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Native Relief keeps on truckin’

Native Relief Foundation volunteers, including Gloria Wilson and Esther Gopher, sort and pack donations Nov. 20 headed for the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
Native Relief Foundation volunteers, including Gloria Wilson and Esther Gopher, sort and pack donations Nov. 20 headed for the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

Hoping to bring Christmas cheer to a community in need, members of the Native Relief Foundation (NRF) ignored unrelenting rain Dec. 5 to load a 26-foot rental truck with boxes of donated clothing, blankets and food earmarked for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Designated driver and NRF member Bobbie “BJ” Billie left Hollywood, stopped in Big Cypress to collect more donations and then hit the road for the 2,150-mile trip to South Dakota, a journey she has made several times before.

Billie has divided her time between Big Cypress and South Dakota in recent years and serves as the NRF liaison between the Seminole and Sioux tribes. Her friend Kristie Thompson met the truck when it arrived in Eagle Butte and helped Billie deliver goods to the communities of La Plant, Cherry Creek, Takini, Bridger and Dupree. The task took three days.

“I wasn’t expecting so much; I couldn’t believe how packed the truck was,” said Thompson, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “I haven’t seen so many smiles in a long time. That’s what the Seminole Tribe has done for mine. Usually when we get donations, it is recycled stuff. These were nice things; the clothing didn’t have holes and wasn’t worn out.”

Jobs are scarce on the 4,267-square-mile Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. The unemployment rate is 88 percent and only a third of the nearly 16,000 Tribal members have high school diplomas. Median annual household income is $22,094, but most individuals earn less than $10,000, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

South Dakota has the highest poverty rate in Indian Country, where nearly half of Native American families live below the poverty line. Many of the 13 communities that comprise the reservation have no running water.

The reservation is so large that it takes four hours to drive from the east to west boundary. The most isolated community of Bridger, population around 130, is 60 miles from the nearest grocery store.

“Cheyenne River is more remote, so not everyone hits those communities,” said NRF founder and spokeswoman Gloria Wilson. “It’s already snowing there.”

Average temperatures in January range from 4 to 26 degrees. During the delivery, the temperature was about 20 degrees with 50 to 70 mph winds. Despite the cold, residents in each community welcomed the truck’s arrival.

“They were already giving us hugs before we even opened the truck,” Thompson said. “There were a lot of community members who needed food so they were excited and grateful. We got a really good feeling from [Bridger].”

Bridger is always the last to receive donations, Thompson said, because of their isolation. Often they receive very little or nothing at all.

“They were glad someone thought about them,” she said. “They are always the forgotten town, but not this time. It was a real boost for them.”

Wopila, a Lakota word that means “much more than thank you,” was all Thompson could say about the generosity shown by NRF to her Tribe.

She and her two children, ages 18 and 23, are homeless and appreciated being able to assist with the deliveries.

“On behalf of the people who have received donations, to see their faces light up and have that sense of happiness again, I can’t say thank you enough,” she said. “We are trying to get back on our feet so helping out took our minds off our situation and gave us a chance to do something good in the midst of what we are going through.”

NRF, created in 2011 to provide assistance to non-gaming Tribes, collected donations from Seminoles on every reservation. Led by Tribal members who were inspired by a TV report about the abject poverty of the Pine Ridge Reservation, the nonprofit organization has sent trucks laden with donations to make the harsh Great Plains winters more bearable ever since.

“We’ve been going to Pine Ridge for so many years, we wanted to focus on Cheyenne River this year,” said NRF member Wanda Bowers, who spearheaded a non-perishable food drive at Tribe Headquarters in early December.

A core group of active NRF members, including Esther Gopher and Alice Billie in Big Cypress, Charlotte Burgess in Brighton, and Wilson, Bowers and Jennifer “Ebo” Osceola in Hollywood, collects goods quietly throughout the year.

Wilson stores the clothing, shoes, blankets, household items and toys in a storage unit in Hollywood. Volunteers recently spent a busy Saturday at the facility sorting and boxing items by category and readying them for the truck.

In the years since the television special depicting the need in Pine Ridge, the reservation continues to receive a lot of donations from various organizations.

Other Tribes have reached out to NRF, and Wilson wants to consider expanding the organization’s reach to North Dakota, Nebraska and Arizona. She plans to hold a meeting in the spring to discuss the possibility with other NRF volunteers. She envisions holding a school supplies drive for the Flandreau Indian School over the summer.

“I want to make this a four-season effort,” she said.

 

 

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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