Considering the weight of history

A visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota inspires changes in the classroom.

Genny Beckman Moriarty
October 27, 2017
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Visitors to the Wounded Knee monument and burial grounds pay respect to the hundreds of Lakota people who lost their lives there.

Sitting at a Harkness table as she takes a break from planning on the first day of classes, History Instructor Betty Luther-Hillman recalls a recent visit to the burial grounds at Wounded Knee, which hold the remains of hundreds of Oglala Lakota men, women and children who were slain there by the United States Cavalry in 1890.

The site now rests on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, bordering the badlands of South Dakota, in rocky, barren terrain. Running her hands through her close-cropped hair, Luther-Hillman recalls her almost visceral response to standing in the spot where so many Lakota lost their lives. “That experience was really powerful to me,” she says. “We talk about Wounded Knee, we read about all of the people who were killed there, and we read about the baby who survived. You can read all of those facts in a book, but you really feel it when you’re on the reservation.”

Luther-Hillman visited Wounded Knee in August, when she and three of her colleagues (English Instructor Erica Plouffe Lazure, Physical Education Instructor Melissa  Pacific and Associate Athletic Trainer Kalya Medina) volunteered with Re-Member, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of the Oglala Lakota living on the Pine Ridge reservation, one of the starkest examples of rural poverty in the nation. During their one-week stay at the Re-Member facility, the Exeter faculty members helped work on construction projects for families in need and visited sites on the reservation such as Wounded Knee, Oglala Lakota College, Badlands National Park and the Red Cloud Indian School. Through nightly guest lectures from elders of the Oglala Lakota Nation, the four women also received a crash course in the complex tangle of economic, historical, political and cultural contexts that help shape the lives of the Lakota today.

The visit to Pine Ridge was a powerful one for the Exeter employees, who are working to incorporate some of the insights it gave them, along with the questions it raised, into their work at the Academy — and hoping to organize subsequent trips for faculty, staff and eventually, students.

PEA faculty members Kalya Medina, Melissa Pacific, Betty Luther-Hillman and Erica Plouffe Lazure.

A present linked painfully to the past

The “baby who survived” to whom Luther-Hillman alluded was discovered at Wounded Knee several days after the 1890 massacre ended, sheltered beneath the frozen body of her mother. Lost Bird, as she came to be known, was taken by a white U.S. Army general and raised by his wife; later he abandoned both of them. Lost Bird lived in poverty and was never quite at home in either white or Lakota society. She died of the flu at 29 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in California. More than 70 years later, members of the Lakota tribe rescued her remains and returned them to Wounded Knee, where they symbolize for many a long tradition of lost cultures and stolen lives.

During her visit to Pine Ridge, Luther-Hillman says, she felt the weight of stories such as Lost Bird’s: “I kept thinking about what it would be like to live next to these battle sites with the trauma of history still shaping your everyday life.” Besides bringing the events of history to life, Luther-Hillman says, the experience drove home the fact that for many contemporary Lakota people, the legacy of those events isn’t actually history: “You meet people who are fifth-generation descendants of the people who died there and of those who managed to survive. These are families who often don’t have enough money or food to eat. They don’t have access to indoor plumbing or electricity and running water. You look at that, and you think, ‘Well, the reason life is like that for them is because of American history.’”

Statistics flesh out the grim picture Luther-Hillman paints of contemporary life on Pine Ridge: Unemployment rates are higher than 80 percent, high school dropout rates hover around 70 percent and the average per capita income is only $6,000. The average life expectancy, at 52 for women and 48 for men, is the second-lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Generations of children who were removed forcibly from their homes and sent to government-run boarding schools are now living with the long-term effects of cultural genocide and sexual abuse — and struggling to avoid perpetuating that abuse with their own children. Twice during the past decade, Oglala Lakota elders declared a Suicide State of Emergency based on the alarming rate of young people — some as young as 6 — who had taken or attempted to take their own lives. Nearly 80 percent of the adult population of Pine Ridge is affected by alcoholism. And yet in an area more than twice the size of Rhode Island, there is only one grocery store, one extremely underfunded hospital, and little to no mental health services available.

