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“It Was a Wake-Up Call for All of Us”

Part one: Alternative Spring Break 2008 — on the reservation in Dupree, S.D.


The Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation covers more than two million acres of South Dakota’s poorest soil. A nine-year drought has left the land parched, and the wind whips mercilessly across the prairie. And it’s remote — the reservation is more than a three-hour drive from tourist attractions such as Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. Out here, it’s possible to drive for 200 miles without seeing a gas station or a convenience store. Residents don’t bother buying cell phones; they don’t work.

This year, 11 Boston University student volunteers traveled more than 1,800 miles to spend a week on the reservation and to work with Native American children at the Sioux YMCA in Dupree, S.D. Their trip, arranged by BU’s Community Service Center, was part of Alternative Spring Breaks, a program that each year sends hundreds of volunteers into disaster zones and troubled communities across the country.

BU Today’s Vicky Waltz was a chaperone on the trip and recorded some of the students’ experiences, including that of Jennifer Clark (CAS’08), who shares her story below.

I decided to participate in Alternative Spring Break because I made a New Year’s resolution to take part in as many BU activities as possible during my senior year. I opted to work on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota because our history books tend to gloss over this particular aspect of our country’s heritage, and I wanted to learn what has changed and what hasn’t changed within the Native American culture.

When I initially signed up for the trip, I didn’t realize it involved working with children. I’m not a kid person. I’m just not very good with them. I’m an only child, and as a result, I’ve always preferred to be around adults. So when I learned that the trip involved working mainly with children, I thought I had made a huge mistake. I convinced myself that none of the kids would like me, and I was afraid they would think that I’m really mean. But now we’re in Dupree, and I feel really comfortable being around the children. I don’t know why that is. They’re just very open and giving, and they accept me and like me — even though I’m pretty sure they can sense that I have no idea what to do with them.

The first day we were here, I decided to kind of ease myself into things, and I sat outside at the picnic tables and colored with some of the girls. We were just casually talking when one of the girls — she’s nine — turned to me all of a sudden and said, “Can I give you my phone number?” And I didn’t know what to say. I was just so dumbfounded — and, quite frankly, flattered — that a child would want me to call her. I told her our cell phones don’t work on the reservation, but she wrote her number on the back of my coloring sheet anyway. I still have it.

Being on the reservation is nothing like what I had expected. It’s a lot more barren, a lot more desolate and isolated. Before we left Boston, our coordinators warned us that we were basically going to be out in the middle of nowhere. They told us that we wouldn’t have cell phone reception and that we’d likely be taking cold showers every night. They told us that, out here, a person can drive for 100 or 200 miles without seeing a single gas station — or even a single house. But I didn’t fully grasp the reality of the situation until we were actually here. This is a different world. There’s an entire population that lives below the radar, and … I guess I didn’t expect that.

We’ve been with the kids for five days now, and we’re starting to see the reservation through their eyes. And I feel the helplessness that I know they must feel. Dupree is in Ziebach County, S.D., which is the fourth-poorest county in the nation. Unemployment rates on the reservation vary from 50 to 80 percent, and high school graduation rates are way below the national average. For most people here, college is a pipe dream. The jobs that are available are usually 20 or 50 miles away, so people have to choose between driving really far distances or moving away from the town. And for a culture that is so familial and community-based, that’s a very difficult decision to make.

We organized an Easter egg hunt in Cherry Creek, which is a tiny town about an hour from Dupree. I think Cherry Creek was a wake-up call for all of us. The sign when you first drive into town is riddled with bullet holes. There’s a lot of crime and gang activity — which I’d previously associated only with inner cities. Most of the houses look very temporary in nature, and there are junked-up cars and smashed-in windows and stray dogs rummaging through piles of trash. And it’s all set amid this beautiful landscape, these lovely rolling hills. There’s nothing beyond the town for miles. Maybe that’s why I found the scene so unsettling. I tend to think of poverty as being a more urban problem, at least in this country.

We were told to hide the Easter eggs on a hillside that overlooked the town, and the area was littered with garbage: beer cans, broken bottles, food wrappers, cardboard, old car parts. There are also horses that wander through the hills, so you really have to watch where you step.

College students, for better or for worse, have this youthful idealism that compels them to do good in the world. I have it, too. But at that moment, on that hillside, I didn’t know how anyone who saw what I saw could remain idealistic.

But then, as we were hiding the eggs, we stumbled upon what I initially thought to be a piece of beautiful abstract art. In reality, it was the coiled springs from an old mattress, which turned out to be a perfect place to hide the eggs. And yes, it was trash, but it was also beautiful. And, for me, it was a glimmer of hope.

In total, it took us 45 minutes to hide 700 eggs, and it took the children less than 10 minutes to find them. They had such a wonderful time, though. They didn’t even notice that they were frolicking in garbage and looking for eggs next to piles of excrement. They were just so happy to be outside, happy to be running and laughing and eating candy. Their joy is the only reason I didn’t leave Cherry Creek feeling positively devastated.

I think that it’s great that we were here for a week, because I learned so much, and I feel that my life, at least, has been forever changed. I’m so pleased that the kids responded so positively to us. Their eyes light up every time they see us. But we leave tomorrow morning, and I feel like I’m betraying them. They’ve finally learned our names, and they’ve finally come to trust us. The moment we break through to them is the moment we turn around and leave. I just feel like we need to be here longer to make any sort of long-term impact. More than anything, I wish we had more time.

I’m still so glad that I came to Dupree. It’s the best New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made. Universities make such a huge deal about studying abroad and learning about foreign cultures, which is definitely important, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also important to realize what’s going on in your own country, and I don’t think that I fully understood that until I came to Dupree.

Click here to read part two, “The Problem Has a Face.” Click here to watch part three, “It Really Put Things in Perspective.”

Returned volunteers from Dupree, S.D., and Tahlequah, Okla., will share stories of 63,087 Miles of Service at the Howard Thurman Center on Wednesday, March 26, at 7 p.m. Topics of discussion will include the preservation of Native American culture and ideals, education, health, and housing concerns.

Read more Alternative Spring Breaks stories.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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