By Isabella Cruz
Photos courtesy of Mary Slender & Melissa Healey (FLHS)
TEEEM. The Empathy, Equality, Entrepreneurship Mission is a non-profit organization that students in Fair Lawn High School’s Women’s and Gender Studies classes get to work with this year. TEEEM focuses on helping communities inside and outside of America achieve their ideal quality of life. This year, Women and Gender Studies will be working with the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, where the Lakota nation resides. We will be working with them to ease some of their material and financial needs as identified through fundraisers and drives. Fair Lawn High School has also partnered with One Spirit, an organization that has worked with the Pine Ridge reservation for over 15 years. Throughout the year, we will be working closely with two incredible women: Jerri Baker, the director of One Spirit, and Starr Cuny, a representative from the reservation to further understand the needs of the Lakota nation. Starr and Jerri have expressed many concerns for the reservation. A group of students along with Jerri and Starr have identified our focus for the year; we will be building a place for children to socialize and have fun.
Life on the reservation is a bit more difficult than ours. Pine Ridge is about the size of Connecticut. It is on the border of Nebraska and is home to almost 19,000 people. Grocery stores are an hour away. Due to the locality of the site, winters on the Pine Ridge reservation are harsh and unforgiving. Children often refuse to go to school, and some even drop out, because there's simply no way to commute to and from school in the winter. If students wish to use the bus to commute to school, they must wake up extremely early in the morning, as the location of their homes is far from the bus stop. But the trouble extends past the children, life expectancy for men on the reservation is 48, and for women it’s 50. Rates of alcoholism, unemployment, diabetes, and teen suicide are far above the rest of the Americas.
But all this to say, the Lakota Nation is rich in many ways; culture, and strong familial support is to be admired. On the Pine Ridge reservation, everybody is family and part of something greater than themselves. They often gather for powwows to celebrate their culture and to carry on traditions to the next generation. Women play very active roles on the reservation. They will often create star quilts to commemorate milestones in one's life, such as deaths, births, graduations, marriages, and more. The star quilt depicts an eight-sided star called the morning star, the brightest star in the morning sky, and is a symbol of respect for one's journey through life. Even though Native American culture is very different from American culture, it is equally beautiful and diverse. While their lives are different from ours, it is not any less beautiful or happy.
Already, the Lakota nation has been able to achieve amazing things with the support of One Spirit and TEEEM. Pascack Valley high school sent over a thousand pounds of donated clothing to Pine Ridge. Their goal was to support students who did not have enough clothing or who did not have the appropriate clothes needed for winter time in South Dakota. Their donations were later sent to the Okini (the Lakota word for sharing material goods) Market, a thrift shop located very close to Pine Ridge, so residents of Pine Ridge don’t have to travel such a great distance to buy new clothing. There is also a meat processing plant named the Buffalo House which was built by One Spirit to provide more jobs in the community, and ensure that their produce is handled with utmost reverence.
This year, Fair Lawn High School’s Womens and Gender Studies classes will be focusing on the health of the Lakota nation. As previously indicated, diabetes rates on the reservation significantly exceed that of the rest of America, in part because there is no facility for children to exercise and socialize. Partnered with Wardlaw and Hartridge School, Fair Lawn will raise money to build a playground and court where kids can come to socialize with each other, and an opportunity for adults to exercise after work. Fair Lawn High School’s Women and Gender Studies classes would like the community to know that they will be having different fundraisers throughout the year. Some examples include sewing drives, bake sales, and coin pledges for winter sports. One Spirit, TEEEM, and Fair Lawn are extremely excited for this year and hope to work hard to support the Lakota Nation.