksgiving visiting a group of women who lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota. Since then, I’ve thought about the holiday very differently.
Some of the women had been part of a unique campaign called the Lakota Voice Project, a collaboration between Oglala Lakota College business students, other tribal members, and a local creative director named Jason Alley. The campaign aimed to highlight the epidemic of youth suicide on Pine Ridge, and involved giving kids disposable cameras and asking them: What does hope look like to you?
The results, seen here and here, were poignant and beautiful, but ultimately, things haven’t improved much for kids on the Rez since then.
Over lunch, we talked about their lives, and what their community needed to thrive. It was a tough conversation.
One teacher showed me a flip phone with over 800 numbers programmed in. She’d become a walking suicide hotline. Another talked about violence against women on the Reservation, and how the lack of reproductive health services were putting women further at risk.
Another woman, named Davidica Little Spotted Horse, coined a phrase that she thought captured the pain of Native youth as they tried to reconcile their identities with a broader American culture that doesn’t see or value them: Contemporary traditionalism. “We want to reclaim the best of our past,” she said. “But the present is so bad, we don’t know how or why to fit in.”
It’s also when I learned that the Lakota name for white Americans is wasichu, or “he who takes the best meat.” Something to think about as the Dakota Pipeline protests continue.
Davidica had shown up to lunch in full rock-and-roll mode, with dyed blonde hair, wearing sunglasses which she never removed, and sporting an Aerosmith vintage tee. She was a guitarist and told a wild tale of teaching herself to play, getting professional musicians touring the area to mentor her, and eventually getting her own gigs. But she’d also pestered tribal leadership into letting her provide music training for kids on Pine Ridge. Her program, called Independence Through Music, helps kids learn music, songwriting, and publishing.
Though it’s mostly just her, she’s seen results, one kid at a time. “If I can teach a girl to open her mouth and rock out,” she says, “She can open her mouth to protect herself.”
Later, after lunch, we stood outside the café in the unseasonably warm November air, surrounded by prairie, more beautiful than bleak.
The women gave us an Oglala Lakota send-off, complete with song, prayer, and burned sage. We walked silently to our cars. It felt like a scene in a movie – until Davidica turned back and merrily shouted, “Well, enjoy your holiday of colonial oppression!”
And with that, I began to think about Thanksgiving differently. To be woke is to be haunted, right? Inclusion is the messy business of confronting the tensions that exist when complex histories collide, and the necessary work of coming to peace with the world as it really is. It makes for better business and a more harmonious table.
It’s hard work, and we’re grateful that you do it.
Have a rocking holiday. We’ll be back in your inboxes on Monday, November 28th.