Apache Chef Nephi Craig Plans Native-Foods Conference

A version of this article first appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012.

Nephi Craig, executive chef of the fine-dining restaurant at the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort Hotel, has put out a call for proposals for an early-November indigenous food-and-culture conference at the resort, near Greer, Arizona. The setting is the glorious high-desert mountains of northern Arizona, with vast, gaping valleys and soaring mountains dotted with juniper and cacti.

Craig,  shown center left with his staff, is White Mountain Apache and Navajo. He has classical-French training and worldwide experience as a chef and hopes the conference will attract a range of community members and outside folks interested in exploring many aspects and applications of Native foodways. “Native foods are not a trend,” says Craig,. “They are a way to recover our communities and decolonize ourselves.”

Craig says Native people are emerging from what he calls “the Great Interruption” in their foodways: “Pre-contact, we were expert farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen and cooks. Then we suffered a violent clash of cultures that lasted 500 years and ended in the reservation system and cheap, high-fat, high-carbohydrate commodity foods. They, in turn, produced rampant killers: diabetes, heart disease and obesity.” As a result, he says, healing is the most important ingredient in Native cuisine.

The conference’s stellar list of partners includes Native chefs and restaurateurs April “Bleu” Adams, Dine’/Hidatsa/Mandan; Bertina Cadman, Dine’; Arlie Doxtator, Oneida; Mark Mason, Dine’/Hidatsa/Mandan; and Chris Rodriguez, Xicano; along with scholar Claudia Serrato, P'urhépecha. Organizations that have signed on include the White Mountain Apache Tribe; the Native American Culinary Association, which Craig heads; Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health; and the People’s Garden, a local community garden where Craig and his all-Apache culinary team have given cooking demonstrations. Here’s an interview with Craig:

Why a conference?
A one-day workshop we did at the resort last summer attracted people from all over the region, and I thought we could go further and continue to explore ways Native foods can be used creatively to address many social and public-health issues. We’re expecting interest from chefs, but also from scholars and professionals in public health, education, agriculture and more.

As an Apache, you’ve inherited a holistic food tradition, yet the people coming together will have narrow specialties. Is there a conflict?
That’s the language of the world today. Things need labels to be understood. But Native foods will be the energizing force that brings all these people together. Like an old-time autonomous Apache band living on the land, everyone at the conference will all rely on every single other person’s resources. To get back to that historical way of being, we Apaches need the expertise of disparate people.

Will this help your community directly?
My community is hurting, and there is no quick fix for the problems here. I could get stressed out naming the ills—political, legal, social—but it all ties back to wellness and mental health. With the conference, we will be doing something positive, showcasing local people with special talents and information, as well as visiting experts, and talking about Apache values and their importance. We’ll help underline that the culture is intact and valuable.

How is the People’s Garden a part of this?
I’ve asked them to present, and we’ll be cooking with their food. I hope we can bring attention to the great work they do and encourage people on the reservation to take up farming. There’s an idea that we Apaches were warriors, so we shouldn’t get involved with farming, but I think we can make it cool—especially to youth. The elders need some strong backs out there!

Will your Sunrise Park Resort team be around during the conference?
They certainly will. My staff is so important to me. My training, experience and theories have all come together in this kitchen. We’re an all-Apache team producing food collaboratively in our sacred high mountains. We have taken some things from the classical French culinary canon, but other things we’ve modified—for example, making our kitchen less hierarchical in a way that’s more comfortable for us as Apaches. My goal is to have each of us think of ourselves as able to be both teacher and mentor every day and to carry this idea throughout our lives. This concept is working, too: team members’ skills have grown quickly, and of course, ironically, that means other restaurants are hiring them away. But that’s natural, and supporting their personal development is what it’s all about.

Has your blog (apachesinthekitchen.blogspot.com) attracted attention to NACA and your work?
It has. Chefs have noticed it, and one came all the way out here from Indianapolis to see us. He was interested in our ideas about the relationship of culture and food.

Are you learning as you go?
Learning is a constant, but it has to be slow. What we do in food here at White Mountain revolves around things that are special, significant. And there’s so much I don’t know. I went to our cultural center to look for photographs, especially of men cooking, because I wanted to show male staffers that food was traditionally of concern to men as well as women. What I saw in the photographs—preparations for a sweat or a ceremony, for example—was so powerful, I felt I was communing with the past. Even if food wasn’t in the picture, I knew there was a pit off-camera where meat was roasting, that there were acorns women had spent the summer gathering. I was intimidated, humbled. I even wondered, should I be seeing these things? My work here at White Mountain will take time, like the nurturing of a farm or a baby. And it needs the support of all the people—community members and partners from outside. 

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Nephi Craig.

Summer Events in Ohio's Ancient Earthworks

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012.

Deep inside the borders of what is now Ohio sits a complex of ancient earthworks so precisely aligned with the rise and set of the moon that modern surveying equipment could not do better. And this summer, lots of public events means you can enjoy and marvel as the ancients must have done.

The 2,000-year-old site in Newark, Ohio is the largest geometric earthworks complex in the world, with approximately 12-foot-high, grass-covered earthen walls outlining huge circles and other forms. Arising gently from its surroundings, the place--including the tiny portion of the 30-acre Great Circle shown at left--is both a massive modification of the landscape and a masterpiece of subtlety.

Built two millennia ago, one basket-load of dirt at a time, the biggest enclosures would swallow up several football fields; Stonehenge could be tucked into a tiny corner of one of these gigantic shapes. Newark and other Ohio earthworks--Serpent Mound, in Peebles; Fort Ancient, in Lebanon; and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park/Mound City, in Chillicothe--are being considered for UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. “The Newark Earthworks are proof of our ancestors’ genius,” says Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO), in Columbus.

