If you'd like, you can hear the much shorter/more story oriented version of this sermon at:
Title - “Right, Wrong, or Indifferent”
When we travel to visit churches and talk about what the Lord is doing on the Reservation, folks often ask the same questions at first…
For starters, they often ask “What in the world are you wearing?” Some have said that I look like some sort of indigenous road worker! That is not the look I’m going for…. I’m dressed in the way a typical man would dress to attend a feast or a funeral at the traditional meeting place, the longhouse.
Another common question is “What are you doing out there?! What is the plan?” This morning as we look at a simple verse, Micah 6:8, I will attempt to answer that second common question. Let’s turn to Micah 6:8 together…
As you are turning, I want you to think of a time when you needed mercy…. Think of a time when you wanted justice… when you looked at the world and the way things are and knew, deep down, that it was a “broken world”, that things are not the way they should be….
LOWER BRULE – Neleigh Driving Hawk stands on the powwow grounds at Lower Brule, pixie-like in her Lakota jingle dress with its Dora the Explorer cartoon faces, clinging to Grandma’s hand as she peers out at the masses. The steady pounding of a tribal drum pulses in the warm summer evening. Little Neleigh steps tentatively across the grass, her 3-year-old hips bobbing to the cadence of a centuries-old beat. Most South Dakotans recognize such postcard images of tribal life in this state. Far less familiar are the harsh realities Neleigh and 14,000 other youth growing up on the state’s nine reservations face once the drumbeat ends.
Along the winding streets of Lower Brule, Neleigh and her 18-year-old mother, Janessa, sleep on a mattress on the floor of a bedroom in a relative’s home. When they’re hungry, they eat popsicles, Ramen noodles and anything else provided by a federal food stamp program. That image plays out daily in all kinds of reservation communities no more than 100 miles from the state’s major cities. It’s a childhood foreign to the rest of South Dakota and most of the nation. These are places where babies are twice as likely to go to bed at night and not wake up the next day because of SIDS and other infant mortality issues. It’s where reservation youth are 18 times more likely to be damaged in the womb by alcohol, or six times more likely to be killed accidentally in the bed of a pickup truck or an improperly placed car seat. As she pushes her dollies in their stroller down the streets of Lower Brule, Neleigh Driving Hawk can’t possibly know that:
- As a Native American girl and a member of what South Dakota’s U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson calls “the most victimized group in America,” she has a one in three chance of being sexually abused in her lifetime.
- On that welfare diet of Ramen noodles and popsicles, she has a 50-50 shot at developing diabetes.
- The possibility of her dropping out of school is greater than her getting a diploma.
- She will know people in gangs, and maybe join one herself.
- She’ll have friends who are crammed into inadequate housing with 15 people or more, or who get ready for school with no running water or electricity in their homes.
- She is twice as likely to be touched by thoughts or knowledge of suicide as other South Dakota teens.
- And like her mother, who was 15 when she gave birth, Neleigh is growing up in a place where the rate of teen pregnancy is 2 1/2 times the state average.
The only way to protect Neleigh from all that is to leave Lower Brule, Janessa Driving Hawk said. Yet while her own hope is to be a nurse some day, the 18-year-old high school dropout struggling to get by on babysitting jobs and welfare knows that her vision is a pipe dream for now. She isn’t leaving Lower Brule any time soon. “I know she’ll probably experience all this stuff down here,” Janessa said of her daughter, adding with a nervous laugh that “she’ll be drinking by age 13, drinking or smoking.” But does it have to be that way for the little girl in the blue jingle dress, the beautiful child with the sparkling brown eyes and melting smile? Her mother shakes her head, shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she says softly. “She’ll have to face it all….
