Pine Ridge: Rotary Clubs unite to help reservation

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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota has found a friend about 1,500 miles away.

And that friend, the Brattleboro Rotary Club, is enlisting others in its quest to help the reservation plagued with economic and health problems.

"We've really reached out," said Marty Cohn, past president of the Brattleboro Rotary Club. "We got our two clubs here in Brattleboro, but we have clubs in New Hampshire, other clubs in Vermont. Now we're talking to clubs in Switzerland and South Dakota. All to improve the lives of residents in the largest Indian reservations in the country."

Back in October 2011, Cohn was moved by an episode of "20/20" that focused on children on the reservation. An 11-year-old girl was asked by the show's host, Diane Sawyer, why she tried to commit suicide a year earlier. "What's the point of living?" she responded. Cohn turned to his wife. He said, "We have to do something."

To date, several initiatives have been completed by the Rotary Club. And now, other rotary clubs are joining the efforts to help Pine Ridge.

Unemployment at the reservation is at 80 to 90 percent and per capita income is at $4,000, according to data shared by Cohn.

Compared to the rest of the United States, the rate of diabetes is eight times that of the country, cervical cancer is five times that, heart is twice that and tuberculosis is eight times that. The suicide rate is more than twice the national rate and teen suicide is four times the national rate.

Alcoholism is another big issue. One in four infants are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects, according to the data.

Cohn, who just returned from a trip to Pine Ridge, said the reservation is about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island pushed together.

"Kids are killing themselves because they're growing up with such abject poverty and alcoholic fathers," he said. "It's just an ugly scene."

Rotarian John Willis, a professor at Marlboro College, acted as a guide to the Rotary Club. He had been out to the reservation before any of the other members. He told the club about the need for sewing machines.

"Back when the Lakota Sioux was thriving as a proud nation, buffalo skins were a big part of the culture and used for any big life cycle," Cohn said. "When we wiped out the buffalo, we being the U.S. government, they started using quilts. Quilting became a very big part of their culture."

In 2012, the club collected 12 used sewing machines. Brattleboro Rotarian Art Greenbaum drove them out to Pine Ridge. But they never checked to see whether the equipment worked. Six of the machines were broken, Cohn said.

The next effort proved more fruitful. Willis told the club about a radio station at the reservation that supplied the community with information and news. No newspaper is published at Pine Ridge, according to Cohn.

In 2013, the Rotary Club created a calendar promoting KILI Radio that was distributed to all of Pine Ridge's approximately 30,000 residents.

"It was a good way to make them aware there was this news for them," Cohn said. "Then we began this series of fundraisers."

The International Film and Food Festival was held in Brattleboro for two years, showing films directed by Native Americans. A menu was made of up recipes from Pine Ride. Altogether, the events brought in about $12,000. The money was used to purchase new microphones, a sound board and remote microphones for KILI Radio. The station considers itself "The Voice of the Lakota Nation."

In 2015, the Rotary Club collected 275 used laptops. Of those, Cohn said, 165 were refurbished by Sam Jones of the Burlington-based Computers for Change and sent to schools in Pine Ridge.

Some nursing students who had received laptops told Cohn they had helped them to graduate. Students also stayed and worked on the reservation.

"So they're helping their fellow residents at Pine Ridge," Cohn said. "They attributed part of their success, a sliver of their success, to the laptops we were able to get them."

Then came solar panels for KILI Radio. The Rotary Club was approached by a man claiming if he raised $3,000 and the club raised $3,000, they could turn that into $18,000 worth of solar panels. That effort cut the radio station's monthly electrical bill by about $2,500, according to Cohn.

Presentations about the different projects aiding Pine Ridge were given to rotary clubs in Vermont and New Hampshire.

"People were taking note how this club in Brattleboro was actively engaged in helping people halfway across the country, some of the poorest people in the country, and we were succeeding," said Cohn, who's talk inspired a club in Henniker, N.H., to collect about 6,000 pounds of quilting material.

In 2016, Brattleboro Rotarian Dana Lewis contacted fellow truckers and three tons of the material found its way to the reservation. Once the material arrived, KILI Radio announced it was there. About 120 Pine Ridge residents came and took it, according to Cohn.

One of the issues they were facing was the proximity of the closest store selling quilting materials. Wal-Mart is about 90 miles away, Cohn said.

There was little to no profit in quilt making. A quilt was costing $350 to make and residents were charging customers $350, Cohn said.

With free material, his club gave a woman $350 for a quilt she made. That enabled her to pay her heating bills through the winter, according to Cohn. The club then raffled off the quilt, selling $50 for $25 a ticket. That brought in about $900.

This year, more quilting material is being collected by the club. Fabric can be dropped off at Vermont Artisan Designs at 106 Main St. in Brattleboro. For more information, e-mail rob_szpila@yahoo.com.

Cohn and Brattleboro Rotarian Tristam Johnson filled up a suitcase with 55 pounds of quilting material as a sample of what they were gathering and went out to the reservation on Aug. 18. They met with Mary Horse Felicia and her brother Canupa Gluha Mani.

"It was miraculous," Cohn said. "Probably within a half hour, we were able to set up an organization where she is going to receive the quilting material and then distribute it to quilters, women who are quilting."

An accounting system will let the club know who gets the fabric and how much they received. Commitment letters will be signed, noting the purpose of the material.

Felicia told the rotarians about the importance of symbols and colors to her culture. When Cohn pulled out green fabric, he said, Felicia called it the color of a turtle, which carries around its home and has a hard shell to protect it.

"But it always sticks its head out and looks around 360 degrees," Cohn said, recalling the conversation. "It's very spiritual."

Another fabric he pulled out featured a hummingbird and a woman present at the meeting started talking very quickly in Lakota. Felicia translated.

"It turns out that this woman's name is Hummingbird," Cohn said. "So they were just looking at this like it was made to be."

Cohn also spent time visiting other parts of the reservation, staying one night at a trading post and going to KILI Radio where more solar panels are being sought in an effort to reduce electric bills even more.

Walking around, Cohn was able to witness the poverty himself. He said the living conditions are "just so different than what we could imagine here in Vermont."

Johnson, a Vietnam veteran, and Cohn spoke with other veterans.

"They had no jobs," Cohn said. "It was very difficult to get benefits and services after having served our country during Vietnam."

Another eye-opener was food on the reservation. Their grocery store, Cohn said, "we would call a convenience store." He saw produce that did not appear to be so fresh. He also watched a family eating nachos with cheese that "would outlive a nuclear attack."

"That was their dinner," said Cohn.

The experience only reinforced his conviction that the Rotary Club had to continue its efforts. Oddly enough, on the trip, he bumped into a rotarian from Switzerland who has been e-mailing him about helping out Pine Ridge. He also secured commitment from three rotary clubs in South Dakota, which will collect quilting materials for the reservation.

Cohn called the quilting project "exciting" because it's an idea coming from the residents of Pine Ridge.

"The goal here is not for us to tell people what they should be doing," he said. "We want to help them achieve whatever goals they're looking for."

There's talk of setting up a website to generate revenue to pay for more material. Cohn sees a potential for creating a cottage industry. But it's also about preserving the cultural tradition, he said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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