What the earthworks’ builders called themselves is not known; archaeologists refer to them as “the Hopewell culture,” after the owner of a farm where artifacts were found during the 19th century. People often assume that mounds involve burials. “This is not necessarily so,” says Welsh. “Some did, but most appear to have been places of celebration, where folks came together to pray and honor the gifts of the Earth.”

Many of the summer earthworks events are in and around the Newark site, which has been particularly well studied by mainstream and traditional scientists. In 2006, Ohio State University set up the interdisciplinary Newark Earthworks Center. Its director, history professor Richard Shiels, and program coordinator Marti Chaatsmith, Comanche/Choctaw, encourage both research on the earthworks and community outreach, especially via collaborations with Native people. Find out more at newark.osu.edu; scroll down and click on “Newark Earthworks Center.” (Shown above right is Alligator Mound, which overlooks the Octagon and Circle, a portion of which can be seen below.)
Bradley Lepper, Ohio Historical Society curator of archaeology, is a prominent authority on the Newark complex, which he has termed a “ceremonial landscape of unprecedented scope.” Community historian and Ohio Archaeology Council member Jeff Gill compares Newark’s multiple celestial alignments and immensely complicated design—melding man-made creations with natural features of the surrounding, hill-ringed river valley—to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Astronomer, physicist and Earlham College professor Ray Hively, who worked with Earlham colleague Robert Horn to plot the Newark site’s moonrise and moonset alignments, found that its lunar alignments precisely encode the orb’s complex cycle, with moonrises and moonsets rotating north and south over an 18.61-year cycle.

Welsh claims that shows the site celebrates female power. “The 18.61-year period is essentially a generation,” she says. “So the lunar emphasis at Newark and similar places honors women and the cycle of life.”

It’s clear the ancients were virtuosic geometers and astronomers. Lepper describes the research on their sophisticated mathematics in a 2010 paper, The Ceremonial Landscape of the Newark Earthworks and the Raccoon Creek Valley. In one of many examples Lepper provides, he notes that the circumference of one of the massive Newark circles is equal to the perimeter of a nearby square. The diameter of another circle appears to have been used as a gigantic measuring stick for laying out the site.

Further, the construction of squares and circles with equal areas solved a primordial math problem—squaring the circle—that fascinated and flummoxed mathematicians as far back as the fifth century B.C. in Ancient Greece. For millennia scholars have considered solving this problem to be so difficult that the phrase “squaring the circle” has come to mean doing the impossible.
Equally astonishing, the geometry and the lunar alignments of the Newark Earthworks appear to coordinate with those in other complexes many miles away, according to Chaatsmith. Lepper has shown that one set of parallel walls exiting the Newark site point directly to the collection of burial mounds now protected as Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, in Chillicothe, 60 miles away (shown below). The Newark walls may demark a ceremonial passage to the Chillicothe complex, says Lepper, though centuries of development and agricultural plowing have destroyed much of the evidence needed to prove that.

Additional parallel-walled pathways in Newark connected the earthworks complex to encircling rivers. If anything like today’s Eastern Woodlands cosmology was operating back then, according to Lepper (and there’s evidence that it was, he says), travelers arriving by canoe may have traversed the walled paths not just physically but also spiritually. As visitors moved from the waterways to the ceremonial site, they made a concurrent voyage through the three layers of their universe—from the “Underwater” or “Beneath World” of the rivers to the “Middle World” of ordinary life and finally to the celestial “Above World” of the ritual place.

Though many of Ohio’s earthworks and mounds have been obscured or taken to the ground by farms and towns, their energy endures. During a recent visit, a hawk—the bird revered by the ancients—surfed the thermals above a mound outside Chillicothe that had been plowed flat. The bird appeared to be guarding the site 2,000 years after its builders had walked on. 

Summer in the Earthworks: 2012 Events

This summer, you can enjoy the Ohio places during earthworks-themed concerts, lectures, night-sky events, children’s programming and more throughout the verdant, mostly rural south-central part of the state. For information on Newark and other sites, including Serpent Mound and Fort Ancient, go to ancientohiotrail.org, and click on “Events. “I love being able to share the earthworks with Native and non-Native folks,” says Carol Welsh, of NAICCO. “They reinforce the good of being Indian.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.

Dancing with the Stars: Powwow in Ohio’s Celestial Earthworks

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012.

A rainy night gave way to a bright, sunny day for the opening of the 30th annual Selma Walker Memorial Day Weekend powwow, sponsored by the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO), in Columbus. This year’s location was extraordinary, emphasizing the deep history and powerful spiritual connections of Native people in Ohio. As head veteran Richard Brings Them, Hunkpapa Lakota, led the grand entry into the arena, the brilliant colors of the dancers’ regalia stood out against the grass-covered earthen walls of the nearby Great Circle, shown below, a 30-acre enclosure that’s part of the 2,000-year-old Newark Earthworks, in Newark and Heath, Ohio.

“This our first spring powwow here,” said Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, NAICCO director and an organizer of the three-day event (below with Richard Shields, director of Ohio State University's Newark Earthworks Center). “It’s an honor to be at the Great Circle, to bring people together to feel good about this amazing site and each other.”

The largest geometric earthworks complex in the world, the Newark Earthworks was built between 100 BC and 400 AD by virtuosic astronomers and geometers who encoded the complex 18.61-year cycle of the moon in the placement of giant earthen shapes, including several circles, a square, an octagon and an ellipse. Originally, there were hundreds of such complexes around Ohio, said Marti Chaatsmith, Comanche/Choctaw and program director of the Newark Earthworks Center. Nowadays, after centuries of agricultural plowing and development, just a few remain. No one knows what the ancient builders called themselves or even what happened to them after they completed their vast construction project; archaeologists refer to them as “the Hopewell culture,” after a farm where artifacts were found in the 19th century.

