Last Saturday, Bryan and I flew west to start our week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, my first opportunity to visit La Plant. I have heard endless stories, seen thousands of pictures, and listened to the Fleet Foxes song that plays over the beautiful Reservation Volunteer Season video countless times now, yet I still had no idea what my week on the Rez would bring. Much of our first day was spent with many of the families in the community who came by to catch up with Bryan when they heard he was back in La Plant. Everyone was gracious with their friendship, and although reserved at first, welcomed me into their town and then all continued to tell Bryan everything that had happened since he left.
It is no secret that a long history of sadness has torn apart this community, leaving the people broken down by a deep-seated mistrust in the government, which leads to a mistrust between neighbors, and between family members, all of which was a central theme of most of the conversations.
To me, after hearing all the similar stories with different characters every time, it seemed that everyone felt as if they had to live up to a standard that Bryan and the Simply Smiles community set; a standard of simple goodness that comes from wanting to be someone’s friend, from just wanting to help with no strings attached. It seemed as if people did not want to let Bryan down, so they had to tell him their perspectives on how things have faired since the summer.
Through these complicated conversations, there were also moments where we saw positive change, like when our friend, Steve told us he has a handful of kids and adults from the community over his house on a regular basis to play the drum, and most of all, from the huge turn-out for the community meal we held on Friday.
Bryan and I prepared for it all day. Without Gaby we were a little nervous about how the baked ziti would come out, so we started cooking early, cleaned and set up, called all the families in town, and were just barely ready by the time people started to arrive. Over a hundred people came for dinner, loved the pasta and the CRST video that we played for everyone to see. I was able to meet dozens more families and start conversations on my own terms with the people I had met earlier in the week.
For the whole meal I was either passing out coffee with the help of Jace, my new best friend who would not let go of my hand, dishing out servings of cheesy pasta to the long line of friends who packed the community center, or running around with all the kids who let their guard down and started to jump on my back asking for rides. It was insane and incredible. I had a blast with the kids and loved being able to talk to the adults a little more.
Unfortunately, the meal was over within the hour, but when Bryan was taking one of the last families home, Dalema and her kids graciously helped me stack chairs as they waited for a ride themselves. As she helped, Dalema told me how grateful she is for Bryan and Simply Smiles. She said a few times that everyone here loves Bryan and he has been able to make such an impact.
This took me aback, as after all the complicated stories I had heard throughout the week, this was the first overarching statement I heard about the community of La Plant made by one of the people of La Plant, and it was about how everyone agrees on the positive impact that Simply Smiles has been able to create for the whole community.
This simple affirmation of all the hard work that Bryan, the staff, and all the volunteers over the past few years have put into this town is definitely a step in the right direction.
For me, the greatest moments were when Tanner came by the community center for over an hour to discuss his infinite knowledge and passion for Greek myths, and when Lakita, after at first being unsure of whether I could be her friend or not, asked for a big hug at the end of the community meal.
Countless moments like these that the Simply Smiles community has created over the last few years here have sparked this move towards a stronger sense of community in La Plant, and I am so excited and inspired to continue moving forward with my new friends.
Until next time,
P.S. Because I’ve recently fallen mercy to the fact that my height will always be a fun conversation starter for people I meet, I thought it was brilliant that during our final goodbyes with Steve, he said that he decided that Teigan, his son, is only able to try out for his high school basketball team this year if he beats me on one-v-one. Guess I better start practicing for the December 7th Christmas party. Anyone want to join me?
If you would like, you can contribute to our project on the Cheyenne River Reservation here.