BY MARCY SHORTUSE - This is Part II of a two-part series about a proposed mission of a driven man, island resident Lew Hastings. See last week’s edition for Part I.
When Lew Hastings tells people about his upcoming mission to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, many have one question in their minds: Why?
If all goes as planned, and funding is available, Lew hopes to be able to answer that question with proof one day. The director of the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce and his family have one goal this summer, and that is to help the Native American Lakota tribes that reside on the reservation. Whether it’s by swinging a hammer and pounding nails helping out with home improvements, or establishing exactly what specific needs they can help the people with, they are doing everything in their power to make this trip a reality.
“Why would I want to take my family over 2,000 miles to a place that covers nearly a million-and-a-half acres, mostly agricultural land with a particularly punishing growing season? Raw materials and natural resources are hard to come by and there is a climate that is bitterly cold in the winter months and unbearably hot during summer months.
“Because I have to. Someone has to.”
The residents of Ziebach County, where the Cheyenne River Reservation is located, have little help to change their ranking as the poorest county in the nation. With little luck in farming the arid land, no natural resources, no casinos and very few jobs, the people suffer greatly on a daily basis. The average life expectancy of a person living on the reservation is 48. Childhood poverty rates are 71 percent.
One ray of hope is the area’s Habitat for Humanity branch, called “Okicihyapi Tipi,” (translated as “people helping people build houses”), has a huge load to shoulder.
“There is a housing shortage on the Cheyenne River Reservation that has more than 500 families in need or at best in overcrowded conditions,” Hastings said. “Sometimes 25 to a dwelling. Speaking to Tribal Chairman Kevin Keckler this week confirmed that the overwhelming need on the reservation is housing. The Tribal Planning and Housing Department has experienced recent budget cuts and the funds they have allocated for infrastructure are woefully inadequate for the demand.”
The program’s director, Larry Fiddler, lives on the reservation. He explained to Lew what one of the biggest problems about living on “borrowed” land is.
“One thing Larry said to me really stands out,” Lew said. “This land is in trust to the U.S. government. That means the people who live there will never own that land. So, a resident like Larry finishes paying off his property with the knowledge in his head that it can never truly be paid off.
It has to stay in the hands of the tribe, a tribe that has no money to buy it from him, so it’s worth absolutely zero.
“How do you tell people what their motivation is if they don’t own what they’re making money to pay for? You get a job, you get a paycheck to buy a house ... and, oh yeah, by the way, you still owe on it. You can never really own it. It’s a slap in the face.”
But there are still ways to make life more tolerable, and to give more hope. Sometimes simple repairs to a home can do just that.
“We have to start somewhere,” Lew said. “The tribe’s chairman said there are things that have happened in generations you can’t fix in three or four years. Why wouldn’t the residents of the reservation band together and help one another rebuild? The simple answer is that they are, to the best of their ability. Being the poorest county in the nation, resources are scarce and the isolation of 1.28 people per square mile makes for difficult travel and transportation of materials, especially in inclement weather. The communities are small and far between but the sentiment and will are the same as in our small community here on Boca Grande and small communities around the World. We protect and help our own.”
The total land area is 4,266.987 square miles, making it the fourth-largest Indian reservation in land area in the United States. Its largest community is North Eagle Butte. The Land Acts of 1909 and 1910, opened up the Cheyenne River Reservation to non-Native settlement.
Lew says he hopes to help Fiddler and his HFH organization in the short time he will be there. Right now, how long he will be gone depends on one simple thing – how much time he can afford.
“I would like to be there longer than a week ... but I still have to pay the bills,” he said. “Right now the need transcends my financial situation. This is something I have to do. I have to do it. This is my sacred hoop. And right now that sacred hoop is broken ... I have to do something about that.
“And when I lay my head down on my pillow each night, the call returns. It gets louder and louder. The message is clear ... it’s time to give back. Time to settle up for the blessings bestowed upon me and my family. And as a family we will attempt to do just that. This is our country, and Americans are in need. If not us, then who?"
If you would like to join Lew and his family, or help make this journey possible in other ways you can reach him at (941) 855-0522.View More images >>
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