Witnessing the all-too-tangible connection between the traumas of yesterday and the marginalization and poverty of today was a potent lesson for the other Exeter teachers as well. Lazure, a former Bennett Fellow, says her time on the reservation opened her eyes to a kind of deprivation she had only ever heard about in an abstract way or witnessed in developing countries. Seeing such conditions in the U.S. was disturbing to her, and it troubles her that so little attention is paid to these issues in textbooks and mainstream media outlets.

“Having the gist of understanding of this long history of abusive treatment of Native people — of our simultaneously harming, often through the guise of helping — that was difficult to come face-to-face with. We have this idea of Americans always being the hero, the good guys,” Lazure says. “But the stories I heard as firsthand, or as handed down from parents and grandparents, were stories of kids being taken from their homes and stripped of their identities, forced to cut their hair and punished physically if they wanted to speak Lakota. That legacy of systemic abuse continues to make itself felt on the reservation.”

The road leading up to the Wounded Knee memorial on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Grappling with how to help

Helping to mitigate the effects of that legacy is one of the driving forces behind the nonprofit Re-Member, which has been operating on the reservation for nearly 20 years. By building relationships and sharing resources with the people of the Oglala Lakota Nation, members of the organization hope to improve the lives of people living in Pine Ridge in concrete ways. Its volunteers assist in the construction of outhouses and bunk beds; help create and maintain community gardens; install porch steps, decking and wheelchair ramps to make homes more accessible; and assist with maintenance and repairs to make them safer and more comfortable. During South Dakota’s harsh winter months, Re-Member delivers firewood and other supplies to people in need. Committed to building respect and a network of advocates for the Lakota people and their culture, its organizers also arrange guest lectures and other educational programming for their volunteers.

During their week at Pine Ridge, the Exeter contingency used muscles they hadn’t used in a long time as they carried heavy planks of wood, operated industrial dishwashers, dug deep trenches for latrines, and squatted low to the ground to install the trailer skirting that would help to insulate mobile homes in the extreme weather conditions of the Northern Plains. The Exeter participants found their work with Re-Member incredibly rewarding, but they confess to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of need they witnessed at Pine Ridge, and they’re acutely aware that any good they may have done was just a drop in a very leaky bucket.

“There are small, tangible things our group did during that one week to improve the lives of particular families, and that’s gratifying,” Lazure says, “but in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing.” She and the teachers are working on a public presentation to help raise awareness in the wider Exeter community, and they’re struggling to discern how to make a substantive difference from 2,000 miles away. “We all have so much to give, and spending a week there feels like so little,” Lazure says. “But I see it as a seed. I’m hopeful that the more people I talk to, the more it grows. 

One of the seeds Lazure is hoping to plant is the possibility of starting a teacher-exchange program between the Academy and the Red Cloud Indian School, a well-regarded Jesuit-run school often staffed by young and inexperienced teachers through AmeriCorps. She has also been looking into asking the Lions Club to provide prescription eyeglasses and find surgeons who could provide cataract surgery on the reservation, where free ophthalmology services are nearly nonexistent. “Those seem like things that can happen with some advocacy,” she says. “And little things can have an impact. If you’re taking care of your grandma, and she can’t take care of herself because her vision is poor, how do you choose work or school over helping her out?”

Over the course of the conversation, Lazure touches on the risks of “voluntourism” and swooping in from the outside to try to fix another community’s problems. She admits it would be arrogant to think that Exeter teachers have answers to the complex issues facing the people of Pine Ridge, saying, “I don’t want it to seem like I’m descending on them as a ‘white savior.’ I’m looking for small, respectful ways to help that can make a real difference. As the director of Re-Member reminded us, ‘You are not here to solve anyone’s problems. But you can make a bed for a child or provide an outhouse for a family that needs it.’”

English Instructor Erica Plouffe Lazure helps attach skirting to a mobile home.

Building cultural awareness

For Melissa Pacific, the timing of the trip couldn’t have been better, coming right before the start of school year, when Exeter employees had the opportunity to work with Robert Greene. Greene is a senior consultant and leadership trainer with JONES, a firm that specializes in helping organizations build greater cultural awareness. He will be consulting with the school’s administration throughout the year to help build a more inclusive community, one that finds strength and unity in Exeter’s diversity and creates a sense of belonging for everyone. In August, he led two days of cultural competency workshops for faculty and staff.

