As Navajo communities in the US reel from the impact of COVID-19 we ask what can be done to fight back.
The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota covers approximately 2.8 million acres (1.13 million hectares) and is home to almost 20,000 members of the Oglala Lakota people. Within the reservation’s borders is the Badlands National Park, a vast expanse of karst table mesa formations, and a dozen small towns and settlements.
On the quiet main street of its largest town, also named Pine Ridge, there is a new supermarket, a Taco John’s fast-food restaurant, a gas station and a Pizza Hut.
There is also the Holy Cross Episcopal Church facing the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which is a stone’s throw from the Joint Presbyterian-Lutheran Ministry and an adjacent retreat centre that is used for Christian-themed gatherings and for handing out food parcels. The churches and other Christian buildings, a hodge-podge of structures built in the 1960s and 70s, look dated and worn.
Further down the broad main street is Higher Ground, the town’s sole cafe. Last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it belted out Christian rock and pop music to a stream of largely non-Indigenous customers. Many of them were Christian missionaries – a few of the younger ones were on their first visit to the reservation but many were middle-aged and returned year after year.
A short distance further out of town is the Potter House Church and a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Churches, retreat centres and missions dominate Pine Ridge’s streetscapes and bucolic badlands. In fact, there is one church here for every 388 people – making it second only to Indianapolis in the United States (with a church for every 289 people) in terms of the number of religious organisations per capita.
A history of abuse and cultural cleansing
But Christian missionaries and churches hold a grim place in the historical consciousness of Native Americans.
In the late 1800s, boarding schools were set up and run by religious orders with the sole remit of assimilating Native American children into the Christian culture of the white settlers while attempting to destroy their connections to their own culture, languages, traditions and families.
For almost a century, Indigenous children were taken from their homes and sent to one of the hundreds of boarding schools across the US and Canada. There, they suffered starvation, neglect, illnesses such as tuberculosis, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Many children did not survive the schools.
In addition, the US government policy of forcible assimilation led to thousands of Native American children being adopted by white families during the 1950s and 60s.
But despite the decades of abuse and cultural cleansing, today, Native American children still find themselves surrounded by missionaries.
‘They don’t see what they’re doing as wrong’
Davidica Little Spotted Horse is a 47-year-old musician who lives in Oglala, a town about 15 minutes’ drive north of Pine Ridge town. It is home to about 1,300 people and the Re*Creation & Worship Center, the Oyate Concern Missionaries and the Our Lady of the Sioux Church. With their brightly-painted wine and teal coloured roofs, the structures – some of the largest in the community – stand out against the mainly ageing trailers and mobile homes inhabited by residents.
She recalled the first time she saw missionaries on the reservation. “I was driving along with my ex-husband in Oglala. It was a Sunday morning and I saw all these cars parked together,” she said. “I asked him what was going on and he said it was a Christian service gathering. I’d never heard about this before.”
She was not immediately concerned and, like many other parents in the community, allowed her children to play at the Re*Creation and Worship Center, a mission church with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God group of churches, for the simple reason that it had a playground.
But then, one day, her daughter, who was about 10 years old at the time, came home complaining of pain in her knees. She had been made to kneel on the gravel, she said.
“Then someone from our community called and told me [the centre] had a wall lined with certificates of baptisms, and they saw my kids’ names on them,” she recalled.
“I asked my kids and they said there was a small wading pool where the children were told to lie down and they were dunked in.”
“They had no idea what had happened.”
Little Spotted Horse said she confronted the centre’s leaders and was asked to leave. Her children never went back. The Re*Creation and Worship Center declined to respond to Al Jazeera’s queries about whether baptising children without their parents’ permission was or remains among its activities.
“They don’t see what they’re doing as wrong,” said Little Spotted Horse. “They think they’re entitled to do this weird stuff.”
These incidents prompted Little Spotted Horse to begin investigating what churches and missionaries were doing across the reservation.
She started speaking to members of her community and asking them to share their accounts of incidents with religious groups.
“About 130 people flooded forward,” she explained. “They said that there were incidents of sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse. Picking up children without permission, their parents not knowing what is going on.”
