Eight and a half hours north of Boulder is the Sioux YMCA in Dupree, South Dakota, a town of about 519. Dupree is in Kiebach County, the fifth poorest county in the U.S., and is a part of the Cheyenne River Reservation, home to the Mnikhówožu, Sihásapa, Itázipcho, and the Oóhenunpa, four subgroups (or bands) of the larger Lakota Tribe. The Cheyenne River Reservation is home to 20 different communities that are spread out through the reservation. The Sioux YMCA is located in Dupree, and has outreach programs that work with eight of the other communities. The Sioux Y is the only YMCA on a Native Reservation and has come to play an integral part of the local community serving as a much needed safety net for many of the young people.
In recent years, a partnership between the Sioux Y and the YMCA of Northern Colorado have formed a partnership through their Leadership in Training program (LIT). Last year, the campers, also known as LITs, made their way to Dupree for the very first time. Joining the ranks of thirty-two or so other LIT programs that come at different times of the year, the Boulder LITs provide a largely unknown and small community facing a swath of societal hardships with food, fun, and learning. They’re giving local kids the ability to have guaranteed staff at a Y where staff can be hard to come by. In return, the Boulder LITs gain the knowledge and eye opening experiences of a people who have long experienced injustice at its rawest form in this country.
The Sioux YMCA is led by CEO Andrew Corley, who took the position at twenty-three, making him the youngest ever CEO of a YMCA. Since taking the position and moving out from Boston, MA, six years ago, Andrew has become a well known figure within a community in which he is an outsider. He has gained the trust of the community, the elders, the kids, and he’s created a space that is much, much more, and far, far less, than most other YMCA’s. When most of us think of our own Y, we probably think of sports, camps, maybe a pool, and some space for communal events. We rarely think of social work, which for the Sioux Y is a common part of the job for staff. Some YMCA’s have access to lakes or the ocean, some have large gyms and other amenities that provide local residents the ability to fulfill their after-school, summer, athletic, and group or project needs.
YMCA’s are integral parts of a community but are not usually the central hub of a community. The Sioux Y, however, is nothing like other YMCA’s that can be found throughout the nation and the world. The Sioux Y is highly underfunded, understaffed, and yet, it’s become a central commodity of safety and help for Dupree. For the young people of Dupree, it’s become a lifeline of sorts. The small building that sits on a plot of land in the midst of the tiny town has no pool, no gym, no event hall. There’s a garden, some outdoor space, and some indoor space for kids to do their homework. Corley, explains, “We don’t really have the gym and swim model that Y’s might have throughout the country; we’re really [just] focused on developing and helping them graduate high school and find a career.” For many of the young people, the Sioux Y provides certainty. It provides them with at least one solid meal, it helps with their homework, and provides entertainment and learning through group activities.
“We’re looking at the hierarchy of needs,” Corley says. “People aren’t worried about getting in shape when they’re worried about the next meal that they’re going to be eating. We’re acting much more as a relief effort rather than a prevention effort.” The model that the Sioux Y works hard to attain is one that goes beyond what a YMCA is stereotypically known for. The hierarchy of needs for Dupree is supporting students who are facing a variety of different struggles. Because of it, the Sioux Y is one of the few safety nets that the community has. Poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance use, and mental health issues are common issues that run through the community; without the Sioux Y, some of these struggles the young people face may never come to surface and would largely go unnoticed.
Most YMCA’s fund themselves in two main ways: Memberships and Donations. At the Sioux Y, it would be difficult for many families to afford summer programs or afterschool programs for their kids, so 100 percent of the students are on a scholarship. Many pay the minimum of five dollars – the Y has to have some sort of membership fees – but these can also be paid through Y Bucks. Y Bucks are an institution specific, non-monetary value currency that is earned through acts of kindness; just five Y Bucks and the program is paid for. Because of this, everyone is welcome. Everyone can join, and everyone has a chance. Unfortunately though, because the Sioux Y is almost solely run off of donations, it’s ability to expand, change, and develop to its higher potential is dependent on what it receives, forcing it into a problematic business model.
