Ellen Nimmo visited Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with 15 of her coworkers from Veterans United Home Loans

My recent trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation was an experience that has forever changed me. I went with a group of 15 of my fellow coworkers from Veterans United. We went as participants of our company’s newest service trip option and partnered with an organization called Re-Member. This is the story, the bird’s eye view, of a week that changed me.

We landed in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Aug. 25. The Re-Member vans picked us up from the airport and within 90 minutes we arrived at our bunkhouse quarters and settled into our home away from home at the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Over the next five days we experienced some incredible things: tours around the reservation, work days filled with sunshine and sawdust, shared meals, educational talks from the Lakota community, beautiful sunsets, more stars than I’ve ever seen, music, laughter, tears, delicious fry bread, new friendships, sunflowers, puzzles, card games, magic and artwork for days.

Re-Member challenges its volunteers to learn, to respect and to serve the Lakota community and culture. They do this through intentional programming and through building relationships. During our time at the reservation, we built and delivered bunkbeds and outhouses, skirted trailers to keep out the winter cold and built wheelchair accessible ramps to doors that formerly had nothing but a cinderblock step in place. You can see the evidence of this work all around the reservation, and these services have helped build trust and lasting relationships within a community who rightly has doubts about the sincerity of “mission” organizations.

If that’s all I said, you might be inclined to think we went on a vacation with a couple of woodworking opportunities tossed in, but I haven’t gotten to the staggering statistics part of the story. Pine Ridge Reservation has the highest mortality rate in the entire Western Hemisphere, just under Haiti, making it home to the lowest life expectancy in the U.S. The life expectancy for men on the reservation is about 47 years with women slightly higher at about 55 years. The reservation has an unemployment rate hovering near 90 percent and a school dropout rate of more than 70 percent.

Before I went and stood at Wounded Knee, I knew the history. I knew the vague writings that had been glazed over in the history books of my youth. I even knew the history as told from the perspective of the Indians native to the American West in Dee Brown’s book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” thanks to a small group that was offered at Veterans United to help prepare us for the trip. But when I sat down in the grass at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and heard from a descendant of a massacre survivor talk about the hundreds of Lakota people who were brutally massacred by U.S. cavalry troops, I felt a shift. A change like the way a cloth towel dried and stiff from the clothesline becomes supple and useful underneath the warm soapy water of the kitchen sink. Changed by experience. Changed from the inside out.

Humility had a lot to do with it. The witness of humility. I’m not talking about lackluster doormat-style humility. I’m talking about bright, shining, powerful humility. It was this striking feature of the Lakota Elders and people like Dakota HighHawk — the man who spoke with us at Wounded Knee — that changed me. It shifted my perspective. Witnessing this humility shaped my vision of humanity from the inside out.

The Oglala Lakota people have undergone tremendous loss and trauma. The Lakota people were systematically stripped of their culture, language, spiritual practices and health. It is a heartbreaking history of what greed can do.

Many of my Veterans United coworkers had an equally impactful week on the trip and see hope in the future of Pine Ridge Reservation.

David Feygelman put it this way: “[I] gained a more diverse perspective of America. It was eye-opening, life-changing, all those words … it’s exciting to know that we’ll send more people out to Re-Member and make more connections. It wasn’t an easy week either. We were challenged in many ways, but it was so good.”

Another coworker, Colleen Burns, told me, “Visiting the historical sites made it so real and the effects of those events are still being felt. You can see it. Re-Member did an excellent job helping us build relationships, and I think it is their dedication to building relationships which has made their impact so lasting and significant.”

Finally, Maris Ashby simply said, “It’s been one of the most profound experiences of my life so far — it gifted me perspective.”

I couldn’t agree more with Maris. We were able to deliver a check from our employee-supported Veterans United Foundation in the amount of $10,000 to Re-Member. They are working on a new project to help bring healthy food choices to the people of the reservation and Veterans United wanted to help support that mission. It’s exciting to think our collective dollars are going toward something so meaningful.

"Mitakuye Oyasin" is a phrase in Lakota which means “all are related.” It’s often used to close prayers. If my week in the piney ridges, sun-soaked valleys and the white stone Badlands of South Dakota taught me anything, it is this: Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related. No matter who or what we look at today, I hope we have the courage to listen because it just might change our whole perspective.

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