Micah 6:8 is instructs us to love mercy and pursue justice. When we are on the receiving end we all like the ideas of mercy and justice, but are we willing/are our lives characterized by offering mercy to our neighbors who need it and pursuing justice for them?! That is the question we want to tackle this morning…
Let’s look at Micah 6:8 together…
Micah 6:8 He has shown (told asb) you, O man (mortal NIV), what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly (do justice nasb) and to love mercy (kindness nasb; steadfast love esv) and to walk humbly (Or prudently) with your God.
Micah 6:8 (The Message)
8But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.
When we think of justice it tends to be a “general concept”. We look at the world and say, “That is not right. That needs to change. That is not the way it ought to be.” To “do justice” means we engage in the fight against injustice in a certain area. We pray, we study, the think and wrestle then begin to take baby steps in a just direction.
As we engage an unjust system, we meet people embedded in that system, our heart goes out to them and we offer mercy. Justice is more general, at first, mercy starts off specific. As we offer mercy, we are reminded of the Lord’s great mercy toward us! He has shown us mercy, he fought for justice (for things to be made right on our behalf, for US to be “made right”/justified).
For the Old Testament believer God showed his commitment to justice and mercy by setting them free from slavery in Egypt. For us we see clearly how Jesus has set us free from slavery to sin. He did this at great cost to himself. He paid the ultimate price, made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could go free.
This understanding/memory/fact becomes more clear to us as we engage in mercy ministry and then we are humbled. Then we desire to walk with God. “To do what he does, to love what He loves”. To join with Him in His great plan to build his Kingdom one life at a time.
According to this verse, God calls us, and Jesus has clearly shown us how, to look at the world around us through new eyes, with a new heart, and say, “That’s not right. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” To recognize that people, who have built in/intrinsic value and worth (because they are created in God’s image), are imbedded in “unjust systems and situations. We are told as followers of Jesus to “call it what it is”.
Then we are called to extend mercy to those who are trapped in those unjust situations/systems. To offer mercy always requires a sacrifice. Somebody has to pay for the mercy that is offered/given. Think of our story: lost in sin, separated from a righteous/holy God, enemies of God and objects of wrath; yet Jesus looked at our situation and said, “That’s not the way it ought to be. That’s not right.” And He came to pay the price to make it right by extending mercy to us!
Well, here’s where the humility kicks in. “Walk humbly with your God.” When we remember/consider what Jesus has done for us, what he had to do, what it cost him, as Tim Keller says, it humbles us into the dust. But at the same time, the fact that Jesus loves us that much “lifts us to the sky”!
And remembering/considering his love compels us to humble follow him. “He has shown” us!
1. What does it mean “to do justice”?
jus·tice (jsts) n.
the fair and equal distribution of benefits and burdens…
fair treatment and due reward…
In essence, “to do justice” means as children of God we take a long, hard look at the world around us and recognize that something has gone terribly wrong. Things are not the way they ought to be. And then to prayerfully and thoughtfully and aggressively “attack” those unjust systems and situations in order, by the power of the Spirit to “set them right”.
You don’t have to look far and you don’t have to look hard to find things that are not the way they ought to be.
Is. 58 calls us to “spend ourselves” or in another version, to “pour ourselves out” for our neighbors who are in need. It’s significant that we are not simply called to “spend our money” or “spend some time or energy” but to spend ourselves, to “pour out” our very lives in a much smaller way than Jesus did, but in a very “real” way, that point to Him and His ultimate pouring out.
In other words, to speak up for those who have no voice, to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, to fight for the defenseless. Know that the Lord “has our back” (Is 58). As believers, followers of Christ, we are called to love what He loves and to do what He does. To join with him in God’s great plan to redeem and restore the world, on little step at a time.
Now, I know that all of us are called to “join the fight”. I don’t know which arena the Lord has called you into. But I’ll tell you a little about ours.
Things are not the way they ought to be in Native America…
“Grinding” Poverty on the Rez
-According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Native Americans continue to experience higher rates of poverty, poor educational achievement, substandard housing, and disease.
-According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), at least half of the reservation population lives below the poverty line.
