UCC minister: Smiles bring hope to Lakota Reservation in South Dakota
There is a border stop on the west side of the Missouri River off route 212 which keeps travelers from carrying the pandemic onto the Cheyenne River Reservation. But Bryan Nurnberger passes through with a quick hello and the gathering of contact tracing information. The border patrol knows and supports the work he and others have been doing for the past eleven years on the reservation under the auspices of the Simply Smiles organization. Year after year since 2009, UCC church groups and countless others have come to build homes and provide a summer camp for the children of the small native community of La Plant, S.D.
Simply Smiles has seen a lot of support from the UCC — more than $5 million in gifts from churches and congregants, with more than 5,000 volunteers coming to help build children’s villages in Indian Country and at a similar site in Mexico.
The vision for the Cheyenne River Reservation has been carried out through Nurnberger’s ongoing dialogue with Lakota people who have lived there for generations, envisioned first in a tent next to what was previously a ramshackle building filled with unsorted donations of clothing along a forgotten highway. There now stands a community kitchen, greenhouse, pow wow ring, children’s playground, bunkhouses and more. Volunteers have come, sometimes over and over again, with church and community groups to help grow the project.
Young people, who come first at the age of fifteen, learn to pour concrete and install sheetrock and then return again and again to create relationships and a haven of possibility for children who otherwise would possibly be adrift without the structure the school year provides. Adult volunteers offer their time and expertise but also learn the personal histories of the Cheyenne River people. Children who taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools far from their parents. Men and women who served in the military, only to return to often unspeakably challenging lives.
These Lakota elders share memories and knowledge of the land where wild turnips and chokecherries flourish. Drumming ceremonies still mark important passages in the community. The elders now share the vision for a community which keeps children on the reservation rather than sending them off the reservation as foster children to live with non-Native families where culture and traditions are lost. For over ten years the Simply Smiles team listened, learned and partnered with efforts both large and small to improve the lives of the children. Creating the scaffolding of relationship for what will become the Simply Smiles Children’s Village.
One group of Lakota grandmothers held this vision for years. They did the work of preparation with tribal elders until Nurnberger, the Lakota Conference of the UCC and the Rev. Gordon Rankin, then the South Dakota Conference Minister, joined with them.
Now, on property leased from a Native association of the UCC stands the first completed foster home for Native children.
Guilford Community Church got involved six years ago after General Synod repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, which had taken lives, property and rights from indigenous peoples. We wanted to do something to help dismantle the intergenerational trauma experienced by Native families. We learned that Simply Smiles was working with children. We were 22 in the group the first time and many of the kids returned for the next few years with me. The combination of learning about indigenous history, making meaningful connections with kids and building homes was a perfect match for high schoolers. The pandemic last year cancelled summer camp but we still managed to some online summer camp activities.
On Feb. 1, the second of six homes was completed and the search is on for foster parents who will live in the homes with the children. Next will be a community gathering place. Other homes will follow, forming a village. It has all taken place step by step, volunteer by volunteer, donation by donation, held together before and throughout the pandemic by the vision, commitment and the labors of many.
It remains to be seen if volunteers will be invited back in the same way after COVID-19. In the meantime, the legacy of relationship and the power of financial contributions are providing hope for the children of the Cheyenne River Reservation.
The Rev. Lise Sparrow is the former pastor of the Guilford Community Church, United Church of Christ in Guilford, Vermont.
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