Welcome Message

Welcome to "Words to Re-Member", the official blog of Re-Member.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


by Alex Hultgren, Re-Member Social Media Director

Many who have been to Re-Member will know Lawrence Swalley, a great speaker, cultural historian and pragmatic visionary for his Lakota people.  I recently had a chance to talk to Larry at length about what he sees as the challenges facing the Lakota and the impact Re-Member is having on Pine Ridge today.

There are so many different challenges facing the Lakota on Pine Ridge, but Larry starts with one of the fundamentals:  “We are suffering from cultural schizophrenia; too many people don't know their own culture as a result of the ban on – and demonizing of – our ceremonies."  The effects of this can be found everywhere.  “There are no more communication skills, only vulgarity.  For example, there were three young boys approximately 10, 9 and 8 who were very chaotic and had come to Sweat Lodge.  Once I had them in the lodge, I began to orientate them by explaining that they are not enemies to each other.  That they needed to treat each other with kindness, compassion, and to help each other.  It was explained that once they reach the age where they can manipulate the language, they are to undergo a certain type of training.  This ensures that they understand responsibility for each other’s conduct.  Following the orientation, they exhibited respect for each other and a willingness to sit still and listen.  Even though this was a happily functioning family unit, the parents didn't understand what was happening within their home," stated Larry.  

This passion for preserving the Lakota culture was one of the drivers for Larry to author a position paper, which he has submitted to both the Tribal Council and the Treaty Council (and which you can see Larry reading here).  Unlike other position papers that primarily dealt with self-preservation strategies and authority, Larry's paper focuses on two distinct issues plaguing the Rez today: Re-acculturation and a relief of abject poverty.  “To succeed independently, a society needs a culture, a language and a land base. The further away we get from real economic self-sufficiency, the harder it gets to keep our culture.  This is a fundamental problem that we need to address.” 

This cultural disconnect of the traditional Lakota ways, combined with the U.S. Government’s imposition of systems that are not a part of Lakota culture, manifests itself in ugly ways within the criminal justice system.  "For example, in Lakota culture, one is never allowed to make excuses for an ‘offense’ and it is a grave offense to make false accusations.  For us, you are guilty until proven innocent," states Larry.  He further explains the worst way this can come to light:  "The ones who suffer under ‘innocent until proven guilty’ or ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ are the children. The father goes free because a child does not have the ability to provide external evidence against him.”   

In spite of the frustrations, there are areas of hope that drive Larry forward.   "I am a part of the Tribe's Child Protection Team and have been working with Judges and even the Attorney General who have considered mandating the certain cultural practices like the sweat lodge for children who have been traumatized.”  There is also hope on some recent changes in the justice system.  “In the Youth & Family court, in 2007 a law was passed that the new standard for conviction would be ‘clear and convincing evidence’ (not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’).  So there are pockets that are encouraging,” stated Larry.

Larry sees the difference Re-Member has made at Pine Ridge, both for individuals and the leadership of the Tribe, but working in the economic conditions on the Rez can be challenging.  “People have definitely benefited from the work that is done by the volunteers – trailer skirting, outhouses, wheelchair ramps – they all make a big difference in the lives of the people receiving those things.” Larry pauses for a minute before continuing, “Unfortunately, some of the Lakota feel they are entitled to receive this, and sometimes volunteers get a lot of emotional attacks that are unwarranted, but unfortunately that’s part of the reality of a society living in abject poverty.  There is a lot of anger that just comes to the surface in unfair ways.”  Nonetheless, Re-Member’s effectiveness is being recognized by the local government.  “To show how effective Re-Member has become, even the Tribal Council and other Tribal entities such as housing, refer people to Re-Member when they need things done.”

I wrap up the conversation by asking Larry what volunteers can do once they return home:  “That’s actually a hard question to answer because so much of what needs to be done on this Rez is our own problem when it comes to acculturation.  As for institutionalized and decades old policy that has failed, Per Capita is a sure solution," which is one of the main tenets of Larry's position paper. "Neither the Oglala Sioux Tribe, or the Dept of Interior/BIA operates for the best interests of our people when it comes to management of our resources or money," Larry continues.  "One of the most important things is for people to get the word out.  Come back next year.  Learn about the issues facing the Rez.  Dig into the Court cases and the legislation.”

We sincerely thank Lawrence Swalley for continued support of Re-Member, and his time and candor in sharing his opinions on the issues facing the Rez. If you would like to contact Larry directly with questions about his position paper (or anything else in this post), you can do so here, and if you haven’t had a chance to see Larry speak, book a week with us today!  And as always, we appreciate your ongoing support! Comments/questions?  Please contact me at alex@re-member.org