- In 1995 more than 20% of Native American reservation households had annual incomes below $5,000.
-In 1970, the average real per capita income among Reservation Indians was $4,347. This figure grew to $6,510 in 1980, dipped to $5,959 in 1990, and grew again to $7,942 in 2000. However, the overall statistic for the United States has also steadily grown over this span of time. The total US real per capita was $13,188 in 1970 and $21,587. While economy on Reservations has improved, it is still significantly lower than that of the United States (The State of Native Nations, Harvard)
-People living on reservations have the highest rates of unemployment in the United States—up to 70% or more on some reservations.
- Further breakdown of poverty rates show that Native Americans are consistently the highest among each race.
• For ages 25-34 the rate of violent crimes for both males and females is higher than for all other races.
• 80% of Native American adolescents have tried alcohol.
• One out of four Native American males is an alcoholic and one out of eight females.
• Native Americans suffer from cirrhosis of the liver three times more than non-Natives.
-70% have no adequate health care or health insurance (2009 US Census)
- Out of the Native American/ Native Alaskan single race population; about 16.8% of individuals have a disability.
- 28% suffer from diabetes,
- Native American tribes have received much need attention from the medical field due to the increasing infant mortality rate among their people, as the nation sees this demographic overall on the decline. Native American infants suffer from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at double the rate of their white counterparts.
- Within the United States, Native American men have been found to be dying at the fastest rate of all people. (The life expectancy for Yakamas is 39 years)
- The leading causes of death among Native Americans (American Indians and Alaskan Natives) are heart disease, cancer and unintentional injury.
- Native Americans also face a disproportional share of certain diseases
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that, from 1999 to 2004:
• Suicide ranked as the second leading cause of death for those from age of 10 to 34.
• when compared with other racial and ethnic groups, American Indian/Alaska Native youth have more serious problems with mental health disorders related to suicide, such as anxiety, substance abuse, and depression.
• The suicide rate is about 2 times higher than the national average. One out of six adolescents have tried to commit suicide.
Among the Yakama people:
70% of teenagers in White Swan are homeless
65% drop out of school before graduation
100% of the folks we serve are affected by drugs and alcohol somehow
Synopses & Reviews
Clifford Trafzer's disturbing new work, Death Stalks the Yakama, examines life, death, and the shockingly high mortality rates that have persisted among the fourteen tribes and bands living on the Yakama Reservation in the state of Washington.
In these documents, he discovers critical evidence to demonstrate how and why so many reservation people died in "epidemics" of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and heart disease
Trafzer argues that Native Americans living on the Yakama Reservation were, in fact, in jeopardy as a result of the "reservation system" itself. Not only did this alien and artificial culture radically alter traditional ways of life, but sanitation methods, housing, hospitals, public health, education, medicine, and medical personnel affiliated with the reservation system all proved inadequate, and each in its own way contributed significantly to high Yakama death rates.
These statistics paint a very grim picture of the situation that our Native American Neighbors live in. When we look at the situation that our “first neighbors” find themselves in (the poverty, the heartache and despair and hopelessness, the darkness and suffering) we need to recognize and admit, “That is not right. That is not the way it ought to be. That is not just. There are situations and systems, in which an entire people group is embedded, that needs to change.”
Three “non-controversial facts”
1. Jesus clearly calls us to love our neighbors
2. Our “first neighbors” were/are Native Americans
3. Only 2% of the nearly 3 million Native Americans in the US today claim to be Christians.
2. What does it mean to “love mercy”
Love to offer it… not just to receive it
Another approach to this is to ask “How can I love this person (stranger, alien, outcast, needy, homeless) “like family”? Jesus has shown us! How has he loved us… like family?!
n. pl. mer·cies
1. Compassionate treatment (To show someone compassion)
2. A disposition to be kind and forgiving: a heart full of mercy.
4. Alleviation of distress; to offer relief:
How often do we love the idea of something but not the actual thing itself? Like loving the idea of sanctification or patience but hating the process of being sanctified or being made patient. When Micah speaks of loving mercy he not saying we should simply “love to receive it! But that we learn to love to give/extend mercy.” Because that is something that Jesus himself has done for us and loves to do!
