One of the things I took away from spending most of yesterday at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is this Lakota story:

A long time ago, the animals of the Plains decided to have a race to determine which one of them was the fastest and strongest. The bison said it was him. But then the wolf and coyote both growled angrily and said, “No! It’s me. It’s me.” Then the antelope, deer, hawk and falcon chimed in. They squawked: “I’m the swiftest. I’m the strongest. I’m the best animal on the Plains.”

So a great Indians council meeting was held, and it was decided by the tribes that every kind of animal would participate in this race, from the bison to the mouse, from those with four legs, to those with wings, to those who crawled. Tribes from throughout the Plains took part in the planning of the race, which they agreed would consist of the animals running four times around the Paha Sapa, the sacred Black Hills.

On the day of the race, the sun rose over the horizon, and the animals were off! As was expected, the antelopes quickly took the lead, followed by the falcon and hawk. Also up near the front were the bison, bear and bobcat.

The mountains of the Black Hills thundered and clouded with dust as the animals ran, flew, crawled and slithered as fast as they could. But not long after the first lap was completed, some of those who were out in front began to fall behind. Now leading were the wolf, bobcat, hare and swallow, and toward the end of that second lap, many of the animals began to stumble. By the third lap, the bison and antelope realized they could not catch the wolf, but they still kept running, as did the creatures who flew and crawled and slithered. None of them gave up.

As the final lap began, the wolf was still in the lead, but behind him were a flock of birds, including the owl, the swallow, the meadowlark and the magpie. Using all his strength, the wolf ran harder and faster than he ever had before. And when he looked back, he saw that even the flock was now far behind. But then he heard a strange flapping sound. And when he looked up, he saw the magpie.

The magpie was not a graceful bird. In fact, he is still the only bird who looks awkward flying. But there he was, neck-and-neck with the wolf, until ever so slowly and clumsily he pulled ahead and beat the wolf to the finish line.

Not for one minute had any of the animals, or Natives, considered the magpie to have a chance at winning. Yet his fortitude–the strength of his heart and mind–brought him to achieve this great and unexpected victory.

Fortitude, or cantewasake (pronounced can-te-wah-sha-keh) in Lakota, is one of 12 virtues that members of the Oglala tribe, and other Lakotas who follow traditional practices, believe is a necessary part of daily living. The other essential practices they teach, and hold each other up to displaying, are humility, perseverance, respect, honor, love, sacrifice, truth, compassion, bravery, generosity and wisdom.

Thinking about the magpie story and all that I experienced at Pine Ridge, I realized while laying in bed last night that three of the Oglala women I met yesterday showed tremendous fortitude. All are also dedicated to the Lakota way of life, which every one of us should take time to learn about and practice. Respect, honor, truth, generosity, wisdom–these and all of the Lakota virtues are sorely lacking in U.S. society today.

White Dove

Pine Ridge is one of the five poorest communities in the U.S., and its residents have the lowest life expectancy in the nation–just 48 for men and 55 for women. Yet White Dove Clifford, 38, said she would never live anywhere else.

“Here, we teach our children respect,” said Clifford, who was also born in Pine Ridge. “But respect is not something that every parent teaches. We could move out of the reservation, to a larger community with more services. But especially since Trump has become president, racism outside of Pine Ridge is over the top. My son got a job at Burger King in Rapid City, but his co-workers bullied him, calling him a ‘prairie nigger’ and saying his skin was brown like shit. I don’t want to live or be around people with that kind of hate in their hearts.”

So she stays at Pine Ridge, where despite a more than 80% unemployment rate, she is fortunate to have a job as a cook at the 3-year-old Pine Ridge Girls School.

Like the students who attend the school, Clifford and all school staff (including Office Manager Maria Helper, shown here, at left, with Clifford) wear traditional Naitive American ribbon skirts to work each day, which represents modesty, respect, creativity and the strength of the generations of Native women who previously wore them.

“It’s my job as a Lakota tuwin, or auntie, to carry myself in a way that makes me a role model to the students, each one of whom is my tojan, or niece. Our culture is about respect–for ourselves, for each other, for our elders, for our people, for our land. We are all connected through kinship, and to keep that connection and respect, all of us need to practice it. That is what we believe as Oglalas, and it is more important than any hardship my family or I might face here.”

15-year-old Ohiyesawin

At the Pine Ridge Reservation, the teen suicide rate is 150 percent higher than the national average, its high schools have a 70 percent drop-out rate, and just 2 percent of those who do graduate go on to college.

Some young people see Pine Ridge as a place where success is impossible. Yet 15-year-old Ohiyesawin believes it’s because of Pine Ridge that success for her is possible. Please click the video to hear her introduce herself to you in Lakota:

Lakota is one of the indigenous languages that came close to disappearing in the late 19th/early 20th century, when Native American children from all tribes in the U.S. were separated from their parents and forced to attend government-sponsored, English-speaking-only boarding schools. Through her family tree, Ohiyesawin can trace relatives who experienced this suppression. One of the results is that neither her parents nor grandparents can speak more than a few words of Lakota.

“Ohiyesawin is the first in our family to speak it so well,” her mother Maria said proudly.

Empowered by the Pine Ridge Girls School’s rigorous college prep curriculum, as well as the connection she feels to the Oglala women of her family who came before her, Ohiyesawin said she plans to achieve many firsts, including becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon.

“I know I can work hard and do it,” she said.

I think her name is Kathy

Her comments threw me, and her indifferent stare made it impossible for me to think clearly enough to ask essential journalistic questions, such as “How do you spell your name, please?”

As I wrote about in an earlier post, visiting the Wounded Knee Massacre Site was important to me. A National Historic Landmark, it includes two parts: the vast field where U.S. soldiers shot and killed hundreds of weaponless Indian men, women and children, and the mass grave and memorial across the street on a hill.

At the field, under a canopy of woven evergreen branches, Oglala craftspeople sell handmade goods and tell stories about Wounded Knee and the Oglala people. As I approached, this woman who I think later said her name was Kathy pointed to my earrings and said, “You’re wearing the Tree of Life. I make necklaces with the Tree of Life.”

She pointed to her necklaces, smiling. But when I only took a quick glance and started asking questions about Wounded Knee, she scrunched her brow and frowned.

“Did you have ancestors who died here?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, and swept her hand toward the others selling crafts. “We all did.”

“Can you tell me about your ancestors who were here in the battle?”

Her lips tightened and she pushed her shoulders back. But I continued.

“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what whites did to Native Americans. How awful we were to Natives. And personally, I’ve been feeling pretty guilty how my work as an activist against racism has never included Natives. But I want to learn and change that.”

Silence again. Then: “Your people tried to eliminate us. We lived. But we live here in poverty. With illness. With alcoholism and suicide.” She pointed to her jewelry and the dreamcatchers she said her daughter makes. “There are no jobs here. This is how we survive.”

It takes a lot to unnerve me, but she did it. The cynic in me said, “Hold on, she’s bullying you to buy something.” (I did. I bought a dreamcatcher. And if I’d had enough cash in my pocket for two, I would have bought two.) But then another voice said, “It’s her truth. Shut up and listen.” And her voice, her body, her eyes: They said her other truths were she was hurt and angry.

A small article I found later said her surname is Hehaka Tiospaye, which translates to Elk, and that the Elk family brings handmade goods to sell at the site every day. For so many reasons, I can’t imagine the kind of fortitude that must take.

Here are some of the photos I took at the Wound Knee Monument, which overlooks the field:

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I’d love to hear your reaction to any of the stories included in this post. Please feel free to reply below!

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