Authors: Deborah Ellis
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota was known as the Great Sioux Reservation when it was created by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851. It was originally more than 60 million acres in size. After homesteaders and gold-rushers moved in, the American government reduced the reservation's size in 1868. It is now 2.8 million acres, around the same size as the state of Connecticut.
It is home to 38,000 citizens of the Oglala Band of Lakota Sioux. It is also one of the most poverty-stricken places in the United States. With high rates of diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism and suicide, it has one of the lowest life-expectancy rates in the Western Hemisphere.
It is also a place full of people who are working really hard to make things better. Small businesses are growing, from crafts to restaurants to shops for hikers and campers. Community members are exploring green technologies and Band-run public transit. Sioux-Preme Wood Products is a new business that makes affordable, beautiful caskets lined with Native blankets and carved with traditional designs. With support from Lakota Funds and South Dakota State University, gardeners are being trained to grow and market fresh vegetables to the community. And the community recently opened up its first movie theater.
Young people on Pine Ridge are finding new ways to express themselves. Five young runners went to New York City in 2012 to run the marathon and ended up volunteering to help with the clean-up after Hurricane Sandy. Others are using different media to break through stereotypes others have about them.
Destiny is a tenth grader who lives in the village of Porcupine on the Pine Ridge reservation. She and her schoolmates have made videos about their lives.
I'm a full-blooded Native American, part of the Lakota Nation. My family has been in Pine Ridge forever. My father works at the Pine Ridge jail and my mother works for the Department of Public Safety. It's nice here, pretty quiet, lots of plains, some trees here and there. There are a lot of deer, bobcats, wolves, mountain lions. You have to respect them. My parents don't like me to go out alone at night because of the animals.
My family is very traditional and practices a lot of the old ways. I take part in powwows as a dancer. My dad's mother teaches me to cook and clean and tells me to keep my hair long. If a close member of my family dies, then I will cut my hair as a sign of mourning. I'm saving my hair for when my grandmother passes away.
I was part of a film called
The whole thing was a great experience. I love writing. I loved working on the acting. I played the part of a kid in a family that tried to look like it is a perfect family only it isn't so perfect. The parents fight in front of the kids and there's a lot of tension and hard times. A girl named Trinity Bald Eagle had the idea. We all talked about it and formed it into a story.
Nobody asks children what they go through and how they feel about it. Adults look at kids and go, Oh, I wish I was young like that and didn't have any worries, or, Oh, that kid is such a pain. I wish they would go away. But they don't really listen to us.
But we have problems just like adults. My older brothers and sisters have problems with alcohol, although they never drink around the house. They keep it away from the rest of us, which I appreciate. My mother quit drinking when she decided to start having babies. My dad also quit before I was born, so I've been brought up with good sober parents.
I tried drinking booze a couple of times with my older brothers. I thought it was a big waste of time. It's not going to be a part of my life. I see what it does. It's not good.
There's a lot of suicide around here. Kids my age and even younger than me. I think it's because it's so hard for most kids to find someone to talk to. We have a mental health agency at the hospital but kids aren't going to go there on their own. People find out you go there and it's like, Oh, you're weird!
My friend Tea killed herself before she finished eighth grade.
She was very athletic. She was friendly, loving, caring, interested in what was going on. She was always wanting to make new friends and get to know people.
I don't know why she killed herself. I didn't know her family situation, but I know that kids can have the greatest family there is and still feel like they're all alone.
How I found out about it was I was texting her ex-boyfriend and he told me that Tea had killed herself.
I was like, No!
And he texted, I'm not lying! She did it!
I didn't want to believe him, so I got hold of her cousin and found out for sure that it was true.
I went to her funeral and saw her in her casket. She was only fourteen. She shouldn't have been in a casket. They had a lot of pictures of her at the funeral. She was just a kid!
And I'll never get to see her again.
My niece tried to kill herself a lot of times. I tried too, but only three times. I think I'm a bit stronger than my niece.
The first time I tried to kill myself I was thirteen. After it didn't work, I told my parents about it. They were too shocked and sad at first to really react much, and I thought that meant that they didn't care. But later I came to know that they did care and still do.