It’s easy to love the idea of Indians and not like Indians themselves.
How often to we love to receive something like mercy or justice but hate to offer it to others, much less, to commit ourselves/to make significant sacrifices toward that end.
What do we know about the “mercy, kindness, and steadfast love” of the Lord!?
How does that reveal to us the way we should offer mercy/kindness/steadfast love toward others!?
Sometimes folks who come to the rez ask us, “How do you get mercy to work?” Right idea, wrong question. Mercy doesn’t work like that any more than a snow covered mountain works. Mercy is. And were mercy IS, God is glorified!”
Is 58 – love the alienated, the outcast, the orphan, the widow, the poor like family because when we were outcasts, slaves, alienated from God, Jesus loved us like family and poured himself out so we could be saved.
Stories about loving folks like family…
Loving a stranger like family is not a concept that is hard to understand, not rocket science. But it is not easy! It’s scary! Because strangers are… strange!
Brennan Manning says that when we are adults strangers are scary but when we have “childlike faith” and approach strangers in a childlike way strangers become “fascinating”!
Romans 8 in the msg “what next Papa!”
1-2With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ's being-here-for-us (Immanuel) no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
3-4God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn't deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all.
5-8Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God's action in them find that God's Spirit is in them—living and breathing God!
12-14So don't you see that we don't owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There's nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God's Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
15-17This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What's next, Papa?"
We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what's coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him!
18-21That's why I don't think there's any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what's coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.
29-30God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. …he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.
31-39So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us?
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ's love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, etc.
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.
When you stop and think about it, there is no better time to study these concepts of justice, mercy, and humility than the Advent Season! Jesus willingly came into our cold, dark, broken world to “make things right” and to offer mercy, healing, forgiveness, and hope where there was none before! And he did this humbly! Born in a barn to a poor family in an “insignificant” town, raised in a small rough town (“can anything good come out of Nazareth?”). And he came and fought for justice and extended mercy at infinite cost to himself. He paid the ultimate price for us.
Now, in light of all of this, he asks us to turn to our neighbors in need and love them with the same sort of love we have received from Him. How can we say “no”.
When you love strangers like family, showing them mercy and justice, they want to know “why” and they get interested in Jesus, and hopefully fall in love with Him, and begin to love you back “like family”. This leads to community/shalom!
3. What does it mean to “walk humbly with your God”?
~What does it mean to “walk humbly/prudently with your God?”
1. Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful.
2. Showing deferential or submissive respect:
3. Low in rank, quality, or station; unpretentious or lowly
Meek = gentle, submissive
Keller – “To be humble is not to think less of yourself. It is to think of yourself less.” X2
Again, He has “shown us” what walking humbly with God looks like!
As believers we are not permitted to think we are better than anyone else. If we buy in to the idea that we are better than our neighbors, for any reason, it short-circuits the whole process of loving them well. Pride comes before the fall. If our eyes are fixed on Jesus we are automatically humbled. When we look at ourselves we sink, just like Peter did when he was walking on water.
Keller- The gospel says that I am such a great sinner that Jesus had to die for me to be saved. That fact humbles me into the dust. The fact that Jesus loves me so much he was glad to die for me, lifts me into the skies!
1 Samuel 2:6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; (that’s US by the way!) he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.
1 Peter 5:5 All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
5 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit. 6 The LORD sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground.
Is. 66 “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.
We need to wake up with and carry with us the awareness that there is something terribly wrong in the world, and that we are called to reach into that dark world with light and hope that comes with the love and truth of Christ, but also that “apart from Him we can do nothing”. That we are not our own and that this is not about us! It’s not about our wisdom or our strength. It’s about Him and what He is doing. We don’t really “bring anything to the table”. We are simply one beggar leading another beggar to bread.
