Heart and hard work: WRA makes its seventh visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation

Heart and hard work: WRA makes its seventh visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation

Feather I is a square plot of land on the southwestern side of South Dakota, near the Nebraska border. The land is leased by the Re-Member Organization, who rents it from the Oglala Lakota tribe. Each summer, a small group of WRA students make their way to this area for a week of hard work and service.

The days on Feather I begin with music. Those staying in the cabins wake up to drum beats and tribal song that plays long after the last person descends from their bunk. It's a lively summoning to beckon the visitors to greet the day and get ready for the work ahead. A few of the group members are tasked with preparing the breakfast and cleaning up the kitchen area.

When the meal is served, it is expected that the eldest eat first — a nod to the customs of their local tribe members and a sign of respect.

Feather I is currently the homebase of the Re-Member Organization, a nonprofit that for decades has housed people from around the country, engaging them in service projects and cultural immersion opportunities on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

If the words "Pine Ridge" ring a bell, it could be because the media has a long history of covering the area and its residents, most often to take a look at the grim statistics such as low life expectancy, high unemployment rate and health issues from prevalent alcoholism to a significantly higher chance of contracting tuberculosis (800% higher than the national average).

There is certainly much to be done to improve the quality of life for the people there, but there is a balance to these trips. Importantly, visitors also have the chance to experience the wealth of culture and strength of the tribe, and they come to see how in the face of centuries of adversity, the Oglala Lakota's customs, language and pride have survived.

This balance is struck carefully by the Re-Member Organization. There are days of service projects, special local tours and nightly guest speakers (tribe members who join them to tell their stories or share pieces of their culture). But often, there are important interactions with the local tribe members, sometimes on the work sites or during a stop on a tour day. It's clear that the Oglala Lakota people like to talk about their history and share a little of their culture, whether through art, music or conversation.

This year, Jakob Palfi '22, Sophia Bluso '22, Denver Soekawan '20, Jimena Oliva '22, Farris Hamzeh '20, Josh Pethel '21, Camille Wheeler '21, Elliana Polyak '21, Elizabeth Krapf '21 and Natalie Ham '22 traveled to South Dakota. They were joined by various groups and individual volunteers from around the country, culminating in a large group of nearly 60 volunteers.

Their work projects included applying skirting to the base of trailer homes for temperature insulation, building outhouses in Feather I workshop and installing them in local homes, agricultural work on the 160-acre Feather II plot and more.

"You get to do so many things on the trip," described Science Department faculty member Anthony Baldrige, who co-chaperoned the trip along with Assistant to the Dean of Student Life Melissa Polak. "There's this deep cultural experience where you get to see the people who live there, meet them and talk to them, but I think the best part of the trip is actually all the physical work we do. I actually wouldn't have minded another couple of days of that."

"I agree," Polak said with a nod. "Even though they worked us really hard, there always seemed to be something more to do — and it was hard to leave a site knowing there was so much more work to be done."

At the start of the week, the total group of volunteers is divided into subgroups of about six people. Each group is sent to a different location to either start, continue or finish a project. Since these projects often take days to complete, it's rare that a group will see one to completion, but it's a rewarding moment when it happens.

"A group of kids and I built stairs for a local woman who was disabled and needed them for her garden," described Bluso. "It took us all day to do it, but we ended up finishing the project, and I think we did a pretty good job! It sounds like a small thing to build stairs, but it wasn't for this woman and it felt really good to do it. It was all work that needed to be done, and the people really appreciate it."

With each trip, it seems each and every WRA student is determined to roll up their sleeves, try their hand at some power tools (under careful supervision!) and get work done. This visit was no exception, and both Polak and Baldridge were proud of their group.

"We got some really nice compliments about the kids from some of the other chaperones," said Polak. "They said they were well-mannered, well-spoken and respectful — just overall hard workers and people they liked having in their group."

Baldridge and Polak recalled a few special moments of seeing students interact with the locals; there were impromptu games of tag with local kids on the work sites and a few met with the guest speakers at the end of their talks to ask questions and spend a little more time listening to what they had to say.

For the chaperones and students who attend the trip, they take much with them when they leave but they also leave a little bit of Reserve behind. A t-shirt bearing all their signatures is hung on the wall, alongside the numerous shirts left behind by previous Reserve groups. It's a special goodbye and a physical reminder they were here and they won't soon forget what they heard, what they did, who they met and what they learned.