Spring break for Visitation students is often a time of relaxing and re-energizing. But for nine students who traveled to South Dakota to work with kids at a school on a Native American reservation, the week away from school was also a time for thoughtful reflection.
The first thing that Molly Byrne ’18 and Natalie Arndt ’17 noticed as they drove onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was the poverty. It’s desolate, the girls said, but also beautiful and so different from their DC cityscape. When they started helping with the seventh and eighth graders at the Catholic school on the reservation, the girls started to garner perspective about their own education, and they quickly realized how lucky they are.
“I grew up reading and with books in the home,” Molly said. “These kids need more opportunity in their community. You can see that some kids are just not motivated. They are desperate because they feel there is almost no point.”
The girls saw firsthand what statistics show. Jobs on the reservation are scarce and of any racial group, native peoples suffer the highest rate of poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28.3 percent of single-race American Indians and Alaska Natives lived in poverty in 2014, compared to the national average of 15.5 percent. Unemployment for Native Americans that same year was 11 percent, whereas the national average was 6.2 percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
The girls were struck by what they saw and they discussed the history that lead to the Native Americans’ present circumstances, namely, the arrival of Westerners who took up arms against the Native people.
“We took everything--their land, their identity, their purpose, their power--and then we said, ‘OK, here is your land,’” said Natalie.
For Visitation students, college is a given, but not so for the kids on the reservation. According to the Census Bureau, in 2014, 18.5 percent of single-race American Indians and Alaska Natives earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to the national average of 30.1 percent.
Natalie and Molly said they really bonded with the Native American students. “You end up loving the kids so much,” said Natalie. “On the surface, the kids seem like any kid, but then they start telling you about the problems they have at home. I am really worried about what will happen to them.”
Now, both students feel a call to become teachers. “It’s hard to believe this is America,” said Molly.
The girls are thinking about starting a club that would raise money to help students on the reservation attend a private high school there. Going to a good high school and then college could give the kids on the reservation more opportunities.
“There is so much need,” Natalie said. “But the kids are so resilient.”