Millions of people each year make the patriotic pilgrimage to see Mount Rushmore, a monument made in celebration of U.S. history. But few are aware that within 100 miles of this attraction there exists a reminder of the darker side of that history, a side that most Americans would rather forget.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to members of the Lakota Sioux Native American tribe. Over a century ago, European settlers slaughtered the Sioux’s ancestors in gruesome battles. The settlers made treaties and broke them, leaving reservations of land for these native people. Over a century later, the reservation system still stands. One product of this system is USF Junior, Darrell Red Wing who calls Pine Ridge Indian Reservation home.
Growing up on the reservation, Red Wing experienced what most would consider a hard life. Surrounded by poverty, with 49% of the population below poverty level according to the 2000 U.S. Census, Red Wing said the reservation felt like a third world country. “It’s one of the ugliest kept secrets in America,” he said. “I knew people without phones or electricity. I knew a family that slept on the floor. And they didn’t even have a floor, it was just dirt.”
The Lakota Sioux seem to never have fully recovered from their unjust past. Pine Ridge is the poorest of the Indian reservations, located in the second poorest county in the United States. Its unemployment rate hovers around 80%. It is plagued by the problems of poverty, such as gangs, drugs and violence. “We’re a broken tribe,” Red Wing said as an explanation for these troubles. “We’ve lost touch with our culture.”
Red Wing saw many of his childhood friends give in to the dominant lifestyle of dealing and using drugs and joining gangs for protection. Though he got in the occasional scuffle, for the most part Red Wing steered clear. “I just grew up with a good sense not to do all that,” he said. He attributes his success to the strong role modeling of his mother and grandfather, who didn’t do drugs and made sure he didn’t either.
Staying clean paid off for Red Wing. After two years in Oglala Lakota College, a school located on the reservation, Red Wing was able to transfer to USF with full scholarships from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
People who identify as Native American make up the smallest minority at USF, at about 1% of the student body. This is in line with the national average. According to the American Indian College Fund, the number of Native Americans earning bachelor’s degrees is growing, however they are still underrepresented.
Red Wing chose to come to USF because he wanted to experience city life, but also get the natural beauty of the beach and Golden Gate Park. He also enjoys USF’s campus. The most memorable part of his first campus visit was the high tech computer science lab, which he now spends a lot of time in as a computer science major.
But attending USF has broadened his horizons beyond the world of computers. “Since coming here, I’ve gotten to take a lot of other classes like philosophy and sociology,” he said. One of his favorite classes he is taking is Contact Improv, a modern dance class in which partners work together to improvise a dance. “I like not knowing what you’re going to do next,” he said.
As in dance, Red Wing does not know what life holds for him next. He may go to graduate school if he can secure funding and considers staying within the computer realm, or he may do something else.
For now, he is content just to be here. Red Wing said he feels a great sense of community at USF. “The people here are somewhat close, like the tribe,” he said, “And everyone’s really nice. Here, you don’t always have to watch your back.”
Red Wing said at the reservation, you had to always be on alert. So much as look at someone the wrong way and they might want to pick a fight. Despite all this, Red Wing still misses the reservation and thinks of it fondly. “I miss the family and the closeness, and the culture. Even though there’s gangs and fighting, the people you connect with are like your brothers and sisters,” he said.
“Even though it is how it is, I still love it with all my heart.”