When we pulled up at the Cheyenne River Reservation’s La Plant Community Center at the beginning of the summer, I was greeted by a child’s BB rifle pointed directly at my face. Granted, it was in play, but it was play intended to scare me off, to challenge me right off the bat, to say, “If you can’t handle this, you’re in trouble”. The kids who pointed that gun at me were the same kids who, a month later, opened up to me about the death of a father, insisted on constant piggy back rides and hand-holding, and whose smiles fuel me as I sit at my desk today. These are the kids of La Plant, the site of our Reservation project where we provide summer camps, community meals, and home construction and repair to a town of about 250. This summer, we spent almost three months working, living, eating, crying, and laughing in this community - a community that, even though it is physically located in the domestic United States, is a sovereign third-world country inhabited by a people systematically annihilated since the spread of Manifest Destiny.
The same week as the BB gun incident, a boy named Shaun (age 7) asked one of our staff members, Josh, if he had a best friend. Josh replied that he did not, to which Shaun said, “Okay. I’ll be your best friend.” Taking these two immediate incidents side by side gives the best picture of the kids here, and the reason why they need us so much. They are in their cores good, loving kids. Environmental facts of familial substance abuse, domestic abuse, neglect, and desperate poverty force even the gentlest of children to adopt a hard outer shell - one that takes months (or years) to break through and earn trust.
We do this work because they need us. We do this work because an elderly woman who cannot walk was led to Bryan just to shake his hand to thank him. We do this work because every other aid organization based in La Plant has left, and too many organizations based off the Reservation mail in their support, creating corruption and jealousy within town. We’re working towards community-building, towards encouraging kids to stay in a school that has a 75% drop-out rate, and towards the future in a town where 6-year-olds attempt suicide and 13-year-olds succeed.
This is happening right here, in the United States. That’s what continues, day in and day out, to shock me in my work as a member of SmileCorps. My job allows me to be a constant support for our friends on the Reservation, but it also forces me to be a constant witness to the hardships my friends must face. I’ve been angry, I’ve felt helpless, overwhelmed, and frustrated, but after spending the summer on the Reservation, I’ve also felt hopeful. This summer is leaps and bounds different from last summer in terms of relationship-building. Instead of mistrust, we are greeted by gladness, which shows the difference that consistency makes. The constant witness builds trust, and the feelings of frustration and helplessness bridge the gaps between people. We need those feelings in order to attempt to understand our friends, and it is that perseverance that makes a difference. The shock is what inspires me as I sit at a desk in our office. The shock, the BB gun to the face, as well as the hands held, is what matters.