The Pine Ridge Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., is home to a proud nation of Oglala Lakota Indians. But throughout Pine Ridge's sprawling 2 million acres, the estimated 30,000 inhabitants live in conditions akin to third world countries [see below].
The Rev. Keith Titus, formerly the pastor of Lakeshore Community UCC of West Olive, Mich., first came to the reservation in 1997. Titus is the executive director of RE-MEMBER, a nonprofit, UCC-supported organization located on the reservation devoted to recalling the treatment of the Indian people by the U.S. government and repairing that relationship.
Titus and his wife, Ginny, spend most of their time living on the reservation in a pole barn that has been remodeled to house them and some 1,000 volunteers who come to the reservation, one week at a time, each year.
RE-MEMBER coordinates visitors from adult mission groups, youth groups, corporations and schools who come to Pine Ridge for "work vacations," with an emphasis on cultural exchange. Through this relationship-building effort, volunteers become advocates in solidarity with the Lakota people.
Titus said that from his very first trip to Pine Ridge, he knew that housing renovation and construction was most needed.
"Often there are 20 to 30 people living in homes that are 400-800 square feet," says Titus.
But RE-MEMBER was just getting off the ground in 1997, and Titus and his team of volunteers realized that they did not have the expertise or the cash flow to take on building houses.
Instead, they focused on the next greatest physical need: beds.
'Bunk Bed Blitzes'
"When you have that many people living in a small space, you need vertical bedding," says Titus.
RE-MEMBER has focused on providing a warm, comfortable place for everyone to sleep on the reservation, and has designed a practical, sturdy and economical bunk bed. About half of the beds are built in REMEMBER's workshop; the other half are cut, sanded and stained at "Bunk Bed Blitzes" held offsite (sometimes several states away), then shipped to Pine Ridge to be assembled and distributed.
"If you count every bunk bed as two beds," says Titus, "we've put up 3,700 beds. And there are still more to be built."
The need for beds has begun to taper off, but Titus is realistic. "Half the population here is 18 and younger," he says. "We're not going to run out of clients."
Building, maintaining trust
Volunteers who come to Pine Ridge are put to work building beds and renovating homes, but Titus says that is only part of the reason why they come.
"The most important thing we do is to form relationships with the Lakota people," he says. "Over the nine years we've been operating, we feel we've established a certain level of trust with the people."
Maintaining that trust is important to Titus, who says volunteers are not allowed to explore the reservation on their own, and must exercise restraint when taking pictures of the Lakota people. He says RE-MEMBER wants to be helpful, not intrusive, to the lifestyle of the Lakota people.
RE-MEMBER programming cultivates the cultural immersion that goes on during the week-long work camps. Most work camps are for teens and adults, but one session of "Family Week" is offered each summer to include children ages 6-12. Each day, the families come together for "Wisdom of the Elders," sharing indigenous quotations from all over the world.
At the end of the day, the families gather again to "unpack" their observations and experiences from that day.
Next summer, Ginny Titus will also offer two week-long programs for returning volunteers to further examine the Lakota spirituality, drawing parallels between their spirituality and Christian spirituality, and marking the differences.
"I have great admiration for the Lakota spirituality," Keith Titus says. "In the Lakota culture, and I suspect in many of the indigenous cultures, they have no word for religion or spirituality or art or music because it is such an integrated part of their lives. They don't think of it as something separate."
Titus will be handing over the reigns of Executive Director soon, so that he can spend more time visiting regional and national church meetings, as well as local parishes.
For him, this means missing his friends at Pine Ridge while he takes on the necessary task of spreading the word about RE-MEMBER. "We haven't come up with a [new] title for me yet," says Titus, smiling.
"Maybe it should be something like 'Ambassador-at-large.'"
While Titus is traveling, Tom McCann, a self-described "recovering lawyer" and longtime member of Plymouth UCC in Des Moines, Iowa, will be taking over as Executive Director.
McCann came to Pine Ridge two years ago and says it changed his life. He returned as an intern and now looks forward to taking a more active part in the organization.
"Our greatest mission is what we do with volunteers," McCann says. "It helps put the folks out here back on people's radar screen."
As McCann meets more friends through RE-MEMBER, he becomes more connected to the experience of the Lakota people.
"They talk about 'walking in two worlds,'" says McCann. "Here, you really get a sense of that."
The Rev. Keith Titus is coming to your area in 2007. He'll be traveling in the Southeast in Jan.-Feb., the Northeast in April and May, and the Northwest and West in the fall. Contact RE-MEMBER at 877/205-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like him to speak to your church or group.
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QuickFacts: Who broke the treaty?
The Oglala Lakota Indians are a nation with a beautiful culture and a rich spiritual heritage, but they are also a people who must live, every day, faced with these conditions:
The lowest life expectancy in the U.S. and the second lowest in the western hemisphere.