“Like other significant structures around the world, the place itself has a spiritual connection. Having the powwow here reinforces the spiritual bond,” said Welsh, whose mother, Selma Walker, founded NAICCO in 1975. At first, the organization helped Native people new to the Columbus area—assisting with everything from finding employment to enrolling kids in school. “Then my mother felt the community needed to celebrate as well.”

That sentiment endures. “We’re here to celebrate abundance and all those who contributed to our lives today,” emcee Guy Jones, Hunkpapa Lakota (left), told the gathering as the dancers wound around the arena. The event had a Lakota-Dakota accent. “The protocol this weekend—the host drum Chaske Hotaine [below], the songs, the grand entry—is Northern Plains,” said Jones, a co-founder of the Miami Valley Council for Native Americans, in Dayton. There was a strong showing of folks from those communities, who are among the many Native people who emigrated to Ohio over the years, during the 1950s relocation era and afterward to find work. They were not the only nations represented, though. A quick survey revealed Seminole, Navajo, Inca, Northern Cheyenne, Blackfoot and Cherokee participants. People gossiped, traded stories of home and met old friends.

“It’s a chance to see people who live elsewhere in Ohio and to make sure our children stay in touch with our culture,” said Irving Standing Soldier, Oglala Lakota, who introduced his sons Ken and Sam. “I took my culture for granted, since I grew up on Pine Ridge, but my children are growing up in Ohio, so coming here is important for them.”

The three Standing Soldiers were relaxing in the shade of Faye Yellow Eagle’s crafts booth, below. “Our children and grandchildren dance, thanks to events like this,” agreed Yellow Eagle, Sicangu Lakota, as she placed beaded earrings, moccasins and other handmade items on a table.

Some people were there to appreciate Native ways. A non-Native vendor of homemade jerky had brought his grandchildren and said the powwow was a great way to introduce them to another culture. “His comfort with the event says a lot,” said Chaatsmith. “We at NEC have worked hard to bring Native issues and people to the public’s attention, and it’s good to know the result is they’re perceived positively.”

Warm community connections make the NAICCO event traditional, according to Welsh. “It’s the original sense of powwow. We have contests, but they don’t predominate.” One event during the weekend was a 5-K walk, from the Great Circle to a part of the earthworks complex called the Ellipse, but the goal wasn’t winning. “It’s a sacred walk,” said Welsh. “We walk on ground our ancestors traversed, and we stop for prayers, so it’s about both spiritual and physical health.”

Walking, dancing, singing and simply being at the ancient earthworks site was a manifestation of continuity, said Welsh: “We are grateful for life and the gifts of the earth. We are grateful we have survived.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard (2) and Joseph Zummo (4).

"Thick Dark Fog" Wins Black Hills Film Festival Award

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012. 

During the audience discussion after The Thick Dark Fog, we hardly finished answering one question before someone would break in with another,” said Walter Littlemoon, Lakota, shown above with his wife, Jane Ridgway. “People said, ‘I just didn’t know. I heard the horror stories, but I couldn’t believe them until I saw this movie.’”

Littlemoon and Ridgway had just returned home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after a screening at the Black Hills Film Festival of the documentary: the story of Littlemoon’s recovery from the debilitating effects of the abusive boarding schools he attended as a child. “After the Q-and-A, people just swarmed us,” said Ridgway, who also appears onscreen in the film.

Director Randy Vasquez based the one-hour movie on Littlemoon’s memoir, They Called Me Uncivilized: The Memoir of an Everyday Lakota Man from Wounded Knee (iUniverse, 2009), a collaboration with Ridgway. Both book and movie describe the devastating legacy of psychological trauma, cultural disruption, language loss and social woes left by the government- or church-run institutions, which Native children were required to attend from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

Seven years in the making and funded by Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), among others, The Thick Dark Fog won the People’s Choice Award at the Black Hills festival—its second honor. The movie’s first accolade was Best Documentary at the 2011 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. The film’s uplifting thought—that one can heal from this and other traumatic childhood experiences—inspired the audience, according to the director. “There was hope,” said Vasquez, who is known for a compelling 2002 documentary about a Salvadoran activist, Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, and as an actor in popular television series and feature films.

In the months ahead, The Thick Dark Fog will appear at more festivals and venues and after June 9 will be shown on PBS. To find out when it’ll be shown in your area, contact your local public television station. It is also available on DVD from NAPT (www.nativetelecom.org/). 

Littlemoon noted that The Thick Dark Fog communicated so well because it relates personal experiences, so has the ring of truth: “Now people can fully understand.” In contrast, he said, much other material on boarding schools has been produced by authors he dubbed “parrots”: social scientists and historians working from official documentation of the institutions.

Winning the audience award was especially meaningful to Vasquez, who credited this success to the presence of several members of the film’s team. At the screening, he, Littlemoon and Ridgway were joined by producer Jonathan Skurnik, as well as Lakota participants Philomena Lakota and Chris Eagle Hawk, who had related their own boarding-school experiences onscreen, and child actor Manuel Yellow Horse Jr., who played the young Walter.

The team wanted the film not just to educate the broader public but also to be used in healing the Native community, according to Vasquez. Several audience members saw that possibility immediately, including a resident of Pine Ridge border town, Oelrichs, South Dakota, who asked about showing the documentary to a mixed white-and-Native Alcoholics Anonymous group. “My first reaction was that Native people seeing The Thick Dark Fog would be overwhelmed by terrible memories and should have a support system to help them through this,” Ridgway recalled. “The woman reassured us that AA does provide this kind of support. So, in fact, it was a great idea.”

Littlemoon and Ridgway were deeply affected by the presence in the audience of his Veteran’s Administration doctor, who set him on the path to healing years ago. The journey eventually led to a Harvard Medical School psychological-trauma expert, Jamie Shorin, who told Littlemoon he was suffering not from the more common Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but from the less-well-understood Complex Post Traumatic Stress, which arises from childhood ordeals. Once Littlemoon’s fear had a name, he could fight it and win, he said in the documentary.