4. How has he “shown us”? AND How do we get the courage and strength and desire to love mercy and do justice?
By looking to Him/fixing our eyes on the author and perfector of our faith
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
When we remember our story, where we came from (slavery), and the great price Jesus paid to set us free/forgive us/make us right with God, His call for us to love our neighbors in need falls into perspective. Our pride is laid low. Our love for Him flames up. And we begin to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.”
Here’s what C. H. Spurgeon had to say about Micah 6:8…
the humility that is here prescribed includes delightful confidence. let me read the text to you, "Walk humbly with God." No, no, we must not maul the passage that way, "Walk humbly with thy God." Do not think that it is humility to doubt your interest in Christ; that is unbelief. Do not think that it is humility to think that he is another man's God, and not yours; "Walk humbly with thy God." Know that he is your God, be sure of it, come up from the wilderness leaning upon your Beloved. Have no doubt, nor even the shadow of a doubt, that you are your Beloved's, and that he is yours. Rest not for a moment if there is any question upon this blessed subject. He gives himself to you; take him to be yours by a covenant… that never shall be broken; and give yourself to him, saying, "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine." "Walk humbly with thy God." Let not anything draw you away from that confidence; but then, in comes the humility. This is all of grace; this is all the result of divine election; therefore, be humble. You have not chosen Christ, but he has chosen you. This is all the effect of redeeming love; therefore, be humble. You are not your own, you are bought with a price; so you can have no room to glory. This is all the work of the Spirit.”
With Jesus being for us, how can we fail?!
Pressures On The Reservation
Life for young people growing up on the reservation is often about pressure – to drink alcohol, to smoke weed, to join gangs, to skip school, to have sex. Against a grinding, almost Third World backdrop of poverty, housing overcrowding, family dysfunction and violence, many tribal youth will cave in to those challenges. But many will not, guided largely by the strength of their moral compass, by the influence of role models in their lives, or by their ties to their tribal culture and spirituality. Janessa Driving Hawk seems to fall very much in the middle – a teen mother and school dropout on welfare who yields too easily to the pressure to drink, but who also insists that she is going to do better for her daughter. Then there are the children at both ends – the tragic outcomes like 19-year-old MarQuita Walking Eagle of Two Strike on the Rosebud Reservation, and the shining hopes like 19-year-old Autumn White Eyes of Pine Ridge.
Remembering A Daughter
In her family’s rural setting near the housing cluster that is Two Strike north of St. Francis, Walking Eagle’s mother, Martina One Star, gazes out the screen door in her kitchen at the hills to the east. Mother and daughter used to walk that rolling prairie beyond the family’s corral for exercise and for small talk, discussing what MarQuita might do after graduation, or simply joking about everyday life. “I’d always tell MarQuita, ‘You’re just like a mountain goat.’ She’d walk and not sweat or anything,” Martina One Star said as she sat at her kitchen table. “She used to tell me, ‘Will you just hurry up with your fat ass?” And the memory dissolves into laughter. Soon after, though, One Star’s smile fades. The joy of those evening excursions into the countryside gives way to the most brutal of images – semi-nude MarQuita lying dead in an abandoned house in St. Francis last Nov. 1, her hands bound behind her back, her face savagely beaten. According to One Star, her daughter and a childhood friend, 17-year-old Bryan Boneshirt, had culminated a morning of drinking by going to the abandoned house. They ended up having sex. During their tryst, Boneshirt apparently called MarQuita by one of his ex-girlfriend’s names. “MarQuita got mad and hit him,” her mother said. “That’s when he got mad. He started beating her. He tied her hands behind her back and choked her.” In her casket, MarQuita Walking Eagle’s bruised, battered face revealed a grim epitaph to a life ended by violence all too common on the reservations. Meanwhile, on Sept. 13 in a Pierre courtroom, another sad ending came to be – her teenage killer learned he would spend the next 48 years in prison. Among the documents his lawyers used to prepare his defense were medical evaluations proclaiming that alcohol in the womb with Bryan Boneshirt ultimately damaged his judgment and his ability to manage his emotions. Martina One Star doesn’t doubt that. Nor does this 41-year-old Lakota woman downplay the forces of reservation life that led her daughter to drop out of school, to dabble in gang involvement, and to ultimately expose herself to the dangers that come with binge drinking. “If I could have left this place, I would have,” One Star said. “She might still be here if I had.”
