RAPID CITY—Lakota people, by the tens of thousands, once camped for miles along the banks of Rapid Creek. There was no city, there were no White people; there were no drugs and alcohol to addle the mind and spirit, no mean streets to walk, no highway overpasses to sleep under.
Life was not perfect, times could be hard, even then there were many enemies to fight, but the Lakota people always stood together. The strong did not dominate the weak. The strong were humble and generous, and called ikce wicasa, and the traditional Lakota virtues were honored and respected.
These people could not have imagined the time to come, that an alien culture would seize control of everything they held sacred, and that many of their descendants would struggle with addiction and poverty, all the bonds and protections of the tiospaye broken, and people, wounded in spirit, left to fend as best they could in an indifferent world where they held no value.
Lloyd Big Crow does not leave them to fend alone. But, he has a problem. On the one hand he wants to remain low key, and humble, and honor the Lakota way. On the other hand, he must draw attention to his efforts in order to expand them and improve them, and help as many people as possible. Big Crow has lived in Rapid City for eleven years. At present, his life is moving in a positive direction. He has overcome addiction, rebounded from incarceration, from great personal loss, and he is determined to make a difference in the lives of the downtrodden and dispossessed urban Lakota.
He stands near the Memorial Park band shell on a chilly, overcast March afternoon, and food is piling up on the sole table in the middle of the band shell, as people come from all directions to share a meal, and Big Crow talks about how all of this came to be: “I started doing this about June, end of May, last year. We been feeding once a week…we don’t have any real funding from anybody, but I organized it to where we want our community to lift each other up. Other people pitch in, and it has kind of grown, it’s gotten bigger and bigger, and I thank the Creator everyday, because this thing isn’t mine, it’s nobody’s, and I thank the Creator everyday because I believe it’s his.”
Big Crow is a focal point of strength standing in that field, and he has the trust, and affection of those drifting in to eat at the tables. Except there are no tables. The city has removed the picnic tables for the winter, so people must sit wherever they can in the deepening cold, on the concrete edge of the band shell, under nearby stands of cottonwood trees.
A woman approaches Big Crow, crying, her cheek, bruised and swollen, her face reddened from the cold.
“Those girls,” she says, “They keep hitting me. I don’t want to be hit in the face…”
“I won’t let them do that anymore,” Big Crow tells her.
And she believes him. She trusts him. He has earned it.
“I started this because of healing…” Big Crow says. “I lost both my parents. I hit rock bottom, you know, I went to jail for drugs and stuff in 2008, and I wanted to give back to the community. I was going through depression, because I was just grieving, and doing this, is helping me heal, and I want to help heal our people, too.”
The people sharing this meal with Big Crow have also hit rock bottom. They come from every direction, some in wheelchairs, and as they gather around the band shell, and he shakes hands, like every Lakota gathering for the last ten thousand years, there is joking and laughing, because there is no sound more disheartening to the Lakota ear then the sound of laughter, unheard and unreturned; a meal is where the people traditionally shared their bounty, their spirit, cemented their heartfelt bond to each other.
Big Crow recites the menu: “We’re going to give out fried chicken, soup, somebody is supposed to bring spaghetti, water, pop, pies, cookies. We just did (a feed) on December 21, we did a Christmas one. We gave out socks, bags, we feed them turkey and ham, and its all self-supporting, through the community. I started this so I could give like 99 percent where it needs to go. I don’t want to keep anything for myself, I am trying just to walk humbly, and be Lakota.”
Lakota people fall through the cracks of the Wasicu world, because it is a world made for Wasicu, by Wasicu, and it is hard for a Lakota to remain strong, and walk humbly among those who have fallen through the cracks. At every turn he sees his own past, wrestles with the demons of that past, but he must still remain determined and strong, or there won’t be any person to organize this meal, and help keep the people fed.
“I ask for donations,” Big Crow says, describing how he gets on social media and gets the ball rolling for each feed. “(Bring) food, drink, and if you can’t do that, I ask for your time, come volunteer, and if you can’t do that, I ask for your prayers, just those three things.”
At some point in his troubled younger years, Lloyd Big Crow came to realize there is strength and power in kindness and humility, but he does not discuss that as a noble concept; he lives it, he makes it happen for those who need it the most.
For the last few months, the needy have still needed his help, but weather and circumstance did not cooperate: “This is our first (feed) this year, because it’s been too cold, and we tried to do a couple over the winter, but it was just too cold. We kind of work around the volunteer’s schedule, but I’m trying to be consistent with the Friday evening (feed).”
Turnout fluctuates, but Big Crow is learning to schedule his efforts around the reality these people must live: “It’s hard to tell, like one week we had a hundred people, one week we only had ten, just kind of depends on the time of the month. I like to hit it around this time, the end of the month, where people kind of run out of money.”
There is something the Lakota traditionally held more sacred than the Black Hills, even more sacred than their heritage, their culture, their virtues— and that is their children. This is Big Crow’s deepest concern as well.
“I want to focus on the youth this summer,” Big Crow says, “because last summer, once a month, I was able to get stuff together to have a youth feed, in each of the lower income neighborhoods, ABCs, Star Village, Lakota Homes. This year I kind of want to have some activities, like have someone talk to the kids about suicide, about drugs and alcohol, let the kids know they’re important.”
Developing a relationship with youth has proved more difficult.
“We run into a lot of distrust,” Big Crow says. “They thought I was undercover, like at the ABC’s we pulled up, and we got the grill out and all that, and cops just happened to pull up, to see what we were doing, so we told them. We offered them a plate, and I think that’s why (kids) got suspicious of us. I guess cops go over there when kids are playing and they ask the kids are your parents home, are they drinking, and so the cops go to their place and catch people red-handed or whatever. So, (the kids) didn’t want to trust us. But, I started this feed so people got to know who I am, and I get their trust. I want to do like a talking circle, sort of healing our people, because I see our people with our heads down, because I want our people to get back to who they are supposed to be— Lakota, and that’s the main reason, I want to bring hope back to the broken hearted and lost. I want to let them know they are loved and they are valued, and I just want to bring them back to society, bring them back from whatever pain they are running from.”
Big Crow works a job, and he is a fulltime student, working towards a bachelor degree in social work, with an emphasis on chemical dependency. He is not made of money, and he does not come from money, but he has learned that even a modest contribution can make a huge impact on the lives of his fellow Lakota.
“The other night I got a call from someone,” Big Crow says. “I want to come volunteer and help, they said, because last year you fed us, you gave us a blanket, and it was warm, and that lady said, just from that little bit, she sobered up, she went to treatment, and she’s doing good right now. A lot of the people who are starting to heal now, who are doing good, and are sober, they want to help me with the youth feeds, so that’s where I’ll get my volunteers. It’s kind of like self-sustaining, the people feel like they’re part of something. They are tired of walking the streets. Give them something to look forward to. They are tired of people just looking down on them, walking past them like they are the scum of the earth. I always say to them, you are somebody, you are Lakota, pick your head up, don’t be looking at your shoes… I try to help them remember who they are…”
Lloyd Big Crow has been able to prove one thing, that it takes very little resources to make a difference in the lives of people who have nothing. What it always takes, is a lot of effort, and there is no substitute for jumping down between the cracks into the world of the downtrodden.
“I’m doing it from my heart,” Big Crow says. “Once people see that, and they see there’s no ulterior motive— they know when someone’s just trying to get money off them— they see this guy is different, he don’t ask us to sign anything, he don’t ask us for nothing, he just wants to help us and feed us. This keeps me humble. I want to do all the work, but quietly walk out the back door, as long as the purpose is being met.”
(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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