“Walter’s doctor cried through the whole thing,” said Ridgway. “He had guided Walter on this journey, as well as through several serious illnesses. It was very emotional.”

Said Vasquez: “We felt the love for the film and its message.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Joseph Zummo.

The Heritage Center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012.

The Heritage Center of Red Cloud Indian School, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is already one of the country’s most important exhibitors of Native American art, despite its small size and remote location, and it’s poised to get bigger and more influential. As many as 12,000 visitors a year already visit its sleek, white-walled little gallery, shown above, to view historical and modern works by leading Native, primarily Lakota, artists.

The center’s biggest draw, attracting some 70 percent of viewers, is the annual summer Red Cloud Indian Art Show, now in its 44th year. Other exhibits draw on the permanent collection of some 10,000 pieces dating as far back as the early 1800s, while a 2010 special show, Making New Traditions, took thought-provoking modern works to the Dahl Center, in Rapid City, and other institutions in the region. One recent VIP visitor was Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who proclaimed the Heritage Center an institution where you see art that’s quintessentially tied to its locale—its “place.”

“Creative place-making” is a new buzzword in the arts, explained Peter Strong, the Heritage Center’s director, shown right. The term refers to arts that arise from a community, producing singular kinds of beauty that couldn’t be made anywhere else. On Pine Ridge, said Strong, art is defined by the connections between artist, culture and community, giving both traditional and modern works both incredible breadth of technique and materials and a sense of shared concerns.

The term also has economic meaning, as communities learn that art can drive prosperity. Some locales strive to attract artists and thereby tourists and other economic benefits; other communities, like Pine Ridge, already have plenty of artists and craftspeople, but need to help them better market their work. There’s currently no art infrastructure in the Northern Plains, as there is in cities like Santa Fe or New York, with their many galleries, museums and art enthusiasts, but Strong and curator Mary Bordeaux, Lakota, are determined to help create one. The Heritage Center currently contributes about $1 million to Pine Ridge’s economy, said Strong, and will soon be doing even better, thanks to a $110,000 grant from the NEA and its affiliate ArtPlace that will allow the center to improve its website and purchase more items for sale via the internet.

Some crafts can already be found on the center’s website (go to www.redcloudschool.org/museum/ and click on “shop online”), but they’re a small portion of what’s available in the well-stocked bricks-and-mortar store. At the Heritage Center gift shop, brightly dyed porcupine-quill earrings share display space with gleaming German-silver bracelets and pendants, some inlaid with agate, the distinctive reddish local stone. Leather crafts include lavishly beaded leather moccasins with replaceable rawhide soles and hard-sided, decorated rawhide boxes and totes called parfleche. On one wall, colorfully painted wood carvings by Sam Two Bulls share space with decorated items by Joy Lynn Parton, who applies exuberant painted designs to a wide array of found objects—from running shoes to feathers. Because the gift shop is part of a nonprofit, its mark-up is small, and prices tend to be lower than those at similar stores, said manager Delmarina One Feather, Oglala Lakota, shown below in the shop.

Expanding and improving the Heritage Center’s physical spaces—for exhibitions, storage and sales—will soon get underway with help from a $100,000 “Space for Change” planning grant from Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) and the Ford Foundation. More space is a critical need for the center, which is packed with exquisite artworks. “Mary Bordeaux could do a new show every week without repeating herself,” said director Peter Strong, as he showed one storeroom after another filled with precious items, some dating back to the 1800s.

Serried ranks of framed works on paper, a room of rolled-up quilts and shelves of sculptures, pottery, moccasins, headdresses, weapons and other three-dimensional items were waiting for their turn before the public, either in the Heritage Center or on loan to other museums, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves transformed a narrow hallway into a research library. In bestowing the LINC grant, the funders called the collection “unmatched in breadth, stature and quality.”

The LINC funders also dubbed this moment in the center’s history “a societal milestone” and an opportunity “to continue to strengthen its relationship with the Pine Ridge Reservation, actively engaging the local Lakota community.” The center wants to respond to the community’s needs with not just exhibitions, but art classes and school curricula, exhibitions in outlying districts and more, said Strong, adding that when the center reaches out, the community gives back. “Often, someone is able to tell us about a piece whose makers we hadn’t been able to identify—they may recognize a family’s traditional beadwork pattern, for example.”

During a drive around the reservation, community backing for artists and artisans was clear. In Kyle, Oglala Lakota College has a well-respected art department, and Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce recently put on a children’s art show and powwow. Most shops, lodgings and other businesses displayed art for sale: from satin star quilts, Sioux pottery and beaded jewelry in the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort’s gift shop to war clubs hanging on the wall behind the counter of the Pine Ridge Building Products, in Pine Ridge village. “We always want to help our artists,” said the building-supply company’s owner, Eddie Abold, Lakota.

Art is a cultural force on Pine Ridge, woven into every aspect of life, said Strong. “Art and the Lakota language helped the people survive while the U.S. government was attempting to tear apart their culture. It’s good to be a part of helping this community recover from a horrible century.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.

Ready for Takeoff: Pine Ridge Reservation Economy Revs Up

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012; the tourism information at the end—Shop, Eat, Stay—was updated in November 2014. 

Manderson Valley, in the central portion of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Visiting businesses around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation these days is like sitting in the cabin of a jet plane just before it streaks down the runway. Though the U.S. Census has repeatedly dubbed the community one of the poorest in the nation, its rolling, pine-fringed hills are also dotted with something that seems to elude the official figures: many creative enterprises, run with enthusiasm, energy and an eye on a better future. Some are tribally owned, like the new East Winds Casino on Highway 18 in Martin, South Dakota, established to drive job creation on the eastern side of the reservation. Other businesses are owned by tribal members, who operate everything from myriad home-based crafts operations to restaurants, B&Bs, motels, gift shops, galleries, adventure outfitters, gas stations, convenience stores and the latest addition to the growing economic family—a building supply company, offering hardware and lumber in Pine Ridge village, on the south side of the reservation (see sidebar below, “Lumbering Toward Success”). 