A hundred miles west of Two Strike in the village of Pine Ridge, Autumn White Eyes has grown up in the same challenging environment as MarQuita Walking Eagle. White Eyes spent years sleeping on a living room couch because there was no bedroom available in her crowded housing. She grew up with eggs, milk, cheese and other government-issued commodities. She watched people trying to kill each other outside her front door. Yet unlike many of her contemporaries throughout Indian country, White Eyes emerged from those challenges as a hope for a culture battered by generations of historical trauma and left to survive in the welfare state that is tribal South Dakota. She insists that she was blessed with two parents raising her in their home. Most of her friends did not have that. She grew up going to sun dances, seeking purification in the sweat lodge and pursuing her Lakota spirituality. Again, that was seldom true of her peers. In a state where a third of Native American students in public schools don’t graduate – and where half in the federal Bureau of Indian Education schools get no diplomas – White Eyes flew off in early September to Hanover, N.H., and Dartmouth College with her green star quilt, her two suitcases and a dream of becoming a doctor or a writer some day. Having spent six summers going through education programs like Indians Into Medicine in Grand Forks, N.D., White Eyes feels little fear stepping into the academic melting pot that is Dartmouth. If anything, she said the experience of growing up poor on the reservation has steeled her for the larger world in ways that her East Coast counterparts – or even her fellow white South Dakota graduates – could never imagine. “I do perceive my life as being different,” she said. “Where I live, the neighborhood I live in, the things I’ve seen, not growing up with money, how I talk, what I think is funny ... my whole personality would be different if I didn’t live here. “And life here is different. I could probably get along better with someone in the big city than in a small white town. People who live in a ghetto know what we live like. “In fact, I think it would be harder to have a conversation with someone from a small, white South Dakota town. I think they would judge, and do judge, people from Pine Ridge. Even people from other reservations judge Pine Ridge. And some of what they say is true. But I don’t think of the reservation all negatively.”
Tiospaye - Extended Family
On a steamy August afternoon, Neleigh Driving Hawk sits on her new Huffy bicycle – the one she received on her third birthday July 13 – and waits for Auntie or Grandma to push her. Heat fumes radiate from the pavement. It’s too hot to pedal, and her home on Spotted Tail Avenue in Lower Brule is blocks away. “Move,” 16-year-old Mariah Driving Hawk commands her niece. But Neleigh just sits. She’ll get home. This is the beauty of Lakota and Dakota culture, the tiospaye – or extended family – that provides a guiding hand and a safety net for tribal youth. To a much greater extent than white South Dakota, Native Americans have always looked after their relatives, stepping in as grandparents, aunts and uncles or siblings when mothers and fathers are absent. But propelling Neleigh Driving Hawk down the path to a rich and meaningful future is much different than pushing her bicycle home. She was born into a way of life forged from the U.S. government’s theft of her ancestors’ native lands, one that turned the Lakota and Dakota into little more than welfare recipients with promises of food, housing, education and health care. While the government was promising to take care of the Lakota and Dakota, the Catholic, Episcopalian and other missionaries were trying to beat the savage out of them so they could be assimilated into white society. They were not allowed to practice their religion in the mission schools. They were not allowed to speak their language. Against that backdrop of what the Lakota and Dakota call “historical trauma,” the culture fell into chaos, said Dr. Don Warne, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and director of the Office of Native American Health for Sanford Health in Sioux Falls. “Now in many of our families, the women are unhealthy,” Warne said. “There is imbalance in many communities and many homes. An instability and imbalance of home life has affected a lot of lives. Substance abuse, violence, alcoholism ... has created an inconsistency in many of our homes.” He blames