A portrait of hunger on Pine Ridge — Part 6 of 8

Wanblee residents Carla and Timothy Zimiga, both 56, have dealt with food insecurity on the Pine Ridge reservation since they were children. Not much has changed since then — for them or for children growing up on the reservation today. Hunger is endemic on Pine Ridge and hope is increasingly rare. But people like the Zimigas do what they can when they can to help those in need. This, they say, is also endemic on Pine Ridge, where a strong sense of community is the most valuable natural resource. Pioneer photo by Adam Hurlburt

WANBLEE — Carol Two Crow has always lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and hunger has been with her her whole life.

She grew up in Kyle, but now lives in a HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) housing addition in Wanblee with her two sons, both of whom are unemployed. Jobs are scant on Pine Ridge, where the unemployment rate hovers near 80 percent. Rapid City, the nearest potential employment hub, is more than 200 miles away round-trip.

Two Crow stands tall, maybe a few inches shy of six-foot. She wears a loose-fitting plain white t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, a pair of faded blue jeans, and black soccer sandals. Her silver hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail. Choppy silver bangs frame her face, which is one shade paler than you imagine and shows the topographical evidence of 70 years of emotive life under the South Dakota sun.  

Growing up on the “rez,” Two Crow says she and her family “didn’t go ‘hungry’ hungry.” Her father found seasonal work at ranches and farms from time to time, which helped out. But food has always been an issue, an everyday struggle, she says.

There’s a popular misconception that American Indians living on the reservations receive a glut of government assistance and have everything they need. Two Crow says she wishes this were true, but it’s not.

Two Crow and her family, like so many others on South Dakota’s reservations, rely heavily on food stamps and the meager amount of commodities high in fat, sugar, and preservatives provided by the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) to low-income households on the reservations once a month. The USDA offers a similar program to low-income households of any background across America.

“You get a pound of hamburger and a small roast and a package of chicken and a bag of rice and bag of macaroni. (For us,) all that lasts maybe a couple of days,” Two Crow says of the commodities program. The family supplements the rest of their dietary needs with food stamps, but they don’t go that far either in communities like Wanblee, where local stores rarely carry fresh produce, meat, or other healthy foods. Of the items they do sell, some carry elevated price tags due either to increased delivery costs for servicing the remote communities, “predatory opportunism,” or some combination of both, depending on whom you ask.

Two Crow says the prices at the local grocery store are so expensive that for those with reliable transportation, it’s often cheaper to drive the 200 miles round-trip to buy groceries at the Walmart in Rapid City. This isn’t a viable option for many on the reservations.

Thankfully, traditional Sioux values of brotherhood and helping those in need remain strong on the reservations, and those who find themselves with extra food share with those in need. Two Crow says there are several people who’ll call her when they’re coming up short and she’s happy to help out when she can. Likewise, when Two Crow and her family find themselves in need, there’s a network of people she can call for the same help.

Jerome and Theresa High Horse are at the top of that list. The Wanblee couple is in charge of operations for the Wisconsin-based non-profit Families Working Together, which focuses on improving conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This organization covers the expenses on shipments of food and other necessities from the Rapid City-based non-profit Native American Heritage Association (NAHA).

NAHA distributes an average of some 250,000 pounds of food per month, obtained through Feeding South Dakota, to the Pine Ridge, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud Indian Reservations.

Two Crow says a lot of her family’s food comes from NAHA. She estimates that more than half of Wanblee’s estimated 600 residents rely heavily on donations from the organization.

“I’m so thankful. And I’m thankful for Jerome and Theresa because they think of everybody,” she says. ”I consider myself lucky.”

Jerome and Theresa High Horse both grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation and have been married for 44 years. They raised seven children of their own who are all working and quite successful. But they’ve helped raise many more in Wanblee and continue to do so, feeding hungry neighborhood children who stop by and even sheltering them overnight from neglectful homes drowning in alcohol and drug abuse.

The couple hooked up with NAHA and Families Working Together shortly after moving back to Wanblee in 2010, upon Jerome’s retirement from his engineering job in Texas.

Even before Jerome took that Texas job in 2001, the High Horses had a history of public service. Theresa, 61, has degrees in drug and alcohol counseling, elementary education, and human services. Jerome, also 61, historically worked in health care.

