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Awareness Not Fear… Please? A commentary on a recent New York Times article on gang violence

by Maggie Dunne

Once upon a time there was a barren wasteland where everyone was wasted. The dilapidated homes were full of drunks and the children all dropped out of school, long before High School. Once the kids hit the streets, they roamed together in gangs and they killed each other, daily. Those who were not killed by rival gang members ultimately killed themselves. Everyone who grew up in the wasteland just waited for death to come knocking on the door.

Anyone want to visit this mystical place? Anyone want to give them support?

I didn’t think so.

That is how the New York Times depicts the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in a December 13, 2009 article on the emergence of Indian gangs. The article, by Eric Eckholm entitled “Gang Violence Grows on an Indian Reservation” focuses on Richard Wilson, “an unemployed school dropout who lives with assorted siblings and partners in his mother’s ramshackle house, without running water,” and who reportedly has a “scar on his nose and one over his eye.” The author describes Pine Ridge as a “stunning land of crumpled prairie, horse pastures turned tawny in the autumn and sunflower farms … marred by an astonishing number of roadside crosses and gang tags sprayed on houses, stores and abandoned buildings, giving rural Indian communities an inner-city look.” The author states that gang allegiances spring from “broken, alcohol-ravaged homes,” and offer members “an identity drawn from urban gangsta rap and self-protection.” The web version of the article includes video clips of gang members talking about their craft.

The problem with this article is that it fails to report on the cause for the emergence of the gangs and depicts the Reservation as a tsunami of violent crime. Life on the Pine Ridge Reservation is unlike life anywhere else in our great country. Life is tough, people are dying way too early and although many are working for change, it is happening too slowly. The gangs are a symptom of the poverty that consumes the entire Reservation, as are the alarming incidences of teen suicide.

By focusing on an unfortunate symptom without examining the cause the New York Times article serves to fuel those who harbor prejudices and who blame the Lakota for their terrible circumstances. It scares others away. The rising gangs are not responsible for the Reservation’s poverty. As long as people are trapped in desperation, there will be desperate actions. The living conditions found on Pine Ridge do not excuse gang life and cases of criminal conduct, but they do explain how the current situation has come about.

In my opinion, the NYT missed the opportunity to have a positive impact on the plight of the Lakota. They missed the chance to not only educate their readers about the perpetual instances of violence on the reservation but also to mobilize these readers to bring change to “the Rez” and highlight the fact that there is hope for the future. Pine Ridge is not a barren wasteland. It is land bound to a series of historical injustices, and the home to people with a rich culture that has survived against all odds. It is not that the Lakota do not want change, but without access to resources and tools that are necessary for societal advancement and security, maintaining stability takes priority, and certainly they cannot do it all themselves. While the NYT article mentions that a few entities are making efforts to reach the troubled youth, it does not explain why the population of troubled youth exists, and thus perpetuates stereotypes and ultimately does not do much to help the Lakota.

The NY Times might have missed this real reporting opportunity, but it is not too late for the future, just like it is not too late for the youth of Pine Ridge.

By mobilizing or encouraging people to eliminate the poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the gang violence will cease… Now, that would be news!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/14/us/14gangs.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=pine%20ridge&st=cse

Link to Article Written by Maggie Dunne: Are You Willing to Become Part of the Solution?


Click on the link below for an article written by LCE’s President Maggie Dunne, published in Colgate University’s Maroon News, November 9, 2009:Maroon News – Are You Willing to Become Part of the Solution?

PDF Version of Article (Click on this LINK and then advance to Page 9 of Publication)

Welcome to our blog — the report of our Coat Drive

Welcome to our first blog entry!

