CRYSTAL LAKE – After his first trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Lloyd Mueller vowed to never return.
What he saw – children living in filth, surrounded by animal feces, sleeping in a dark, crowded basement – made his stomach turn, especially when he thought of his own grandchildren.
“I was so mad,” Mueller said. “First of all, I was mad at myself that I live in a country where I was so privileged and my fellow countrymen were living like this. I was mad at the government for not helping. I was mad at the parents for allowing that to happen.”
Mueller traveled to the reservation with a group from his parish, First Congregational Church in Crystal Lake. He works with Re-Member, a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the Oglala Lakota Nation on the reservation.
The American Indian reservation is made up of the poorest counties in the United States, with an 80 percent to 90 percent unemployment rate, according to Re-Member. Alcoholism on Pine Ridge is rampant – estimated as high as 80 percent of its residents. The rate of diabetes on the reservation is eight times that of the rest of the U.S., and suicide occurs at more than twice the national rate.
Trudy Medendorp, also of Crystal Lake, had similar experiences on her first trip with Mueller. Upon returning home, an intense wave of guilt swept over her.
“It was really hard to come back,” she said. “You are looking all around thinking, ‘I live this life, and these people don’t.’”
But once back in familiar territory, Mueller and Medendorp had time to reflect. And before they knew it, they were initiating fundraisers at their church.
Since beginning to visit the reservation in 2006, they have led annual trips to Pine Ridge with Re-Member. Their church has bought and distributed clothes and books for children at the reservation’s Loneman School, built by grants from the U.S. government for pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Through church fundraisers, First Congregational members have made “sizable” contributions to Re-Member.
Pine Ridge hugs the Nebraska border in South Dakota. Mueller described the reservation as “the size of Crystal Lake, spread out between Lake and McHenry counties.” Some liken Pine Ridge’s living conditions to that of a Third World country, “except here it’s in the middle of the United States and nobody knows about it,” Medendorp said.
Added Mueller: “Pine Ridge is the poorest county in the wealthiest, broke nation in the world.”
Land on the reservation is flat, dusty, dry and not cultivatable. Residents can expect to heavy snowfall in brutal winters.
When members of First Congregational Church visit, projects often include building bunk beds for children, skirts around trailer homes to battle the elements or outhouses because few have running water. Perhaps most importantly, visitors learn to respect the American Indian culture.
“I would like people to understand that land we’re on was theirs long before we were here,” Mueller said. “These people had a highly developed spiritual life, highly developed economic life and government system, a community and family system. But we branded them savages and heathens and attempted to eliminate them.”
Re-Member’s motto is “to put back that which is broken; to re-member.” Conditions on the reservation, the organization says, “represent a part of our world that is broken, a part that we seek to put back together.”
Now that Mueller and Medendorp’s culture shock has worn off, they are dedicated to the reservation and spreading their mission. The smiles of children sitting on new bunk beds have warmed their hearts. Among the shy Lakota people, they’ve seen hope.
It’s with Re-Member that they want to give a voice to the voiceless.
“Are we just going to turn our face and let the invisibility go on?” Medendorp said.