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Dedicated to building bright futures for impoverished children, their families, and their communities.

Field Notes from the Reservation: Matching history lessons to a place, needing to do more

Simply Smiles blog

Follow our blog and read insights from Simply Smiles staff, volunteers and other individuals whose lives are affected by our work!

Field Notes from the Reservation: Matching history lessons to a place, needing to do more

Alex Gross

The latest Field Note is brought to you by Dennis Cullinane, a teacher at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and leader of the student group that is volunteering with us this week on the Reservation. 


When I embarked upon my journey west to La Plant, South Dakota with Simply Smiles, I was under the impression that I understood what current Native culture was like, and the tragic history that came to shape it. To be sure, some of my understandings were accurate, and in fact, as I traveled here and during my first days in La Plant, I read The Last Stand, a book about Native and U.S. government relations leading up to the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I had also taught and interacted with Native students back at Deerfield Academy, had studied the public health issues of Native Americans, and growing up as a Democrat in Massachusetts, I was sure I was well armed to understand the people I would be helping.

As the days in La Plant have unfolded though, I’ve begun to understand better how incredibly complicated, and dare say, sinister, are the history and current issues facing the inhabitants of the Cheyenne River Reservation. And perhaps most importantly, I now have a tremendously ingrained sense of how scheming, poverty, neglect, and ignorance can trap a people, year after year, generation after generation, in a cycle of despair and surrender.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Dennis, right, works with Jeremy from La Plant to build the foundation of a wood pellet shed at the new homes.

Where I came from, unemployment is lower than virtually any country in the Western world, public and health facilities are equally world-class, and a greater educational experience than the generation before is not just a hope, but a certainty. Little kids grow up wanting to be doctors, lawyers, astronauts, marine biologists, or president of the United States. Even African Americans, a cohort that has suffered tremendously at the hands of American society, now can tell their children that they, too, can be president. Unfortunately, the reality I left either nominally exists, or does not exist at all on the Reservation. 

To the great credit of the people who have lived here for generations, and despite all that they as a living historical lineage have endured, they are warm, friendly, thoughtful, profoundly philosophical, and deeply proud of their heritage.

Indeed, I have been incredibly impressed with the indefatigability of their spirits in their daily lives, but I cannot help but feel a need to do more.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Working side-by-side: Volunteer Katie works with Shane of La Plant to frame in a bathroom ceiling on a new home.

Not more in the simple sense of giving money, or goods, or et cetera, but to help kick start the next generation so that they can exit the vicious cycle in which they unknowingly find themselves. Indeed, lending them the lens to see another, possible, happier and more constructive future can be as simple as letting them know somebody else cares about them, wants them to succeed, and in some instances, expects more of them. This knowledge is exactly what will send them - especially the children - careening out of cycle in a wonderfully chaotic tour of life that most of us, their neighbors, take for granted every day of our lives.

A fire was smoldering in me when I committed to the week here at Simply Smiles, smack dab in the middle of South Dakota. That smoldering ember is now burning brightly. I now see the face of my own happy, eager, well-educated, well-traveled and wonderful 14-year-old son in the eyes of every kid I see here, and I shudder at the thought of him giving up on his future and being sucked into a cycle of generational despair.

The kids here need a lens, or a higher hill to stand upon, or whatever metaphor you like, so that they can see further and do more with their lives. I now understand life here, but sadly, only a little bit better.