Supporting them is an expanding infrastructure, with public transit throughout the 2-million-acre reservation (see sidebar below, “Road Warriors”), good cell phone coverage in most areas and wireless internet widely available (with a Verizon smartphone, I was never far from a connection). Approval of a federally backed credit union is imminent, said Whitney O’Rourke, Oglala, of Lakota Funds, a community development financial institution in Kyle, in northern Pine Ridge. There is currently no bank on the reservation, and off-reservation banks make few loans there because much land that might act as collateral is held in trust by the federal government or tribally owned. That will make a credit union the game-changer, easing access to cash and encouraging business formation and homeownership. [Update: the credit union received approval in September 2012; for more, go here.]

“The reservation has 40,000 residents ready, willing and able to participate in the regional economy,” said Mark St. Pierre, CEO of Wounded Knee Community Development Corporation. Set in Pine Ridge’s central Manderson Valley, a bucolic sweep of hills bounded by pale cliffs, Wounded Knee’s CDC is one of several community groups and nonprofits with seed grants and creative ideas. They’re where the real economic action is, says St. Pierre, with plans ranging from small businesses to organic market gardens to housing, a critical need on Pine Ridge. The Wounded Knee group he runs is looking for funding to build a destination resort on the 600 acres it owns in Manderson Valley and a factory that would make high-end caskets then expand to other types of millwork.

Thunder Valley CDC (board meeting shown above), in Sharp’s Corner, hopes to break ground next summer on what will eventually be a live-and-work community. “We’ve even planned the streets to make it easy for kids to ride their horses over, tie them up and play some basketball,” said the president of the group’s board, tribal member Jennifer Irving. The first Thunder Valley projects will include housing units and a green-technology, inexpensive-to-operate emergency shelter for children who have been taken into foster care.

“We welcome the idea of a shelter,” Oglala Sioux Tribe president, John Steele, told South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, left, in a meeting with Thunder Valley’s director, Nick Tilsen, Oglala, and board members during the senator’s early-May visit to several Pine Ridge groups. “We have some emergency units and safe houses for children, but we need more.” Keeping kids on the reservation prevents the emotional and cultural disruption that occurs when they’re taken out of the community, Steele explained. After querying Thunder Valley on its financing needs, Johnson said, “I’m here if you need me.”

Thunder Valley CDC is part of a consortium with Oglala Lakota College’s Applied Science Department, in Kyle, and the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative, a project of architect and University of Colorado instructor Rob Pyatt, of Pyatt Studio, in Boulder. Starting this summer, OLC students will construct four houses—one conventionally framed and the others built of insulated panels, straw bales or compressed-earth blocks. The students will then place sensors throughout the homes to see which one offers most energy efficiency at least cost. Privately, the OLC professors are betting on the straw-bale home, but officially they’re reserving judgment until the data is in. Thunder Valley will use the winning construction method for its building projects.

Nowadays, experience with alternative building techniques is good for a builder’s résumé, whether he or she wants to work on or off the reservation, according to Applied Science Department chair Doug Noyes. “This project is creating trained crews, ready to work on the Thunder Valley buildings or any other,” said construction instructor Leonard Lone Hill, Oglala, near right. Instructor Lyle Wilson, Oglala, far right, opened notebooks of student work he’s documented, from small homes to commercial construction. OLC senior and tribal member Jared Shangreaux confirmed, “I’m in this program to get a job,” when he stopped by on his way to complete his final exams.

Pine Ridge may be ready to participate in the regional economy, but is the region welcoming them?, asked St. Pierre, of Wounded Knee CDC. Pine Ridge and other South Dakota reservations already contribute generously to the state’s economy—too generously some say, as money arriving in Native communities is typically spent immediately in nearby border towns, without changing hands and producing income in reservation businesses first. “Keeping money on the reservation and supporting our mom-and-pop businesses is the big issue,” said Emma Featherman-Sam, Oglala, director of the reservation’s transit system.

Even worse, much of the spending goes to downmarket, predatory vendors, according to O’Rourke, shown left. She described payday lending as a terrible problem, along with deed and title loans, through which cash-strapped tribal members put up home and car documents in return for short-term loans at sky-high interest rates, as much as 650 percent in just 14 days. Border town stores sell goods at inflated prices, knowing reservation residents may not have gas money to drive further to find bargains, and alcohol sales in retail stores and bars ringing Pine Ridge—just beyond the dry reservation’s jurisdiction—further empty tribal members’ wallets. “The border towns have a parasite–host relationship with the reservation,” said Tilsen.

Other restrictions on Pine Ridge’s economy are more subtle: When visitors arrive at the Rapid City airport, rental-car companies provide maps of western South Dakota showing a narrow slice of the state along the western border, guiding tourists to state and national parks and neatly eliminating all the reservations. The same map is available in shiny, laminated form at the Badlands National Park visitor center, a federal operation, where you get a map of adjoining Pine Ridge Indian Reservation if you know to ask for it.

Though cultural tourism is widely considered the wave of the future, browsing South Dakota’s tourism website reveals little about the state’s reservations and their attractions, including powwows year-round. Entering “Native American” into the search box pulls up assistance for tour companies wanting to organize coach trips to reservations and directions to off-reservation Crazy Horse Memorial—ways for outsiders to look at Native Americans, but little support for Native people’s own enterprises. Deeply embedded in the “About SD” section, you can learn that “prehistoric beasts,” pioneers and Native Americans “all called South Dakota home at one time”—a claim historians may wish to scrutinize.