The Sioux YMCA was established 140 years ago on what was once the Great Sioux Reservation. After the General Allotment Act of 1887 the Great Sioux Reservation was broken up into five small reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Upper Brule or Rosebud, and Pine Ridge Reservation. In the same year, the Dawes Allotment Act then allotted individual parcels to household heads. which allotted individual parcels to household heads in an attempt by the federal government to implement a European-American farming model. Each head received 160 acres with the rest of the land proclaimed as surplus and made available to non-natives for purchase. The land itself was, and is today, difficult to farm due to its arid conditions and when the first homesteaders took to the land they came with a mindset that tilting the soil frequently would attract moisture from the sky. This attitude paved the way for the Dust Bowl of the mid to late 1930’s in which many people had to abandon their land. Instead of giving the land back to the Lakotas, the Federal Government created the National Grasslands and gave much of the rest to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to control. The Federal Government also appropriated land during World War II to create the Badlands Bombing Range which was taken from the Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge. This land was transferred to the National Park Service after it was considered surplus.
Most recently, the Oglala, a subtribe of the Sioux, won States v. Sioux Nation of Indians in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that their land which includes the Black Hills of South Dakota had been taken illegal. The Federal Government offered financial compensation but instead the Oglala continue to insist that their land be returned to them. It’s certain that all tribes in the U.S. have faced similar injustices, and because of it, the foundation onto which they were forced by the Federal government has only aided in the socio-economic and personal hardships many face today.
In the U.S., there are 567 federally recognized tribes (thousands more unrecognized), and 326 Native Reservations, some as small as 1.36 acres, some as big as 15 million acres like the Navajo Nation. All of them face inequality, socio-economic turmoil, and struggles with mental health, substance abuse, and more recently, a spike in gang related crimes. Living conditions have been compared to the ‘Third World’ by Gallup International. 26.2% of Native Americans live under the federal poverty line according to the United State Census Bureau from 2016, the national rate is 14%. The median household income in 2016 was $39,719’; the national was $57,617. According to the CDC, in 1999 the suicide rate for Non-Hispanic AIAN (American Indian or Alaska Native) was 4.6%, in 2014 it was 8.7%. The Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakoka on the Pine Ridge Reservation made headlines in 2015 via The New York Times when nine young people committed suicide within four months, another 103 had attempted suicide in the same period.
Mental health issues are an epidemic throughout the country and unfortunately some communities struggle more than others and have less access to necessary facilities. It’s not to say that larger wealthier communities don’t have the same struggles, but that in small towns that are faced with a large variety of different socio-economic and personal struggles, the problems are far more evident. Because of the community in which the Sioux Y functions, their staff tend to take on a role that knows how to identify key signs of a mental health crisis. Corley says, “My full time staff are hired on to have more of a social worker mindset. We’re interacting with the demographic that suffered generational historic trauma so we need to have a healing mentality when we approach any of our issues.” Among the issues the community of the Cheyenne River Reservation faces, a frequent one that comes up amongst the Sioux Y members is mental health. Corley says, “It’s just a higher concentration in the youth we serve, not to say that this isn’t prevalent in other areas across the country but it is definitely something we’re dealing with on a more magnified scale.” For many of the kids who do struggle with these sorts of problems, the Sioux Y is often the first safety net to catch them, “when action needs to be taken and after that we will we always reach out to to the department of social services,” Corley explains. For Dupree, there just aren’t the same social services that are available in Boulder, and even if there were, private healthcare can be expensive and the federal programs can be too slow to react. Therefore in an attempt to expand, the Sioux Y also works with other partnerships in order to better serve students facing difficult struggles. Corley says, “We partner with the local schools to access their school counselors as a mental health professional, we have a partnership with the university of southern California where we’re developing a curriculum to have a suicide prevention training”. For the young people of the Cheyenne River Reservation, the Sioux Y is a safe space, a place that provides them safety and help when they require it. The Sioux Y can often serve as the first red flag that’s lifted, and often that can make all the difference.
BOCO V Dupree
The difference between Boulder County and Dupree is stark. Boulder is a bubble of wealth, natural beauty, large corporations, and lots and lots of PhD’s while Dupree is poverty stricken and has low living standards, low educational attainment, and low corporate investment. These are of course only what’s on paper, the first glance, the stereotypes. Both communities have similar struggles, similar highlights, and similar communal desires. They want a future for their young people, and they want a safe community. Even in Boulder, there’s poverty, there’s mental health issues, there’s inequality, and homelessness but overall the quality of life is higher, and that’s the image perceived by the outside. This certainly doesn’t help the problems that Boulder faces, but it does make Boulder an attractive place for businesses and people, therefore maintaining a constant influx of economic movement and growth. Dupree’s stereotypical image does not. Just finding people to move out to Dupree, South Dakota is a challenge. For many, Dupree is a place unplaceable and probably largely unknown. It’s a town where not too many people move to, pass through, or even think about it, a combination of forces that only exacerbates the struggles the town now faces.