She relayed the story of a mother who allowed her child to be taken by missionaries to play with other children at a nearby religious venue, but when the child was not returned at the prearranged time, she panicked, calling the police and organising a search. The child was returned several hours later, but the missionaries left without ever explaining the reason for the delay or being spoken to by tribal police.
Little Spotted Horse also said she believes missions are using images of Native children to fundraise for their own organisations.
“Honestly, I think all the churches are here just to make money because they do the poverty porn thing – ‘Look at these poor Natives, give to us, give to us, we’re going to save them.'” She exhaled and looked down at her infant granddaughter who was trying to wriggle free from her arms.
Her activism culminated in a 2017 tribal ordinance that requires groups coming to the reservation to report to the tribal authorities and adhere to background checks and drug testing for individuals working around children. “If they don’t, we can call the cops and have them escorted off the reservation,” she said.
‘Thanks for asking’
Duane Yellowhawk, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council’s law and order committee, estimated that there are 70 to 100 churches on the reservation.
“I can’t exactly say, but there’s a lot of churches around,” he said.
An additional 30 to 45 missions descend on the area every spring and summer, he explained.
The missions – which bring people from across the US to the reservation – take Lakota children swimming, camping and on other trips while introducing them to Christianity. Some missionary organisations also work on much-needed infrastructure projects, including building ramps for wheelchair users and painting homes.
But Yellowhawk said he does not believe the churches or missions are required to get permission from the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council that runs the reservation before they arrive.
The situation is unclear. While the law and order committee is responsible for enforcing the ordinance, Yellowhawk said during his term he has not seen any background checks provided by Christian organisations. Little Spotted Horse, however, maintains that it is the law.
Other tribal council members contacted by Al Jazeera declined to comment on the role Christian organisations play in life on the reservation.
While a number of groups carry out important infrastructure and relief work, some reports of disturbing incidents have emerged. In March 2019, a priest with the Holy Spirit church who had previously worked on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe located 160km (100 miles) northeast of Pine Ridge was sentenced to six years in jail for sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl in Rapid City, South Dakota, 65km (40 miles) northwest of Pine Ridge.
In a 2019 article, the newspaper Indian Country Today reported on the case of T, a woman from Pine Ridge who was allegedly sexually abused as a child over four years by a member of the Re*Creation and Worship Center. T declined to speak to Al Jazeera for this article, citing acute discomfort with dredging up the past.
“When she finally came forward because no one believed her, [tribal police] said they couldn’t prosecute because it was her word against the guy’s word,” said Little Spotted Horse, who is familiar with the case.
Eric Sutton, the lead pastor at the centre, told Indian Country Today of the alleged perpetrator, “I fired him as soon as I heard about the charges. The last I heard, he was in Pennsylvania.”
Queries put to Sutton by Al Jazeera via email as to whether background checks are currently being performed on volunteers working around children were answered with: “We have no comment. Thanks for asking.”
‘Is Jesus Christ your saviour?’
Travelling around Pine Ridge before the pandemic forced it to close its borders to visitors for a time earlier this year, the presence of missionaries and their apparent evangelising could be seen everywhere.
At the local Pizza Hut, about a third of the customers in a one-hour period were non-Native. Many wore T-shirts bearing the names of mission groups and churches.
At the Higher Ground cafe, a middle-aged white woman spoke to two Native high school students. “Is Jesus Christ your saviour?” she asked them. She spoke intensely to the children, who disclosed which high school class they were in but otherwise remained mostly silent. “Jesus Christ never did anything wrong,” she stressed before buying them a drink, giving them some money and leaving.
Calls later made to the cafe’s owner requesting comment on missionaries’ activities on their premises did not receive a response. Emails sent to a number of mission groups asking whether Lakota children they or their volunteers interact with receive money for any reason also went unanswered.
A ban on proselytising
The Oglala Lakota Nation Wacipi and Fair celebration usually held at the pow wow grounds on the outskirts of Pine Ridge every August (but cancelled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic) is an important social, cultural and spiritual gathering for Lakota peoples from across the US. Hundreds of Lakota gather over three days to watch and take part in drum-beating, dance and regalia competitions and events. The sound of Lakota ceremonial songs fills the still South Dakota air. Next to the pow wow grounds are a rodeo event, a carnival, and a campsite where friends and families chat late into the night.