Jerome worked in the engineering department with Indian Health Services in 1989 in Wanblee. In that position, he worked toward an overhaul of the Wanblee Health Center. It took eight years, but the facility expanded from a two-room outpatient clinic into an eight-room clinic with full dental, adding an additional 12,000-square-feet to the original 3,000-square-feet. The expansion was completed in 2000.

“I had the opportunity to make things better around here, and I fought tooth and nail to do it,” Jerome says. “I’m not the type of person that wants to be put up here above everybody because that’s not what’s in my heart. I know what it’s like. I grew up here. I know all the hoops and hurdles you have to go through growing up.”

Hunger was a problem on the reservation when Theresa and Jerome were kids, but Jerome’s family supplemented their diet with wild game they’d hunt themselves on the vast rolling hills and sporadic pine stands on the reservation. He says much of his giving spirit comes from his father and grandfather, who would cut up and distribute meat from the animals they’d hunted to neighbors in need.

That sort of thing doesn’t happen often anymore. Dire economic conditions on the reservation keep many residents from obtaining hunting licenses, fishing licenses, or game tags, not to mention the necessary equipment for hunting and fishing. And all too few residents have successfully pulled off a garden to grow their own vegetables. This has led to near total reliance on the few — and expensive — grocery stores on and around Pine Ridge as well as the scant helpings of commodities supplied through the USDA. NAHA and other food donation programs like it are a godsend for those on the reservations.

Hildreth Milk, a short, feisty 67-year-old former social worker and Wanblee native who began volunteering with the High Horses, Families Working Together, and NAHA two-and-a-half years ago says she can’t imagine how bad things would be without the food donations from those non-profits.

“I think if it wasn’t for this, they wouldn’t make it,” she says of her friends and neighbors on the reservation. “If Jerome and Theresa didn’t do this, I don’t know how we’d survive. I know I wouldn’t.”

Beyond the economic destitution on the reservations, Jerome believes hunger issues are exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction, specifically methamphetamine use. He says these problems stem from people’s desire for escape from the third world reality of life on the reservation, the lack of employment opportunities, and the racism they encounter outside the reservations.

“When I grew up, the problem was alcohol, but it wasn’t alcohol everyday. But now … People, I don’t know if they just give up or what it is, but our children suffer a lot with methamphetamines on the reservation,” Jerome says. “What I see is children not getting the nourishment they need, and it makes it hard for them to function in school. There’s attendance problems, there’s lack of motivation in school. The teachers on the reservation have a really hard time when the kids come in and they’re going to sleep, or the first place they go to is the dining room because they haven’t eaten anything yet that day. If it weren’t for the school, many of our children wouldn’t eat three meals a day — but that’s only from September to May.”

This isn’t new by any means. Wanblee residents Timothy and Carla Zimiga, both 56, saw school as a practical source of food in their younger years.

“I used to just go to school because that’s where the food was. I didn’t even know I was learning anything,” Tim says.

Carla’s experience was a bit different. When she moved back to the reservation at 16 she faced serious food instability issues. She says a friend suggested she call the school and tell them she needed help with food, and the school let her eat there even though she wasn’t a student there. She would eat there every weekday, then would head to work at a factory from 5 p.m. to midnight. “I would eat at the school because I didn’t have anything else.”

There’s currently no backpack program in place in Wanblee to help feed kids during the summer months. Jerome and Theresa tried to start a backpack Program at Wanblee’s K-12 Crazy Horse School, working with the South Dakota Food Bank, but the money wasn’t there to make it happen. Student population at the school hovers between 300 to 400 per year.

“We would need at least a minimum of $10,000 to run a weekend backpack program per year,” he says. “Realistically we don’t have the money to do that.”

The only school on the reservation Jerome knows of with a backpack program is the state-funded Rockyford School, which can afford to set up such a program. But he and Theresa and so many others in Wanblee won’t give up on helping the community they love rise above the problems that to many, both on and outside the reservations, seem nearly insurmountable. And if the goal is to brighten the future, their efforts must be aimed at the future of the community.

“For as long as I can I’m going to do what I can to help in the hope that these children can understand that you can have a life, that people do care”

For information on how to help fight hunger on South Dakota’s reservations visit https://www.familiesworkingtogether.org or call (608) 332-9311; visit http://www.naha-inc.org or call (540) 636-1020.

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