Editor’s note: Last month, this blog previewed an ABC News 20/20 episode titled, “Hidden America: Children of the Plains,” a documentary aimed at sharing the struggles and triumphs of the Oglala Sioux children who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. We invited Jesuit scholastic Luke Hansen, who works at Red Cloud Indian School and occasionally writes for America, to respond to the 20/20 episode. In his response, Hansen includes reflections from two Lakota students who currently attend Red Cloud High School. The 20/20 episode is available online.
ABC 20/20’s recent documentary about children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation covered the well-documented social challenges associated with poor, rural Native communities: alarming rates of alcoholism, unemployment, teenage suicide, diabetes, and teenage pregnancy. Yet 20/20 placed these realities in the context of people’s lives – telling the stories of four Lakota children who face many of these burdens yet continue to persevere in living a dignified life and chasing their dreams.
Robert Looks Twice, the star quarterback of his middle school football team, dreams about becoming the first Native American U.S. President, but first he must overcome poverty and alcoholism at home; Louise Clifford attempted suicide at age eleven, but now she is focused on gaining admission to Red Cloud High School – with the hope of attending college someday; Alaina Sierra, an aspiring singer, also wants to attend college, but she is also committed to marriage and motherhood; and Tashina Iron Horse, a first-grader who loves traditional dancing, lost her young father to a car accident during the filming of the 20/20 episode.
In the past month, many friends and family members have asked me, “What are the Lakota people saying about the 20/20 episode? How do they feel about how 20/20 portrayed their community?” If I have heard feedback from twenty Lakota people, then I have heard twenty distinct viewpoints on the episode! Some people loved it. An elementary school teacher told me, “They told the truth. There is tragedy and beauty here. I was so moved by the stories of these young people.” Many other people, however, expressed frustration with what they regard as an excessive focus on the negative aspects of reservation life. Outside media organizations, in their view, always seek to sensationalize the realities of poverty and alcoholism while ignoring (intentionally or not) the many people and organizations that are making a positive difference in the community. Many people find this negative view to be disempowering.
I spoke with two seniors at Red Cloud Indian School, the Catholic/Jesuit school on the reservation, about their view of the 20/20 episode. (Jesuits founded the school in 1888 at the invitation of Chief Red Cloud, a friend of the “Black Robes.”)
Marisa Snider believes that 20/20 offered an accurate portrayal of reservation life, but only “to a certain point.” Snider explained, “The reservation isn’t just poverty and suicide. Many people are doing well. 20/20 should have focused on the positive aspects of the reservation: the success of Red Cloud Indian School, students who earn the Gates Millennial Scholarship, the revival of Native American culture, and so forth.”
Cherella Hughes agreed with Snider’s sentiments. Hughes would have preferred that 20/20 feature more Lakota students “who are doing well in school, making big plans for the future, and taking steps to achieve their goals.”
Snider explained why she desired 20/20’s presentation of reservation life to be more comprehensive and better balanced. “We don’t want people to think of us as ‘charity cases,’” she said. “We are a great and strong people. We are not helpless. We are strong Lakotas.”
KOTA, the local ABC affiliate station in Rapid City, S.D., followed up on the 20/20 episode by producing a feature story about Red Cloud High School and its student success. Cherella Hughes is the featured student, and the story highlights the three pillars of Red Cloud Indian School: academic excellence, spiritual formation, and Lakota studies. “They teach us values that will carry on for the rest of our lives,” Hughes is quoted as saying.
Many other reservation schools and organizations could have been mentioned in either ABC news report. Oglala Lakota College, founded in 1971 as one of the first tribally controlled colleges in the United States, prepares thousands of Lakota young people for employment and leadership on the reservation. The Sweet Grass Project, a tribal-sponsored suicide prevention program, builds community resources for identifying and supporting at-risk youth. And there is the Oglala Lakota Plan (Oyate Omniciyé), a coalition of governmental and non-governmental organizations on the reservation that is engaged in long-term regional planning for sustainable community development and cultural revitalization.
In this community of about 30,000 people, there are dozens of government-run schools and community organizations that are educating future Lakota leaders, teaching the Lakota language, renewing the cultural and spiritual identity of the people and creatively responding to local social and economic challenges. In recognizing these manifold signs of hope, Marisa Snider’s strong words about her community continue to resonate: “We are not helpless. We are strong Lakotas.”