The Leadership in Training (LIT) program is bringing awareness to Dupree, doing so makes people like me write about and you read about it. With more awareness comes more potential action and with more action perhaps will come change. Boulder LITs will spend several weeks prior training and taking on mock counselor roles for other local YMCA programs to get them ready for the trip. The program’s new director, Sam Owens, is responsible for the training that LITs will go through and the general logistics of the course. When asked how Owens will confront the many differences between students growing up in Boulder and those in Dupree, Owens points toward intent and conversation. Owens says, “I’m planning on bringing a lot of [emotional awareness] to the program because that’s something [that] I feel really strongly about: understanding [and] empathizing with other people. I think it’s one of the most important things that we can provide.” For the weeks prior to their Sioux Y trip, Owens says the focus will be team building, cultural awareness lessons, and getting to know one another. Their intention is to build a strong unit that functions well together, that is aware of others emotional states, and that can support one another through the process. At the end of the five weeks prior to their trip to the Sioux Y, Owens wants the LITs to have a fully loaded toolbox at their disposal that will allow them to know exactly what to do in any situation. Whether it’s running a group, doing an ice breaker, calling a check-in, or managing the chaos of a day well spent running around, Owens wants the LITs to be able to handle it no matter what.
The Boulder LITs will also take lessons to understand the historical importance of the Lakota to that region. They will learn about the institutionalized racism that the Lakota have faced, the Boarding Schools that many native Americans were forced to attend in an attempt to rid them of their identities, the land grabs by the federal governments, and all the factors that have contributed to the current conditions that often plague Reservations. This is vital regardless, but plays an important factor when comparing the two communities, especially when they’re entering a less fortunate community with the intention of bringing help and lending a hand.
It can be easy to write off volunteer trips as problematic due to an inherent savior complex that comes with them. There’s problems right here in Boulder and we should be addressing them. Yes, the LITs are benefiting from the trip, but so is the Sioux Y, and perhaps without the LITs, the Sioux Y wouldn’t be able to function. The Sioux Y isn’t changing the problems Dupree is facing, but it is alleviating some of the pain, and groups like the LITs from Boulder, are doing their part to release some of the pressure that can build up in a small community that is suffering. What could potentially be problematic is the notion that these groups are the cause of change and betterment, that the sole focus on Dupree is that of suffering and problems. Of course it’s vital that others realize the problems that Dupree and the Cheyenne River Reservation faces but so is acknowledging and sharing the strength, cultural identity, and highlights of the community. Solely placing a depiction of victims of historical and modern discrimination and injustice can forget the perserverance, strength, and creativity that each individual posesses. Just as Boulder must continue to flaunt its beauty it must also acknowledge its faults.
Without external support the ability for the Sioux Y to support its young people would be largely diminished, directly affecting the livelihood of its members. One problem that may arise is how students coming from Boulder may react to kids who live in Dupree. For the Boulder LIT program, it’s important to go in with an open mindset, it’s important to have discussions, and it’s beneficial to spend time with the members of the Sioux Y. Although the trip is about bringing volunteer time to a place that is largely struggling, there is a difference between coming in with the mindset of saving people and helping people. Jenna Capnerhurst, a Senior Director for the school age programs at the Y in Boulder focuses on conversations about privilege. For Capnerhurst, LITs who grew up in Boulder will have eye opening experiences because of how people in Dupree live, talking about the privilege that comes with that can guide students to have healthy realizations that benefit them and others.
For Capnerhurst, the hardest part was saying goodbye. Laughs were had, tears were cried, lessons learned, and relationships were formed, and when the Boulder LITs had to go, everyone felt sad. For the Boulder LITs, they experienced some of the worst parts of society. They met those who call Dupree and the surrounding area home, people with creative personalities, determined spirits, and all the love, care, compassion, and empathy needed to have a strong and successful community. For the Sioux Y, they gained friendships that just happened to also provide them with fun, food, learning, and their time. For the Sioux Y, their YMCA is just like any other YMCA, and for many of the kids, the focus is on the fun, not just on their struggles. It must be understandably difficult for the Sioux Y kids to see people come and go, and it must certainly be hard to live in the conditions they find themselves, but they are strong, and their Y is strong, and with the help of others they’ll continue to have a central beacon providing the young people of the Cheyenne River Reservation the fun and safety that they all deserve.