A recent op-ed in the New York Times detailed a program originally developed by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) which is exactly the concept we of One Spirit try to follow in our efforts to better and more fully serve the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The UNHCR was originally formed in 1950 to help the millions of people displaced by World War 2, and has continued to become a vital part of humanitarian efforts to help refugees and people in need all over the world.
This has, of course, mandated a great deal of study into the causes and potential cures of poverty, and how charitable aid can be shaped in a way to help people overcome poverty and difficult living conditions as opposed to simply handing out food, clothing, and the like.
The concept they call the “Graduation Approach” is what Jeri Baker envisioned when she founded One Spirit. While this writer often mentions “helping the Lakota help themselves,” that is precisely the overarching idea of the Graduation Approach. Instead of merely handing out food, cash, clothing, or medical care---all necessary and useful in and of themselves---the idea is to offer other benefits which can help people raise themselves out of poverty.
Every month, One Spirit receives more requests for food and other aid on the Rez than our budget will be able to satisfy. Nonetheless, we soldier on, trying to meet these immediate symptoms of the plight of the Lakota as they face poverty, unemployment, substance abuse issues, and more. However, in addition to doing all we can to alleviate these conditions, we are continually trying to find ways to provide the Lakota with the means to raise themselves out of the poverty of reservation life and find their own way in society without sacrificing their traditional culture and values.
We have created several ways for the oyate to create their own income and path out of the rut of poverty. Possibly the signal achievement of the past few years has been the raising of funds, construction, and opening of the One Spirit Charging Buffalo Facility. This state of the art facility, now working toward USDA approval, allows the processing of buffalo and game meats for distribution on the Rez, with the future likelihood of the production of goods for sale to the public at large. Thus, instead of a handout, the Lakota can improve nutrition on the Rez, generate income, and provide employment on their own, instead of waiting for another handout. Thus, the Facility can help some Lakota “graduate” from poverty to meaningful and enriching lives.
Our organic gardening initiative has a similar goal. We try to encourage the Lakota to grow their own produce to help feed themselves, in addition to the monthly food program when we distribute food assistance to over 6,000 people. The principle calls to mind the old adage about giving a man a fish, and he eats for one day, but teach him how to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.
At the Allen Youth/Community Center, we have sponsored programs ranging from sewing to sculpting to painting to jewelry making to quilt making and more. These programs teach valuable skills that can enable people to make goods for sale. The Singing Horse Trading Post has been very enthusiastic in helping promote sales of some of these items, and we are always looking for other outlets to help artisans among the Lakota find ways to sell more of their creations. This also helps create pride and self-esteem in keeping old tribal traditions alive.
In these and other ways, One Spirit tries to help the Lakota find their own path out of poverty by fostering a feeling of dignity and pride, i.e. to “graduate” from poverty and hopelessness. We believe that this is the best way to perform charitable acts vis-à-vis simply handing things out without trying to also attempt to bring about a day when handouts are not needed. We think of this as a central concept that sets us apart.
Of course, all of the best efforts we can make would be impossible without your ongoing support, and we are always grateful to our loyal supporter-donors. We just wanted you to know that we are always trying to learn and find better ways to help the Oglala Lakota “graduate,” grow and find greater happiness, health, and joy in their incredible cultural traditions.