If you are following this blog, then you know that Maggie Dunne, now a Freshman at Colgate University,  founded the Lakota Pine Ridge Children’s Enrichment Project, Ltd. (“LPRCEP”),  after she visited the Pine Ridge Reservation as a volunteer through Re-Member.  Maggie was was shocked by the poverty that she saw in our own country and when she returned back to New York, she felt a need to do more to help with the situation on the Reservation.  Pursuant to our mission, since its formation LRPCEP has focused its efforts on providing aid to Lakota children on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
 
Yesterday, as part of USA Weekend’s Make a Difference Day initiative,  (for the second year working with USA Weekend) LPRCEP sent off approximately 700 children’s winter coats, along with warm outerwear to be distributed to children at the Crazy Horse School, a Wanblee Head Start facility and the Wanblee Day Care Center.  In addition, we sent off approximately 1,000 children’s books to those same facilities, all located on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

LPRCEP was joined in collecting coats and warm outerwear by the newly-formed Scarsdale High School Club, the Pine Ridge Reservation Aid Club.  Abby Weingarten and Helen Bush formed this club after hearing the presentation of Jerome and Theresa High Horse at LPRCEP’s first annual fundraiser in June of 2009.  At the fundraiser, Jerome and Theresa spoke about a family that froze to death last winter because they did not have heat and they did not have warm clothing to wear.  They also told us how appreciative the Lakota children have been for the things that we have sent to the Reservation in the past.  For example, last year’s coat shipment arrived only days before a blizzard struck the region and coats were distributed by the Red Cross at an emergency shelter.

Yesterday, with the help of the High School Club, led by Helen Bush and Abby Weingarten, and with a huge assist from Scarsdale faculty advisor, Chris Renino (who was Maggie’s advisor for the Spring fundraiser as well), and with the help of other student and community volunteers, we shipped the largest single shipment of coats we have ever sent to the reservation!

Although Maggie was unable to be present today, we have to credit her for organizing this event, for soliciting donations and we note that she devoted last weekend (her four day Fall break) to sorting and folding about 2/3 of the items that we shipped today, as part of the USA Weekend volunteer iniative.   Last week, we were joined by volunteers from the Scarsdale Congregational Church, who were volunteering for a day of service.  We have learned from experience that this packaging project cannot be done in one day and, thankfully, with the help of many, we pulled it off!

The items that we shipped to Pine Ridge will be distributed with the assistance of the Wanblee Medic #5 Unit of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Ambulence Service, under the supervision of Jon Siedschlaw.  We look forward to seeing his photographs documenting the arrival of the coats and books on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Jon will also coordinate his efforts with Jerome and Theresa High Horse, who live in Wanblee, and who convinced him to help us in our efforts!

Finally, at Maggie’s direction, we sent off two extra-large boxes for Jeda and Stryker and their siblings, which Jon Seidschlaw and the Wanblee Medic Unit 5, Oglala Sioux Tribe Ambulence Service, have agreed to deliver to Jeda and her family.   Jeda is the little girl who is pictured in the photo that appears in all of our materials.  When Maggie met Jeda, it was under thirty degrees outside and she was wearing only a t-shirt and flip flops.  To a great extent, Jeda was the inspiration for the creation of LPRCEP.    Jon Siedschlaw has agreed to deliver the designated boxes of clothing and other items to her.  Included in Jeda’s boxes are some of Maggie’s favorite books, along with a few purses, backpacks and lots of pink and other colorful sweaters.  We heard that Jeda’s mother died this past year, and we hope that this care package cheers up the kids!

Since you are wondering; some of our future projects:

  • We are planning our second annual fundraiser for June 2010; 
  • Maggie is leading a student group to Re-Member in March, 2010;
  • Maggie is delivering abandoned and salvaged appliances, clothing and school supplies collected  from her college dorms to the reservation in May, 2010; 
  • We are discussing the purchase laptop computers for some of the underfunded schools;
  • We continue to explore a location to house a full library or to purchase a mobile library van, as we have offers to stock an entire library!
  • We will try continue to try to find corporate partners/donors to provide the children with shoes and other necessities.
  • We will continue our efforts to promote awareness about the conditions faced by the Lakota on Pine Ridge (and many other reservations), as we have found that people have no idea that this poverty exists in our own country.

Thank you everyone for your continuing support!