RAPID CITY, South Dakota: At 3 am this morning it was 14 degrees below zero in Porcupine, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Darvis Weston sat outside in his truck warming the engine just in case someone’s car broke down or someone needed help, so that he could go immediately to assist them without waiting for his car to warm up. And someone did need help. A lone brown-gold figure trudging through the bitter cold had six more miles to walk before reaching home when Weston spotted him and gave him a lift in his warm truck.
“He was frozen,” Weston said.
Weston is one of ten volunteer Guardians serving the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. “We assist in any way we can,” he said. “We deliver gas to drivers who run out of gas. We change tires. We tow broken down cars when it’s 18 below zero and the wind chill is 30 below and it’s too cold outside to wait for a tow truck, even if you could afford it.”
The Guardians also assist ambulance and emergency management programs in case of fire or flooding. They provide traffic control at accidents, funeral escorts, and security service. They do road checks all across Pine Ridge Reservation every day just to make sure no one is stranded or needs help which helps save time for law enforcement.
The Guardians chop and split firewood and deliver it to the elderly and disabled free of charge. One Spirit recently gave them a chain saw for this effort. But all other tools and vehicles belong to the individual Guardians themselves. They are not doing it for the money.
Weston explained, “It’s all volunteer and it’s something we all like to do. It’s a service to people that can’t afford to pay for services.” He continued, “What we do is, we do tribal assistance and make sure you get home safe, especially in this cold weather. If your car breaks down on the Rez, don’t be afraid to call. It’s not a $400 service call. It’s free. We don’t charge. Everything is voluntary.”
It all started three years ago when Jerrold Mesteth was driving home from his midnight shift at work. The temperature was below zero, his phone was dying, it was after midnight and his car broke down. Other vehicles drove past but no one stopped to help. After what seemed like a very long time and a very dangerously cold time, a policeman finally stopped and Jerrold called his cousin.
After that experience, instead of looking for help, Mesteth decided to become the help. A month later he bought a pick-up truck, a tow chain and a couple of gallons of gas to keep on hand for people who get stranded like he was.
He asked his friend, Eric Thunder Hawk, if he’d like to help too. And the Guardians were born. In three short years the group has grown to ten committed volunteers all over Pine Ridge Reservation and serving Rosebud too. They are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
All ten Guardians are former law enforcement or correctional officers. They include one man from Rosebud and nine from Pine Ridge. They are not gang-related.
“But we never ask for money but if we tow you home and you want to donate money, then you can pay us what you think it is worth. Then we give it to Jerrold and he puts it in his little box so, if you need gas the money for it is there,” Weston said.
He paused and added, “If you come to the Rez or ever need help on or off the Rez, we’re here 24 hours a day. We have people work shifts, so don’t be afraid to call. And it’s free.”
Three nights ago a woman was stranded on the Rosebud Reservation when her car broke down at 1 am. The temperature was 15 below zero. A Guardian rushed to her rescue.
This afternoon he is delivering some jackets to various districts to keep on hand for people like the woman three nights ago. The jackets will better help people warm up after they have been stranded in the cold. The Guardians are also collecting warm blankets in order to have enough on hand in their office in Porcupine and in all the other districts throughout the Reservation.
Every day they get calls for help. As Jerrold Mesteth says quietly, “We’re always around. You might not see us all the time, but we’re there helping.”
Report by Liz Gauthier