But here too, the missionaries were prominent last August. Next to the main entrance was a stand for the Jehovah’s Witnesses by which a well-dressed, young white man and a young Native woman stood. When Al Jazeera directed a question to the woman, the man interjected, asking that press questions related to their work on the reservation be directed to their website. Emails to the Jehovah’s Witnesses general counsel in New York, asking whether the organisation thought it appropriate to appear at this traditional, spiritual Lakota event, went unanswered.
Of course, many of the Christian groups aim to help a community where 60 percent of the children live under the poverty threshold (compared with 21 percent nationally), where life expectancy is the lowest in the US and where, in August, a suicide emergency was declared following reports of 177 attempts by young people to take their own lives in the first eight months of this year. But at the heart of these problems and others is the intergenerational fallout of white America’s efforts to eradicate Native American identity – something that many missionary groups appear to be replicating.
Although not all organisations are strictly missionary-orientated.
The Re-Member organisation is a non-profit based 10 minutes east of Pine Ridge town that expressly points out in its volunteer preparation package that proselytising is forbidden. It also warns that clothing depicting religious imagery should be avoided.
“Although many of our volunteers do come from churches, we are very upfront in our terms and conditions, pre-trip information, and on-site orientation, that Re-Member is a not-for-profit volunteer organisation,” said Cory True, an executive director. “Re-Member insists that all volunteers adhere to our policy against any proselytising whatsoever during the course of their visit.”
According to its Facebook page, this year Re-Member installed several ramps, 14 outhouses and delivered close to 70 beds to communities on Pine Ridge, spending approximately $25,000 on construction material in the process. In addition, some of the items for sale in its online store are the work of Lakota artists.
Yet Re-Member is not a secular organisation. It was co-founded by a preacher in 1988, and many of its donors and contacts are religious institutions. None of its current officers or board of directors is Lakota.
Every year it brings about 1,200 volunteers, some as young as eight years old, to the reservation, charging adults nearly $600 per trip – money it says is used to pay for food and accommodation. It puts significant effort into fundraising and, according to public records, in 2018, it had an income of more than $515,000 through “programme service revenue” and received a similar figure in the form of “contributions and grants”.
‘As long as you say you love Jesus’
Local community activists say the presence of well-resourced Christian groups creates and feeds an unequal power dynamic and relationship of dependency with Native children. And when the weeklong mission experience ends and volunteers go home, local children are left to return to their everyday lives.
What is more, some say missionaries are outbidding local efforts to help people in need. “You have these churches coming in here, building what they call ‘poverty porn’. They got all this money to do all kinds of stuff in those communities,” said Milton Bianas, who is Oglala and works with male criminal offenders through the Oglala Sioux Tribe Victim Services. “They got more connections; they can get in there and do a lot more than we can do – as long as you say you love Jesus.”
Incarceration rates among Native Americans are twice that of white and Hispanic Americans. Bianas said in many communities on Pine Ridge, his is the only tribal programme doing culturally and spiritually relevant work in the jails. “The other 10 programmes are all different denominations of Christian groups,” he explained.
Last year, Little Spotted Horse embarked on a needs-test project that, she said, will take her to every house on the reservation to, in part, document residents’ religious affiliations. She says the information would better inform people’s needs but also offer insight into whether the presence of so many Christian groups is merited. While the pandemic has halted that effort for now, as well as forcing missionaries to stay away this year, she expects to pick it back up once the COVID-19 emergency passes.
“Ninety-five percent of our reservation is traditional. Ninety-five percent of us are not Christians,” she said. “They’re going around saying we’re evil devil-worshippers, that something is wrong with us, that we don’t believe in Christianity, so they need to save us. It’s really disgusting. They want to come here to supposedly save us.”
“People here are poor,” added Little Spotted Horse. “People will go to the churches and revivals [meetings organised to recruit new converts] because they know that afterwards, they give them food.”
Still, the pandemic-fuelled travel restrictions this year that have prevented missionaries from coming to Pine Ridge have led to some positive developments.
“We haven’t had to be watching out for the kids or heard complaints from people [about the missionaries],” said Little Spotted Horse. “The Tribal Council has stepped up with aid and support for people, which goes to show that we can do this without having the missionaries here.”