“It became apparent during our conversations with Greene that we really need to take the time to get to know one another, to get to know our kids and their cultures,” Pacific says. Her own interest in Native American culture is what prompted her trip to Pine Ridge. “My father used to do a lot of trading with his Native buddies on hunting trips to Canada,” Pacific explains. “He developed a love for their culture, and he instilled a respect for Native Americans in his kids. He taught me the true history of America, which I never recalled learning about at school, and it always felt natural to me that we should respect the first people who lived on our land.”

Pacific says hearing Oglala elders talk about their experiences and culture was one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip for her. She says it also left her wondering where genuine interest in another culture leaves off and cultural theft begins — and whether her family had crossed over that line. “We had the best intentions and we thought of it as respect,” she says, “but I wonder what the Oglala elders would have thought of my family’s collection of Native artifacts.”

The workshops with Greene gave employees the time and space to consider such questions about diversity and cultural awareness, many of which are taking place within the Exeter community and on a national stage. “We’ve been talking a lot about the parts of our identities that are hidden, about the stories and voices that don’t always get told,” Pacific says. Determined to invite more voices into the mix, she says she’ll be looking for ways to forge greater trust and stronger ties both with and among her students. Her experience at Pine Ridge and her recent dialogues with colleagues have reinforced the importance of making that attempt, despite the risk of making a mistake and the challenge of logistics.

“I need to be sure I’m asking them, ‘What was this experience like for you?’ I want to get to know who my students are under the surface, and I want them to do that with one another, too. ... Sometimes we have to decide, ‘What will we gain in 60 minutes of practice time, or what will we gain in 60 minutes of sitting down face-to-face and getting to know one another?’”

Luther-Hillman agrees. “We have students coming from all over and from different circumstances. This trip has me thinking so much about how different some of our students’ lives look under this polished surface. As educators, sometimes we have this ‘Why don’t they ... just?’ tendency. But there are so many reasons students may not be able to respond the way we expect them to, and trying to understand those reasons is really crucial."

Seeds of change in the classroom

Luther-Hillman, who organized the trip to Pine Ridge after spending a week volunteering with Re-Member the previous summer, says her experiences on the reservation have prompted her to look more deeply at what she emphasizes in her classroom and how. Since her earlier trip, she has been committed to offering a broader range of stories and perspectives — and to covering moments that receive little, if any, attention in the typical history classroom. “It doesn’t mean I change every topic, because lots of topics have validity,” she says. “But it makes me think about why we don’t teach certain topics.”

So, for instance, Luther-Hillman and her American History students spent time last winter examining Abraham Lincoln’s role in the execution of 38 Native Americans — the largest mass execution in our country’s history — and his decision to pardon 300 others who were slated to hang following the Dakota Uprising in 1862. “It’s a part of American history, and of Lincoln’s history, that nobody knows about,” she says. “Focusing on that meant we had to cut out a few of our Civil War lessons, but I would argue this is a part of that legacy. And it made the students think about how strange it was, that there is so much history they don’t ever learn about. It got them wondering, ‘What other things are we not finding out about?’”

Lazure, who has also been thinking about whose stories get read, is planning to include a wider variety of voices in her English classroom as well, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie’s funny, heartbreaking collection of stories about life on a Spokane Indian reservation. As she prepares a syllabus for her lowers, she’s considering how best to give them the background information they need to fully appreciate his stories. “It’s easy for students who read them without context to feel frustrated by the characters’ sense of hopelessness,” she says. Echoing Luther-Hillman’s words, she adds, “You get the questions like ‘Why don’t they ... just?’ Or ‘How come they ... can’t?’ I want to fill in the holes, so they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the outside factors contributing to those feelings of inertia and despair.”

The two women have been envisioning possibilities for courses that would culminate in a trip to the reservation — to be taught under the umbrella of Exeter Innovates, a newly implemented program that allows for the creation of cross-disciplinary and experiential elective classes. Over the course of the term, the readings and discussions would serve to give students the background knowledge needed to inform and enrich their experience on the reservation — filling in the holes, so to speak. “We don’t want to bring the students out there until they have a framework for understanding their experience first,” Lazure says.

As the interview winds down in her classroom, stuffy from the late August heat, Luther-Hillman outlines a few of their ideas: “What if there were a course on poverty and inequality in history, which would broaden out to include Native American and other histories? Or we could teach a class of Native American history and culture with a service component and focus our curriculum on direct service and the risks of doing more harm than good? The possibilities are really exciting.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.


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