much of that on “bad federal policy, a lot of which is occurring today.” What chance does little Neleigh stand when bad federal policies and underfunded programs lead to poverty in the community, and instability and imbalance in the home, Warne asked? “Look at Indian Health Service,” he said. “Every time the president brings his budget and Congress passes a budget that doesn’t fully fund Indian Health Service, they are killing Indians. But now they don’t do it with bullets. They do it with the stroke of a pen.” As a child growing up in the 1940s, respected Lakota elder Albert White Hat knew poverty on the Rosebud Reservation as well, maybe worse than Neleigh and her mother face today. They lived in tents, White Hat said. Their parents earned a few dollars working for area ranchers and farmers. But back then, the retired Lakota Studies instructor at Sinte Gleska University also experienced the richness of youth, when children cut wood and hauled water for elders, offered them tobacco and learned about medicine and spirits from these storytellers. Now in this era of rapper songsters and MTV, even those experiences are lost, White Hat lamented, saying: “Our children don’t learn that now. It is a real struggle for them.” Today, tribal youth stay out all night and sleep all day, said Pat Janis, the burial assistance director for the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge. “Or they see parents partying, or moms going from man to man or their dads from woman to woman,” Janis said. “It’s very confusing. I didn’t grow up like that.” That confusion is where gang culture is spawned, Janis said, where suicide becomes the solution instead of spirituality, where school is both a sanctuary and a waste land. “It’s that old story of the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other,” Janis said. “When you live in a stable society, the angel usually wins out. In an unstable society, it’s the devil.”
Angels And Devils
And so that struggle between the angel and the devil will continue for Neleigh Driving Hawk, played out on the powwow grounds and back streets of Lower Brule, far from the view of the rest of South Dakota. As she moves from infant to toddler to adolescent, will she know the terror of MarQuita Walking Eagle or the promise of Autumn White Eyes? Or will this child, who herself can be angelic and devilish at times, simply become mired in the pressures of poverty and alcohol that is so common in reservation life and so confusing to her own struggling, teenage mother. “You try not to get stuck in all this, but it’s hard,” Janessa Driving Hawk said. “Look at everybody; most people are stuck down here. I don’t want that for my daughter, but I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.”
STEVE YOUNG • SYOUNG@ARGUSLEADER.COM • NOVEMBER 3, 2010
More than 40 percent of the 69,000 Native Americans in this state are under age 18 – the youngest of which are often the most vulnerable. In 2008, Native American babies between 28 days old and one year died at four times the rate of white babies in South Dakota, according to state Department of Health statistics. From birth to 28 days, the death rate was 2-to-1 for tribal newborns. Dr. Amy Elliott, director of Sanford’s Health Disparities Research Center in Sioux Falls, is trying to figure out why. She’s part of the Safe Passage longitudinal study that includes reservation women and their children. The study is looking at everything from babies’ heart rates, blood pressure and temperature control to mothers’ use of alcohol and tobacco to understand why some children are more at risk for SIDS and other causes of infant mortality. “What we know is that alcohol and tobacco use can result in adverse outcomes,” Elliott said. “If women reported drinking in the first trimester, they increased the risk of the baby dying eight-fold. “But the link between prenatal and infant death hasn’t been entirely figured out. What differentiates those who drink and their babies turn out all right, and those who don’t?” The issue is complex, Elliott said, and involves many uncertainties. Has the mother had good prenatal care? Does the baby have a good sleep environment? And on the reservations, there are other considerations, such as bringing a newborn home to a house crammed with multiple families, or exposing an infant to smoke and contaminants put off by a wood-burning stove. Sometimes, there is no simple explanation, as Joe and Marion Picotte discovered two springs ago on a