I cut my throat three times but nothing happened. I OD'd on sleeping pills and I tried to hang myself. Nothing worked. I stayed alive.
I've been given a whole bunch of second chances. I guess I was meant to live. I guess maybe the Creator is telling me to hang on, it's going to be okay, you've got something important to do before you die, so just ride out the hard stuff.
There's not a lot to do out here to relax when you're feeling stress. When I lived down the road from my grandmother's, I would go to the basketball court and monkey bars that were in the neighborhood. Now we've moved. It's just a small housing area, nothing but plains around. I go for a lot of long walks. That helps.
I haven't had a lot of contact with white people, and most of what I've had hasn't been all that good. I go to Rapid City sometimes. A lot of Natives live there too. White kids have yelled things, calling us ghetto. White adults call us Wagon Burners, Squaws. I'm not a violent person. I look at them when they say things and then I just look away. I have no business with them.
I put it down to ignorance. White people are ignorant about us because they never have to think about us. They don't know what we've been through ever since the settlers came.
I live just over the hill from where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place, over by Wounded Knee Creek. On December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry rounded up two Lakota tribes, the Miniconjou and the Hunkpapa, and took them to the creek. They tried to take a rifle away from one of the elders, but he didn't want to give it up because it had cost him a lot of money. So the army started shooting and killed at least 150 Lakota Sioux. They killed women, children, old men. Just shot them. My cousin's great-great-grandfather was one of the survivors.
For white kids it's just something in a history book. For me it's my family. It's my ground that they bled on. It's personal.
They're still killing us today, but now they do it with alcohol and drugs and bad food and suicide.
When the whites killed all the buffalo, they left us without the main thing we used to eat. So by treaty they have to give us food. It's called commodity food â canned goods, canned vegetables, canned meats. We can't eat like we used to. A few people on the rez have full hunting licenses, but not many.
A lot of people have diabetes from bad food. My dad has it, so I'm more likely to get it. So I take care of myself. I keep my weight down. My parents don't bring junk food in the house and my mom always tells me to eat my vegetables.
There has been a lot of fighting over this land and a lot of people have died here. They're still dying here. We're a very hurting people, and nobody notices it unless we force them to.
Because of all that, and because I survived all those suicide attempts, I don't take my life for granted now. I'm not an angel. I skip school sometimes but mostly I study hard and make plans for the future. I enjoy building things in woodshop at school â I built a shelf for the bathroom â and I really enjoy writing. I'd love to go to the New York Film Academy. I also wouldn't mind being a high-school math teacher. I'm involved in cheerleading and other school things. And Christmas is coming! My mother is very religious â both the Christian and the Lakota religion â and when we decorate, we have the brightest house on the butte.
I would not go so far as to say I'm optimistic about the future, but I won't let that get in the way of me being happy.
can be seen on YouTube.
Over the decades, many Hollywood movies have depicted Indigenous people as wild, bloodthirsty savages who speak in grunts, or as helpful sidekicks who speak in one-syllable words. More substantial Indigenous roles would be played by non-Natives in make-up.
Indigenous filmmakers are now telling their own stories, penned by Indigenous writers and featuring Indigenous actors.
Isabella is a Dakota from Sisseton in South Dakota.
I live in St. Paul. I've always lived in the city. I have family on the reservation, and I visit there a lot.
The thing I really love to do is acting. I've been in a few plays with local theater companies. I feel very passionate about acting and theater and that whole performing world.
One of my recent roles was in the play
Jane Gibbs' Farm
. Jane Gibbs was a real girl who lived with her family on their farm and made friends with the Dakota people. I auditioned and got the part.
I was really nervous at the audition. I always am, at every audition. But I've been told that it's good to be nervous. It means you're on your toes.
I have so much fun at rehearsals! You start out not knowing your lines, not knowing your character or where you're supposed to be standing, and as rehearsals go on, it all settles in your head. It's hard work but it is so much fun!