Simply finding the reservation can be more difficult than it needs to be; those heading the hour-and-a-half drive south from Rapid City to Pine Ridge will discover that major turnoffs are not marked. “We’re working on that,” said Featherman-Sam. “We’re talking to the state about installing more signs.”

Featherman-Sam’s can-do spirit is typical on Pine Ridge. Said Tilsen, “Our people are tackling many issues and coming up with their own solutions. For the first time, they’re being asked what they want, not being told what others think they need.”

Lumbering Toward Success
“I always knew this kind of business would be a success here,” said Eddie Abold, Oglala, sole proprietor of Pine Ridge Building Products, on Highway 18 just east of Pine Ridge village. Abold, right, didn’t rush into a start-up, though. Before opening his doors in September 2011 with a loan from Lakota Funds, a local community development financial institution, Abold learned his trade in a lumberyard in Gordon, Nebraska, then in the procurement arm of the tribal housing department.

Local builders are pleased to have a nearby supplier. “Before this store opened, I had to haul my own lumber to the reservation,” said Leonard Lone Hill, Oglala. “That meant additional costs driving up bids we submitted on projects.”

During a recent visit, Pine Ridge Building Products had a constant flow of customers, including workers from tribal projects, who ordered plumbing materials, below. “There could be more business from the tribe, though,” Abold said. “A lot of tribal employees tend to call off-reservation vendors they’ve used for years, and breaking old habits is tough. But my prices are usually within pennies of those of major stores, and I even beat some.”

If you count all the costs associated with acquiring goods in this region of long drives and widely separated settlements, customers do even better at his store. “If you go to Gordon or Rapid City for supplies, you’ve got to add gas money and your time to the cost of an item,” Abold pointed out. “So, in fact, the articles purchased there become very expensive.”

People also benefit from Abold’s friendly advice. “Our twin logos, painted on the front of our building, are a tipi, which stands for the home, and a hand, which stands for helping hands,” he said. “We explain and assist and make customers feel comfortable with using our products.” Within five years, Abold hopes to have another store in Kyle, on the north end of the reservation, and to begin constructing two-four–bedroom homes on property around the Pine Ridge store. Building houses will help alleviate the reservation housing shortage and give him the opportunity to teach carpentry and other skills to youngsters, thereby preparing the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.

Road Warriors 
“Our 10 buses, each holding 16 to 22 riders, start as early as 4:30 in the morning, heading for 35 stops around the reservation,” said Oglala Sioux Transit director, Emma Featherman-Sam, at right below, speaking at the system’s main office and garage on Highway 18, east of Pine Ridge village. “People can also phone our dispatcher to ask a bus to make a special stop.”

Since the system started its engines in early 2009, reservation residents have paid $2–$5 one way, depending on the distance traveled, to job hunt, go to medical appointments, shop, attend college classes and more, she said. Regular riders can save by buying 10-day or monthly discount passes.

Oglala Sioux Transit solves an important employment problem in this impoverished area, said Featherman-Sam. “If tribal members have a vehicle, it may be an unreliable gas-guzzler. Regular transportation means people can assure employers that they can always make it to work.” The system also supports the local economy by making it easier for people to spend their money on the reservation, whether they’re going out to dinner or patronizing reservation mom-and-pop stores, she said.

Oglala Sioux Transit is a member of the newly formed National Tribal Transit Association, which offers training in subjects such as safety and security, accommodating passengers with disabilities, using information technology and more. If a Native community is getting a service underway, experienced managers elsewhere share information. “I keep helpful material in a file on my computer so I can send it off to anyone starting a program,” said Featherman-Sam.  

Keeping Oglala Sioux Transit humming requires careful planning on Featherman-Sam’s part. Riders drop $5,000 per month in the fare boxes, but fuel costs alone are $15,000 monthly. Other payables include salaries for 17 employees, including drivers, an office manager, a mechanic and other support personnel. Grants from the Federal Transit Administration and other agencies have made up the difference. The transit system also receives valuable in-kind help from folks who receive various benefits and have been assigned to it as part of their community service.

Going forward Oglala Sioux Transit will use its garage to generate revenue, fixing vehicles for local fleets, such as those that serve schools or social-services programs. “They won’t have to go an hour and a half or more to Rapid City for repair,” Featherman-Sam pointed out, noting that her agency’s new $160,000 tow truck (shown above) can handle very large vehicles, such as school buses and semi-trailers, something existing towing companies can’t do.

When South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson dropped by on his recent Pine Ridge tour, Oglala Sioux Transit draped him in a star quilt. “He’s a big supporter of tribal transit across the country but has also really been there, fighting for our system,” said Featherman-Sam. Johnson called Oglala Sioux Transit “a model for Indian country,” providing all kinds of access that’s critical to economic development. 

“As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit issues, I fought to double the authorization for tribal transit programs nationwide,” Johnson wrote in an email. “We must continue to ensure that programs like this expand to all of Indian country.”  

Shop, Eat, Stay
Here are a few Pine Ridge tourist establishments; for more, go to online Lakota Mall (lakotamall.com), or contact Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce (pineridgechamber.com; 605-455-2685), which publishes an excellent map showing many attractions. Powwows occur most weekends but can be subject to schedule changes; for updated information, call the Chamber right before you go. Contact each business below for current rates; generally, you’ll find they’re very reasonable.

