Rapid City leaders visit Pine Ridge Reservation

One and a half hours and 90 miles one way.

That’s about the time and distance from Rapid City to the Pine Ridge Reservation that many residents drive almost every week on a federal road with cracks and bumps, and no street lights.

City, county, business and other community leaders made the drive Thursday to gain a better understanding and form partnerships with organizations, agencies and the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council. The Human Relations Commission-Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors (HRC-MOA) and Council member Laura Armstrong organized the trip with the Red Cloud Indian School.

“Our goal is that we will do better when we know better,” said Karen Mortimer, chair of the HRC-MOA. “We know that in Rapid City we have 25% of our population at any given time is Native American. We have an obligation and an honor to be able to get to know our brothers and sisters from the reservation and that also live in Rapid City.”

Mortimer said some members of the group were surprised to hear anecdotally about how many people come from the reservation to Rapid City for basic needs like reasonably priced food, clothes, car maintenance and weekend activities.

Tashina Banks Rama said she drives to Rapid City once a week for groceries. Rama is the executive vice president of the Red Cloud Indian School.

She said she hopes the leaders who visited Thursday can start to look past stereotypes that may exist in regard to Native Americans and the reservation.

“This community is a beautiful thriving community and there are people here who are working every single day, we live here, work here, pray here, but we also travel,” she said. “As much as we appreciate coming to Rapid City and into the areas beyond our community here, I hope that people can appreciate us coming and being a part of the community.”

Mason Big Crow, treasurer for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said reservation residents spend around $5 million annually in Rapid City, including $1.7 million on vehicles and $1.5 million during the annual Lakota Nation Invitational.

Oglala Sioux Tribe Council member Garfield Steele, who is one of the representatives of the Wounded Knee District, said many of the decisions the council makes affects the reservation and decisions the tribal council makes are made with Rapid City in mind.

Rapid City Council member Bill Evans said the trip was informative from the history of Red Cloud Indian School and its Lakota Immersion program to the structure of the tribal government and history of the Wounded Knee Massacre.

“I think this would be an important thing for people from all aspects of the community to experience,” he said. “Perhaps we can do more of this with leaders from a hospital, other governmental agencies in town, even our own school district. You could perhaps learn some things from what they can see here.”

Evans said he was shocked by the lack of economic resources and plans to look into why it’s not more developed.

Armstrong said during the visit to Red Cloud Indian School that there could be an opportunity for a public-private partnership to get people from the reservation to Rapid City and back during the week.

Val Simpson, regional manager of public relations and corporate citizenship for Black Hills Energy, said she came on the trip to learn more about the nearby community and because Black Hills Energy is hoping to be a more inclusive, diverse and equitable organization.

She said she grew up in the Black Hills and has been to the reservation before, but strongly believes in doing what people can to learn about and bridge cultures.

“I always encourage my friends and colleagues if they’ve never had the opportunity to come to the reservation, it’s just an hour and a half down the road from us,” Simpson said. “I think they will learn a lot if they have the opportunity to come. This has been a fantastic day of learning and making some new relationships.”

At the end of the trip, the group reflected on their experience and each chose a word or a few to describe the trip. Some said humbling, welcoming and bridge-building.

City Attorney Joel Landeen said it seems like a lot of traffic travels between Rapid City and the reservation.

“It would be good if more people from Rapid came down and came to the reservation,” he said.

— Contact Siandhara Bonnet at siandhara.bonnet@rapidcityjournal.com