Suburban Students Reach Out to Crow Creek Reservation
Every June, students from the Brother’s Keeper club at Barrington High School, in Barrington, spend one week at the Crow Creek Native American Reservation, in South Dakota, listening to the stories of the Lakota Elders, playing with the local children and fixing homes and shelters. The students are trying to alleviate the suffering of a culture struggling to maintain their identity.
The statistics for the Reservation are devastating: 80 percent are unemployed; 63 percent suffer from alcoholism; 73 percent have diabetes; and 27 percent are homeless. Suicide rates for men between 15 and 24 years old are seven times higher than anywhere else in the world. For women in the same age bracket, rates are two times as high.
Brother’s Keeper began in 2000 as a project of high school Guidance Counselor Ray Piagentini. While participating in a native ceremony, he experienced a vision instructing him to bring the Lakota and white cultures together by teaching about the nature of life and death—something that Piagentini says is not taught in schools.
Originally a club of 15, Brother’s Keeper membership has grown to more than 60. Throughout the year, members learn about different aspects of the Lakota culture at meetings and by volunteering at local powwows and fundraising events. Piagentini observes the participation and interest level of students during this time to determine which are selected to go to the reservation in June—typically around 40—up from eight in 2000. Two years ago, Piagentini also began a smaller trip conducted during Barrington’s first few days of winter break, when winter necessities such as coats and holiday toys are distributed.
In selecting students, Piagentini says he looks for those with, “A pure heart, clean mind and clear eyes.” Over the past seven years, Brother’s Keeper raised $35,000 to build a house for one of the women on the reservation. In addition to members of her own family, she houses and feeds children on the reservation that do not have a place to stay. Money is still being raised for that home as well as a daycare center to be built near it.
Mitakuye Oyasin is a Lakota phrase that means, “We are all related.” One of the club’s goals is to bring the message to the western culture of suburban Chicago that every aspect of nature is connected, and therefore should be treated as such. BHS senior Paige Dunseith remembers, “After spending a week together, we became family with the Native Americans. As we held hands on the last night, an encompassing energy circulated among us, defining us as a family. That bond felt on the last night was one of the strongest bonds I have ever felt with others. We were one. We were Mitakuye Oyasin.”
The program has won multiple awards, but Piagentini shakes his head at their mention, saying, “Awards and honors don’t matter. I just hope students get an awareness of themselves and the world, fully understand Mitakuye Oyasin and realize they can live a life of significance and service.”
Students do not spend a “typical day” on the reservation, as every day brings a new experience. Only two aspects are set in stone: a daily trip to the nearby St. Joseph’s Indian School for swimming and showers, and an outing to Walmart on the last day, where the local participants are given a sum of money to purchase what they would like. Often, they choose clothing, food, and toiletries over toys.
Sixteen-year-old Terry Curley who lives on the Crow Creek Reservation hesitates when asked how Barrington’s Brother’s Keeper program impacts him. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s impacted me in such a positive way. It’s the best part of my year.”
Madeleine Lebovic is a junior at Barrington High School and has visited the Crow Creek Reservation twice with Brother’s Keeper.