Pine Ridge village area
The splendid Heritage Center of the Red Cloud Indian School (on Highway 18, 11 miles northwest of Pine Ridge village) offers fine Lakota crafts, including German-silver jewelry, beaded moccasins and star quilts. The shop’s best-sellers—porcupine-quill earrings, barrettes and bracelets—hark back to the pre-Contact Plains, as do decorated hard-sided rawhide boxes called parfleche. (605-867-8257; or shop online at www.redcloudschool.org/museum/) 

At Higher Ground, right, a coffeehouse on Highway 18, east of Pine Ridge village, find creative home-style cooking, seasoned with herbs from the café’s garden. Daily lunch specials go fast, so arrive around noon for them. Gourmet coffee—brewed up or beans—includes the house blend, Lakota Gold. (605-867-5685; owo@gwtc.net)

Prairie Wind is the tribe’s largest casino, on Highway 18 on the west side of the reservation, halfway between the towns of Oelrichs and Oglala. Its hotel can be reached at 800-705-WIND or 605-867-2683. The hotel has good wireless internet but spotty cellphone reception (ATT seems to work best).

Three-bedroom Blacktail Deer Creek Bed & Breakfast is across Highway 18 from Prairie Wind. Call ahead to arrange to meet the family’s buffalo herd. (605-535-2162; judysiouxrn@yahoo.com)

Kyle area
The greenhouse at Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort, west of Kyle on Highway 2, supplies its restaurant kitchen. Don’t miss the hearty steak or burger dinners (ask for a side of crispy sweet potato fries) or anything with their fluffy crusts, like chicken pot pie or warmed apple pie with ice cream. The property, run by the Puckett family, who are tribal members, offers 41 motel-style rooms, some with kitchenettes, and 4 cabins. Its gift shop supports local artists. (605-455-2555; www.lakotaprairie.com)

Right in Kyle is Nunpa Theater, the first movie house on the reservation. Owning and running the sleek new twin theater (Nunpa means “two” in Lakota) is a dream come true for movie-lovers Angel Reddest, shown right, and her mother, Monna Patton, both Oglala. Check the theater’s Facebook page for daily schedules of the latest blockbusters. Nunpa is also planning to show premieres of independent films, according to Reddest.

Find the Odd Duck Inn down a gravel road off Highway 2 west of Kyle, on the historic homesite of co-owner Tilda Long Soldier–St. Pierre’s late great-grandfather, Little Soldier, who was at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn). Ceremonial quilts, art by leading Lakota artists and duck motifs decorate the ten-bedroom property, which also offers guests their own kitchens. The B&B’s name memorializes the discerning duck in a Lakota trickster legend who warns others of danger—a good lesson for today, says Tilda’s co-owner, and co-author of several books, her husband Mark St. Pierre. (605-455-2972; mstp@gwtc.net)

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.

Carnage on the Plains, part 1

One of the many bars and take-out liquor stores in the desolate little border towns ringing the dry
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; more places to buy alcohol are shown below. 
Part one of an article that appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012.

The Oglala Lakota elder spread out the map on her kitchen table. It showed the dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where possessing, consuming or selling booze can land you in jail. “People living in the western part of the reservation can get alcohol in the border town of Oelrichs, South Dakota, where carryout is available [shown left]. I hear a second bar has just been built,” she said, sweeping her hand across the left side of the map. “If you live on the eastern side, around Allen, for example, you can drive over to Martin to drink or buy carryout. In the northern part of the reservation, you can go to Interior. And of course, there’s Whiteclay, to the south of us in Nebraska.” 

Though the town of Whiteclay, shown right, is the most notorious of the tiny, alcohol-soaked border towns surrounding the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, there are plenty of places where booze is easily available to Oglala Sioux Tribe members. Like gruesome beads on a giant necklace, bars and carryout liquor stores ring the reservation. They also help drive its generations-long, alcohol-related public-health crisis: one in four babies are born with fetal-alcohol effects, and it has an infant mortality rate 300% higher than the country as a whole, a youth suicide rate 150% higher than other Americans and life expectancy at least 25 years shorter.

The towns all have one major industry: selling booze to Indians. On the drive to Interior, just north of the reservation, many road signs (shown right, with more below) promise beer, wine and liquor. Once in the sleepy little burg, population 67, visitors have a half-dozen places to buy alcohol—to drink on the spot or carry out. 

On a recent Saturday night, the Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill served beer and whisky to a mixed clientele of cowboys and Indians. A huge sign on the defunct bar in neighboring Scenic, South Dakota, now a near-ghost town, long welcomed Lakotas to a bar (and adjoining jail, seen at right in the photo below) with a sign proclaiming “Indians Allowed.” 
Some on Pine Ridge are determined to maintain its dry status, while others want to repeal the tribe’s temperance law. The elder with the map, who asked to remain anonymous, explained: “I know it would mean liquor stores would open on the reservation, but we’d get the taxes and could spend the money on treatment programs.” A Wounded Knee resident agreed, recalling what he observed when prohibition was briefly lifted during the 1960s: “The bootleggers were put out of business. They didn’t like it, so they supported reinstating prohibition. That was done, and they were back in business.”
That business is booming, especially in Whiteclay, where four ramshackle stores annually sell the equivalent of more than four million 12-ounce servings of beer (though not spirits or wine), according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. “Whiteclay is a unique situation,” said attorney Tom White, of White and Jorgenson, in Omaha. Through his firm, the tribe has filed a federal lawsuit in Nebraska against those who manufacture, distribute and sell the beer available in Whiteclay—including local retail outlets and the Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Molson Coors and Pabst brewing companies. The tribe demands as-yet-unspecified damages from the businesses for knowingly engaging in illegal sales and contributing to the epidemic of alcoholism on its impoverished reservation.
Most Whiteclay sales are inevitably illegal, said White, because the town has no public establishments, such as licensed bars or cafés, in which to consume alcohol lawfully. Virtually all booze sold there must be either drunk in public in violation of Nebraska law or carried onto the dry reservation in violation of Oglala Sioux Tribe law. “When a liquor store elsewhere sells its goods, it can assume they will be used lawfully,” White said. “In contrast, in Whiteclay, with no publicly accessible place to consume alcohol legally, the stores sell it knowing that, without a doubt, it will be used unlawfully.”
The amount that can be sold legally will be very small; residents of Nebraska towns with their own bars and carry-out stores are unlikely to drive to Whiteclay to shop. So lawful booze purchases may be limited to just what Whiteclay’s few residents can drink—nothing like the millions of dollars in store sales and hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state excise taxes that Nebraska’s liquor commission says are generated yearly in Whiteclay.
 The tribe has no jurisdiction over Whiteclay. Though the town lies on land claimed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, that claim is disputed by both Nebraska and the United States, tying the tribe’s hands when it comes to enforcing liquor-control laws there. According to tribal judiciary committee head James (Toby) Big Boy, the tribe has pleaded with Nebraska to crack down on illegal sales in the town and has set up tribal-police blockades of the road to Whiteclay. Tribal members march annually to protest unsolved murders and unexplained deaths of Native Americans in the Whiteclay area, he said. The new lawsuit follows decades of thwarted attempts to stop alcohol’s devastation.

