An annual harvest of generosity and good will: Miami Valley Council for Native Americans’ clothing drive brings out the best in people

Published in Indian Country Today in September 2009.

Dayton, Oh. — “The meaning of this project goes way beyond the goods that are given out. It’s about making connections between people,” said Guy W. Jones, Hunkpapa Lakota, shown left. Jones has just completed an annual 2,200-mile, nine-day pilgrimage to deliver more than 50,000 pounds of donated clothes and school supplies to the Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations. Each year, The Miami Valley Council for Native Americans — a Dayton, Ohio, nonprofit Jones co-founded in 1989 — collects donations from local individuals, churches, and corporations and transports them to the South Dakota Native communities.

SunWatch Village, a reconstructed 800-year-old Indian village south of Dayton that also hosts TMVCNA’s Keeping the Tradition Powwow, is the drop-off point for parkas, sweaters, notebooks, rulers, and myriad other items that will help Lakota and Dakota kids get the most out of the upcoming school year. Volunteers sort through the articles, removing anything that’s tattered or has a logo that advertises alcohol or a Native-themed mascot.

Some of the Ohioans then accompany Jones on the trip to South Dakota. As non-Native Ohioans meet Native people in South Dakota, the two groups exchange more than pens and pencils, according to Jones. “When people get together, conversations start. From conversations, bridges are built. Then both Indian and non-Indian people can begin to see beyond the stereotypes they may have of each other.”

This year, 19 adults and 5 children accompanied Jones on the trip. They included Jones’s wife, Angela; their oldest son, Steven; and their two youngest daughters. The entire group was packed into caravan of five cars that tagged along after the semi-trailer of donations, piloted by Maurice Hotain, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation (Canada).

“Kids here were so happy to see the truck arrive with things they’ll need for school this fall,” said Linda Different Cloud-Jones, Catawba, who lives in McLaughlin, South Dakota, on the Standing Rock reservation. “And they were happy to know someone out there cares.”

Every last article was given out in tiny towns including Spring Creek, Green Grass, and Bridger. “I choose such small places because they tend to get overlooked by other donors,” said Jones.

The 18-year-old project was born one cold winter when Jones, who had moved to Ohio, got a call from Standing Rock, where he had grown up. Jones’s brother told him that kids on the reservation were going to school clad in sweatshirts rather than coats. Jones recounted this story to a Dayton-area newspaper reporter, she wrote an article, and the word got out.

Ohioans began to rain warm clothes on TMVCNA. “People just started giving. Within a week, I had close to 1,000 coats, hats, gloves, and other winter gear,” Jones recalled. He loaded up two tractor-trailers and headed north. He was held up for a day by a blizzard but made it through to South Dakota.

At one of the stops, a mother asked Jones to talk to her son about doing better in school. The child’s response surprised Jones. “When I asked him why he wasn’t doing his homework, he told me he didn’t have paper and pencils. I thought to myself, ‘I can do something about this.’” The next year, Jones added school supplies to the list of hoped-for donations.

When Jones left Standing Rock in 1974, his relatives foretold the work he would eventually do on behalf of his people. “My dad and uncles said, ‘It’s good you’re going to see the world, but someday your people will ask you to hunt the buffalo.’ At the time, I didn’t understand, but now I realize the buffalo provided everything — food, shelter, clothing, tools — and that’s what this donations drive is about. It’s part of my responsibility as a Lakota man.”

Jones, who has lectured at many colleges and universities and is the co-author of the award-winning book, “Lessons from Turtle Island: Native Curriculum in Early Childhood Classrooms” (Redleaf Press, 2002), also began to disseminate information on scholarships, Native student organizations, and other assistance for American Indian students at schools including St. Bonaventure College and Cornell University, in New York, and Ohio State and Wright State universities, in Ohio.

TMVCNA’s various education-oriented efforts are subsumed under the group’s Anpo O Project, according to Jones. “My mother translated that expression as the moment before the sun comes up. A new day is dawning, and the light breeze you feel is God breathing over the world.”

That optimism carries the annual clothing and school supplies project forward. However, said Jones, he’ll feel the greatest sense of achievement when “things are finally happening for the people,” and the donations are no longer necessary. “That’s when I would call this project a success.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy Guy Jones.