Acting is about being able to create someone different from who I am. In my regular life, I'm pretty shy and quiet. You wouldn't think that a shy person would want to go up on a stage in front of a lot of people. But I don't act to get people to look at me. I act to explore new things and new people. Being onstage I can be so different from who I am regularly. And every character I portray rubs off on me somehow.
I was in a play two or three years ago by Rhiana Yazzie. It was called
. It was a story about a crow that had beautiful colors. Then she goes on a journey and loses her colors. I portrayed a crow. It was difficult but fun. I was flying around the stage and had to do a lot of exercises so that my arms would be strong enough to keep up for the length of the performance. I had to learn how to move like a crow too.
I haven't had any formal theater training yet. One day I will â I really want to â but for now I'm happy learning as I go.
Right now I'm in a production of
The Emperor's New Clothes
. I'm playing one of the people that has to trick the emperor. We open soon. I have a little stage fright on opening night. After opening night, I'm more excited than nervous.
When I'm on stage I always know I'm acting, but I work really hard to be the character. But I can't disappear too much into the character because you have to pay attention when you're on stage. Someone may forget a line or something else might happen and you have to be able to just go with it and keep the play going.
I started acting when I was really young. My father was a Dakota interpreter at Fort Snelling. Fort Snelling used to be a military fort but now it's falling apart. The historical society wants to put a lot of money into fixing it. I worked there with my dad when I was six. We would dress and do things the Dakota would have done back in history.
Fort Snelling was basically a concentration camp for the Dakota people. It's on sacred land where these two rivers meet. Sixteen hundred Santee Sioux â mostly women, children and elders â were kept there in terrible conditions. That was when President Lincoln had thirty-eight Dakota men hanged. It was the largest execution in American history. My family members do a memorial run in their honor.
When I was younger I went to the American Indian Magnet School. It focused on Native culture. The school I'm in now has only a couple of Native kids. I don't exactly hide my heritage from everyone but I don't feel really comfortable sharing it either because I don't think they'll understand.
I've had times when white people didn't understand. They thought they did but they didn't. There was a time when we went on a school retreat at a camp in northern Minnesota. We had a class about the Ojibwe people. The Ojibwe have a lot of territory in Minnesota. The teacher wanted all us kids to make up an Indian name for ourselves and call each other by these Indian names for the whole retreat. It made me uncomfortable, all these white kids making up what they thought were Indian-sounding names â whatever that means â and I told the teacher I didn't want to do it. Naming ceremonies are sacred. They mean something. I don't think the teacher understood that.
My father was in foster care all his life. He went from foster home to foster home. He was never adopted. It's really affected him. It's hard for him to make connections with people. All that moving around. He says it makes kids feel disconnected from everyone and everything. He's had lots of pain.
My grandmother â Dad's mother â was sent to a residential school that she managed to run away from. He never met her. He was taken away from her when he was born, and then she died. He never knew his father. When Dad grew up, he reconnected with his mother's sister, and they became close.
Dad dealt with all his pain by becoming involved in the American Indian Movement â AIM. I grew up hearing all about it. I did a lot of research on it too, when I did a history project on it.
On the Trail of Broken Treaties march they went to the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] headquarters in Washington to get decent housing for elders but the riot police came and started beating people, so AIM kicked everyone out and occupied the building, just took it over. For six days they were there.
Dad was part of the Longest Walk. In 1978 they walked from California to Washington, DC, and set up a tepee on the lawn of the White House.
There's a picture of Dad and my uncle and another AIM member after they took over the BIA, standing on a car, looking at the FBI building.
I'm really proud of my father. I want to be someone who stands up like that.
We have all these racist Native mascots in the United States. They've used Native names for sports teams â baseball, football â like the Redskins and the Blackhawks. I've had white people tell me, “You shouldn't be upset by that. We're celebrating you!” But people are not mascots. You can't oppress us and steal from us then expect us to be grateful. All the Native people I know hate that these names are used.
If the whites really want to honor us they should fund our schools.
So I have lots going on in my life. I love acting, and maybe that's how I'll serve our people. We'll just have to wait and see!