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Twila's Trip to Pine Ridge

I live in Orange County, California, which is considered by many to be paradise on earth. If you have spent any amount of time here, it’s easy to see why. Our climate is mild with temperatures remaining steady through most of the year. It doesn’t snow. When it rains, the rain is warm and cleansing. Most evenings, we are treated to some of the most spectacular sunsets on the planet with red, gold, purple, orange, pink and blue hues that bring many residents out of their homes or offices each evening to stand in wonder and to take photographs to share our corner of paradise with the rest of the world. I am truly blessed to be here and I try to practice gratitude for my beautiful surroundings and many blessings every day.

But I have not forgotten where I came from. I am a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe of Pine Ridge. My parents and daughter were born on the reservation. Life on Pine Ridge could not be more different than life in Newport Beach. Where in Newport Beach we see luxury and excess all around us, on Pine Ridge we see poverty and dwindling resources. For every palm tree in my new home, I see a patch of brown earth. There are few modern conveniences on the reservation and truly even having a home with electricity is a luxury known to few. I know I am miles away from my new reality but each time I visit, I feel a deep connection to my roots, to the earth and I feel the spirit of the great Sioux Nation flowing through my veins in every drop of my blood. I feel joined to my Sioux brothers and sisters and to the very land on Pine Ridge. I am reminded of the pride of our heritage and our beautiful, rich traditions which have defined our culture for generations and will continue to define them for generations to come.

My most recent visit was filled with joy and heartache. As I walked the familiar roads and neighborhoods, I could see little progress since the last time I was there. As I visited and spoke with the families who I have known for many years, I heard concerns that have been present for a long, long time. Will there ever be enough food to go around? Will we ever have electric power in each home? How will we stay warm this winter when we do not have enough firewood or resources to heat our homes? Will my children stay in school? Will we ever find work? These concerns weigh heavy on my heart as I know how long so many have been enduring these same struggles over things most of us take for granted every day. As I listened to these concerns, I was able to deliver some good news and let the families know that slowly, things are beginning to change.

I was able to let them know that I visited the building we recently purchased that will soon become True Thrift. When opened, this thrift store will be staffed by the people of Pine Ridge. It will not only provide ongoing employment opportunities but will also be the only place on the reservation where people can purchase clothes - something that has not been possible on Pine Ridge for a very long time. I was happy to report that the building’s renovations are well underway and things are moving along on schedule and I was pleased to see the hope creeping into people’s eyes as I delivered this news.

It was also my privilege and honor to be able to deliver household items generously donated by Bed, Bath and Beyond and infant formula and diapers to families who are experiencing the greatest need. By delivering these items, I was not only able to provide the comfort of meeting their most basic needs but also to let them know that there are people out there who know and care about their circumstances. As the people of Pine Ridge have felt lost and forgotten for decades, this is a very important step in restoring hope and faith in the human spirit on the reservation.

I was also able to meet with local artisans and dancers as we prepared for the First Annual True Sioux Hope Gala in Newport Beach. By involving the people of Pine Ridge in the Gala, we were able to bridge the gap between excess and the deplorable conditions on the reservation by joining both worlds in the same room as we unite for a common goal. This involvement also serves to reinforce to the people of Pine Ridge that they are no longer forgotten. As the people of Pine Ridge are able to witness one of the wealthiest communities in the country come together to support the mission of True Sioux Hope Foundation, it is my great wish that their hearts will not only swell with gratitude but also with hope.

During my visit, I spent some time shopping for and purchasing some beautiful Native American art done by residents of Pine Ridge. In the spirit of culture and the arts, I also had very productive and positive meetings with The Heritage Center and Racing Magpie to discuss how we may all work together to continue to forward the lifesaving and critical aid programs provided by True Sioux Hope Foundation. These organizations are close to the beating heart of the reservation and have the perfect opportunity to provide ongoing support to the Oglala Lakota and I look forward to reporting more about these potential partnerships in the near future.

Though the majority of my visit was positive and hopeful, there were also some somber moments. As many of you may know, Tribal President Bryan Brewer’s nephew, Vinnie Brewer, was recently murdered in broad daylight on the reservation. I attended services for Vinnie with Bryan and while we honored his life and his spirit, there was also an aura of sadness and mourning about the loss of this bright young man who could have gone on to implement positive change in the world had he had the opportunity to live out the normal course of his life. We are all deeply troubled by the recent increase in violent crime on the reservation and recognize that this is just one symptom of the hopelessness and despair felt by so many on Pine Ridge. Through True Sioux Hope Foundation, we are working diligently to install a sense of hope and confidence and to restore the spirit and pride of the Great Sioux Nation, which has been dormant for some time. It is our hope that as conditions improve on the reservation, these mostly gentle people will be able to once again live in peace.

As the visit wound down, I met with Barbara Dullknife, who is working with True Sioux Hope Foundation to open a Children’s Safe Home. Funded through the Foundation, this home will provide endangered children a safe haven until permanent, long-term placement can be found. This is just one of the crucial, lifesaving programs of True Sioux Hope and how our generous donors are ensuring a brighter future for the people of Pine Ridge.

During my last night on the reservation, I spent a few minutes alone watching the sunset over Pine Ridge. As I watched the sun sink low on the horizon and spread the last of its rays over the land that is so sacred to the Oglala Lakota, I saw many of the same colors that adorn the skies of southern California. Though the South Dakota air was colder and the sun sets at a different angle and over trees and plains instead of an ocean, I realized that the colors are still the same - a gentle reminder that though we may be many miles from Pine Ridge, each day we are still looking at the same sun and each of us has the same basic needs for health, shelter, food and safety. I am proud to be part of a community and organization that recognize we are all truly brothers and sisters under the same radiant, colorful sun and by caring for each other we can all thrive and shine as bright as the sunlight itself.

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