On a recent sunny afternoon, virtually all the busy car traffic in Whiteclay, shown right, arrived from or departed to Pine Ridge village, the reservation’s population center, with about 5,000 residents living a couple minutes’ drive to the north. Watching the traffic pattern, it was easy to believe that most of the beer sold was headed to the reservation. Residents of the nearest Nebraska towns, such as Rushville, 22 miles away, or Gordon, 37 miles away, would be unlikely to drive to decrepit Whiteclay to buy alcohol, since they have their own local bars and liquor stores.
 A visitor can observe booze being consumed openly in Whiteclay itself. At any given time, as many as a couple dozen men, along with a few women, drink on the street, leaning against fences or sitting under the sagging porches that front dilapidated buildings. “When they see police, they hide their open beers behind them,” said Sergeant Ken Franks, of the tribal police department’s highway-safety division. It’s common to see people lie in the street or in ditches, sleeping off drunks, according to a tribal member familiar with the situation.
 It’s also increasingly common to read about Whiteclay in major news outlets. Both The New York Times and the BBC sent reporters during a recent week. This prompted prominent Oglala newsman and commentator Tim Giago to write in The Huffington Post that they all missed the longtime efforts of the people of Pine Ridge to combat alcoholism. Equally, in focusing on Whiteclay, wrote Giago, none uncovered the wonderful and successful aspects of the reservation community—its college, its Boys and Girls Club and much more.
At the end of April, the highest selling of Whiteclay’s four stores, Arrowhead Inn, filed a motion requesting that the court dismiss the Oglalas’ lawsuit. In 2011, the store purveyed 66,857 cases of beer, or more than one and one-half million 12-ounce servings, according to Nebraska Liquor Control Commission figures. At about $30 per case, that means annual gross income of over $2 million for that store alone. The store’s motion to dismiss says that figuring out what can be “reasonably” consumed in accordance with the law is not “practicable.” The legal document asks: “How would Arrowhead Inn account for a ‘reasonable level?’ Would it be required to keep daily accounting of sales to certain individuals?  Would this permanent injunction force Arrowhead Inn to cease operating?”
Beer stores’ motions to dismiss also claimed they’d be forced to discriminate. “Plaintiff is asking this Court to disallow Arrowhead Inn from selling alcohol to Plaintiff’s Tribe members residing on the PRIR [Pine Ridge Indian Reservation],” Arrowhead Inn’s brief claimed. “This could subject Arrowhead Inn to further litigation for discrimination based upon race or ethnicity.” State Line Liquor, above left, sold 41,852 cases or more than one million 12-ounce servings in 2011, according to Nebraska liquor commission figures, for a gross of about $1.26 million; its motion to dismiss claimed that restraining sales would interfere with Native American customers’ constitutional rights.
The Arrowhead motion also introduced the specter of Native American drinking spreading to other northwestern Nebraska towns, should booze be harder to obtain in Whiteclay: “Would those seeking alcohol drive to other areas to obtain it?” In filmmaker Mark Vasina’s 2008 documentary, Battle for Whiteclay, Nebraskans openly expressed their desire to confine Indians and their alcohol consumption to Whiteclay. As recently as March of this year, the Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning said in an Omaha radio broadcast, “You shut down those folks in Whiteclay, and [the customers are] going to go somewhere.”

Nebraska politicians also have a very practical and personal reason to fear offending alcohol manufacturers, distributors and sellers. The liquor industry was the top-contributing sector for Governor Dave Heineman’s 2010 campaign, giving more than $96,000, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. Candidates for other in-state offices that year, including Bruning, received amounts ranging up to several thousand dollars. Contributors included Oglala lawsuit defendants Anheuser-Busch and Jeff Scheinost of High Plains Budweiser, the largest distributor serving Whiteclay.

Whiteclay alone is not the reason for the contributions, according to Vasina, who says a continual loosening of state liquor laws (such as longer selling hours) is the main goal. However, he said, all that money sloshing around the state means politicians have little will to stand up to alcohol companies and resolve the Whiteclay problem. So, it’s left to the tribe to seek a solution in court, said Big Boy, adding, “Alcohol is depleting our people and our culture.”

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, executive director of Four Directions Community Center, in nearby Sioux City, Iowa, has fought for more than a decade to close down Whiteclay’s liquor trade. He called Whiteclay a “hellhole,” adding: “The Oglala Lakota relatives bleed to death under the color of law. The free-enterprise mumbo jumbo spewed by [Nebraska officials] serves no purpose other than to reassure good ol’ boys and the liquor industry that all is okay as long as the countless victims of murder, rape and exploitation at Whiteclay aren’t white.”

LaMere said white officials had chided him for saying Nebraska has blood on its hands. “Do I still believe that?” he asked rhetorically. “You’re damned right I do!”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.