Hope Rises in a Place of Despair

Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota elder, salutes the heavens and the forces of nature near a sacred medicine wheel in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Photo by Bobby Caina Calvan)

Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota elder, salutes the heavens and the forces of nature near a sacred medicine wheel in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Photo by Bobby Caina Calvan)

By Bobby Caina Calvan | The Heartland Project

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a wide expanse of meadows and buttes in South Dakota. Bison roam the plains. Mule deer and wild turkey roam through the cottonwoods and pines. Bald eagles and other great birds glide through the pristine air. It is God’s country.

But it’s also a place with some of the country’s worst poverty. Suicide rates are high, particularly among Lakota youth. Most people can’t work because there really aren’t any jobs. Alcoholism is rampant.

To the outside world, Pine Ridge is a godforsaken place. For those who have heard of the reservation, the image that comes to mind is that of a small strip of liquor stores in the tiny enclave of Whiteclay, Neb. It’s common to see folks loitering for hours outside the town’s establishments, some passed out among the weeds that line the road.

Few people live in Whiteclay, just about a dozen people. But it has gotten outsized attention because of its role in supplying alcohol to the reservation, which is a dry reservation. National news media descended on the place, cementing the reservation’s reputation as a place of misery and addiction.

But Pine Ridge is not Whiteclay, even if it is now defined by it.

I had known about Pine Ridge, and I knew I wanted to do a story about its people.

Read in the Scottsbluff Star-Herald

Faith and Hope on the Pine Ridge


Native Americans are rarely written about in mainstream media. When they are, the stories are often about alcoholism and poverty. Even at Pine Ridge, those problems are difficult to ignore.

But I sought a different way to tell the story.

Outside of my immediate family, my closest relatives in the United States — my father’s first cousins — are one-half Filipino, one-half Navajo. My aunts and uncles (that’s the vernacular we use in Filipino culture) are deeply spiritual and deeply connected with their Native American heritage.

And I thought about them when I thought about how I would approach a story on Pine Ridge.

There is so much history that played out at Pine Ridge — from Manifest Destiny, the Cavalry, Christian indoctrination, the massacres at Wounded Knee. Go further back and the Lakota will tell you about the white buffalo woman who visited the tribes and promised to return and deliver the Lakota to everlasting prosperity.

Spirituality has long played a role in Pine Ridge, whether it took the form of sun dances and sweat lodges, or whether it took the form of the great Book brought in by missionaries.

For many, spirituality is a way of coping through the challenges.

I spoke to folks like Basil Brave Heart, a Lakota elder, who told me about all the hope amidst all the despair. I talked with the Rev. John Two Bulls who, like so many others, believes that a miracle will one day arrive to Pine Ridge.

The Rev. Dave DeMaro, a Roman Catholic priest, said miracles were already playing out — just by the way so many Lakota were facing the adversity in their lives.

I met a young man by the name of Travis Lone Hill, who was struggling with his addictions and self-confidence. But he, too, had hope. For Lone Hill, the road to sobriety meant following a path of salvation through Christ.

“You have to believe” is a refrain that I heard often, spoken by those whose faith are rooted in the cosmos and the great winds that breathe life to the Great Plains, and spoken by those who believe in a savior named Jesus.

The Scottsbluff Star-Herald published a 3,000 word story on Thanksgiving weekend. I’m currently writing a different version for the Omaha World Herald, Nebraska’s largest daily.

When I sat down to the write the story, I had amassed more than 45,000 words of notes. My colleague Luis Peon-Casanova, a broadcast professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, collected hours of videographed interviews.

This was a tough story to tell because there was so much of it to tell.