tragic Sunday morning in Pine Ridge. At the time, the Picottes and their children – 2-year-old Kenny and newly born daughter Nadia – were living in a relative’s trailer with as many as 10 others. Though Marion Picotte is an artist who makes quillwork, Joe Picotte’s $7-an-hour job provided the only consistent paycheck coming into the trailer. “It was pretty rugged,” Joe Picotte, 27, recalled. “At times, I couldn’t pay the electricity bill. I’d have to call in and ask them to hold off on turning off the electricity. Sometimes we had to use candles.” Nadia Sunshine Picotte was born on May 20, 2008, at the Indian Health Service hospital in Pine Ridge. She liked to smile, her father said, “and I could tell she was going to be a thinker,” he added. “She’d have a serious face on her and look at things for a long time.” Their bedroom was so small, there was no space for a cradle, Picotte said. So he slept on one side of the bed, Marion took the middle and Nadia was next to her, guarded by pillows and blankets to keep her from rolling off the side. At 8 that Sunday morning, June 8, 2008, Marion had awoke and was going to change Nadia’s diaper. But the baby, on her back, didn’t appear to be breathing. “Marion started freaking out,” Joe Picotte recalled. “Kenny was still sleeping, so I said, ‘Just go. It will take too long for me to get Kenny up and ready.’ So Marion got Nadia in the Suburban and took off.” Later, they would learn that tiny Nadia had passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at least three hours before her mother had found her – and had never cried out in distress. It doesn’t make sense, Joe Picotte says now. Nadia had been healthy; there had been nothing wrong with her. Still, he believes there are tests that could have been done when his daughter was born that might have told them whether she was susceptible to SIDS. “If I could go back,” he said, “that’s the one thing we would have done.” Finding and confirming those markers to underlying infant mortality issues is what Elliott’s study is all about. On the reservations, alcohol and tobacco use aren’t always the easy answers. Most people probably don’t realize that many tribal communities in South Dakota have the highest percentage of women who don’t drink as any place in America, Elliott said. But rates of infant mortality on the reservations two to four times the statewide average are alarming, and alcohol does play a role, Elliott said. And what’s frustrating at times is the seeming inability to get that message out. “One of the issues we’re constantly facing is, the tribes get programs up and running and then the money goes away,” Elliott said. “There is a lack of infrastructure to sustain things.” On the Pine Ridge Reservation, where there are 450 to 500 pregnancies a year, Healthy Start funding allows that agency to get to only about a third of those women, said Lisa Dillon, health administrator for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The frustrations are similar on the Rosebud Reservaton, said Sandy Wilcox. Her Healthy Start office works with high-risk women during their pregnancy and the first two years after their babies are born. The women they can get to and counsel have good success stories to tell, Wilcox said. But Rosebud is a big reservation. Many pregnant women have no means of transportation, and her office has no surplus of vehicles to take women to doctor’s appointments or other services. So it becomes a gamble, Wilcox said, like it was recently with a baby who had shown some abnormalities on initial health tests. The family didn’t bring the child in for follow-up testing, and her office had no money to pay for gas to go see the baby. “I had 20 bucks of my own that we used,” Wilcox said. “Thank God the baby’s tests were good; there was nothing wrong. But we go through that all the time. It’s so hard for us to make choices like that.” In some ways, Janessa Driving Hawk, now 18, took that gamble as well as she carried her baby to term in Lower Brule. “Whatever I knew about having a baby and taking care of myself I learned from the people around me,” she said. “I didn’t go to Healthy Start, and they never came down here. I never heard from them. “I just knew from everyone around me telling me not to drink when I was pregnant.” Fortunately, that message stuck. Little Neleigh Driving Hawk, laughing and giggling as her grandmother and auntie pull her on her bicycle past a burned-out trailer in Lower Brule, is proof of that.