Vacation Spot

Storm Clouds on the Rez © Daniel Plasman

At the risk of telling anyone what to do, especially when it comes to vacation spots, I encourage everyone and every family to consider a trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  I recently spent a week there with eighteen church folks, nearly half of whom were high schoolers.

We connected with a non-profit called Re-Member (, good folks whose sole purpose for the past 16 years has been to “build relationships with the Lakota People.”

If you’ve ever wondered what a third-world country looks like, visiting Pine Ridge will give you an accurate picture.  One of the first items of the opening day orientation included these sobering facts about life on the reservation:

Unemployment rate of 80-90%.  Per capita income of $4,000.  Eight times the United States rate of diabetes.  Five times the United States rate of cervical cancer.  Twice the rate of heart disease. Eight times the United States rate of Tuberculosis. Alcoholism rate estimated as high as 80%. 1 in 4 infants born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects.  Suicide rate more than twice the national rate.  Teen suicide rate four times the national rate.  Infant mortality is three times the national rate.  Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States and the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Only Haiti has a lower rate.

You work hard building outhouses, attaching insulation beneath and around FEMA trailers, installing new roof shingles, and building bunk beds for kids who’ve never slept in a bed.

You’ll also learn the dark history of our country’s treatment of Native Americans that include breaking every treaty (more than 370) that we made with those whose land we took.  Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will fill in the details.

As is often the case with places and experiences that leave me weary and drained, I can’t wait to go back.

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  1. Chris July 8, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    Hi, I live on Pine Ridge in the town of Kyle. While all you say is true, I’d suggest and challenge you to return to Pine Ridge with the expressed goal of seeking the positive.

    The Oglala Lakota have some of the strongest communities in the world and have illustrated their great resiliency time and time again.

    There are great things happening on the Rez, from the first Movie Theatre (in Kyle) to organic coffee houses, grass roots nonprofits, community gardens, and schools sending students to Stanford & Dartmouth (Red Cloud Indian School has more Gates Millenium Scholars than any school of it’s size in the USA! – )

    Traditions are stronger and/or becoming stronger after decades of oppression, Language initiatives are up including the first k-12 Lakota Language curriculum ever.

    I agree, people should come to learn – BUT, those who have been must know that they represent this place to those who likely will never visit — Let’s temper the harsh realities with a heavy heavy dose of positive realities that have kept the Lakota and their culture from being forgotten or entirely oppressed by the US gov and American society.

  2. Dani Veenstra July 9, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

    Thanks for the reminder of what our mission trip was like several years ago. Another helpful book “Moon of Popping Trees”

  3. Christine Armbrecht July 19, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Your interpretation of vacation is testimony to the quality of the experience. How expansive for the young people participating in this life altering opportunity