End Zone: Now the race day is here, except they won't run 26.2 miles through five boroughs; they will help a struggling city overcome devastation of Hurricane Sandy
WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. — On a pine-covered ridge a few miles north of here, Nupa White Plume is beginning another day of training, his long, black ponytail bouncing as he goes. He will run for 18 miles through the vast brown barrenness of his native land, past stark and spectacular landscapes, and brutally crushing poverty, sometimes all in the same mile.
The place is called the Pine Ridge Reservation, but most everybody knows it as the Rez. Nupa White Plume, 28-year-old father of two, runs with wire-rim glasses and a fluid, athletic stride, and a very occupied mind. He sets out on the ridge, a short horseback ride from a mass grave and a monument surrounded by a beaten-up chain-link fence, a grim commemoration of arguably the single darkest day in the history of Native American peoples. He thinks about what he’s going to do for work, and money. He thinks about his kids’ future, and about the pall that sometimes hangs over Pine Ridge like a storm cloud on the prairie.
Where else do you see roadsides dotted with signs with a big red X, and the words “Why Die?” on one side, and “Think” on the other. They put up the signs wherever somebody has died in an alcohol-related car wreck.
At this moment, though, Nupa White Plume’s mind is elsewhere, focused on what impact there might be from a Sunday in New York, a city some 1,700 miles east, where he and four other young Native Americans from the Oglala Lakota Nation were supposed to run in the ING New York City Marathon Sunday morning, seeking to raise funds for a new youth center on Pine Ridge, and raise awareness about the grip of problems on the nation’s second biggest reservation, and the efforts of a group called One Spirit to address them.
“Stuff like this – running in the New York City Marathon – doesn’t happen to people coming from the Rez,” Nupa White Plume says. “Maybe children will be inspired and try to do something different – and see what they can do with their lives.”
The 43rd running of the ING New York City Marathon is now, of course, the latest victim of the wreckage left behind by Sandy, done in by the growing firestorm about holding the race in a city with neighborhoods that look like the Gulf Coast, post-Katrina. The marathon, at its core, has always been something much more than a world-class road race — a teeming tableau of causes and missions, a quirky celebration of the human spirit, a day that elevates and unites the city. When it became clear this year’s race was stirring more vitriol than euphoria, it was doomed, and the Pine Ridge runners, who know about deprivation, found themselves robbed of their 26.2-mile opportunity to improve their lot.
Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News One Spirit runner Alex Wilson is a former state cross-country champion.
Living in a place known for harsh weather and an even harsher life, the One Spirit runners vowed Saturday to make the best of it; at 7 a.m. Sunday morning, their plan is to go to the Oakwood Beach area of Staten Island, not far from what would’ve been the start of the maration, and spend the day helping devastated Staten Islanders with the cleanup.
Jeri Baker is the founder of One Spirit, an all-volunteer organization that seeks to support the efforts of the Lakota Tribe (part of the Great Sioux Nation) to improve life on Pine Ridge.
“People on the reservation were more excited about the marathon than anything that has happened in a long time,” Baker says. “Now, for understandable reasons, it isn’t being held, so these kids are going to do the next best thing – and go out and run to help others. The fact is that three of our runners will return home to a living situation back home that’s very similar to what people here are facing. I think it says an awful lot about what kind of people they are.”
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Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Nupa White Plume trains in the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota.
Pine Ridge Reservation is about 11,000 square miles, a little more than twice the size of Connecticut. It is home to about 40,000 people and two traffic lights, and two of the most historic and emotionally charged clashes in Native American history, between the Lakota Tribe and the forces of the U.S. government. The first of them came on the day of Dec. 29, 1890, when as many as 300 Native Americans were killed by the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry in the last, full-scale confrontation between Indians and U.S. soldiers. About half of the victims that day were women and children, which is why people here never refer to it not as the Battle of Wounded Knee, but the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
In 1973, at the same location, Native American activists occupied the site to protest living conditions on the reservation, spending 71 days under siege by federal officers and the reservation’s old guard. A negotiated settlement was finally reached, and a national spotlight was cast on the problems facing the Oglala Lakota Nation – problems that may be more entrenched now than ever before.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the social, medical and economic profile of the reservation brings to mind a third-world country, not a land tucked in the southwest corner of South Dakota. Life expectancy for men on Pine Ridge is 48 years, according to tribal statistics, or about three decades short of what it is for a man who lives a few miles away in Nebraska. For women, the number is 52 years.
Infant mortality is some 300% higher than the national average. Per capita income is under $4,000, and unemployment hovers around 85%, and alcoholism is so rampant that virtually every family is touched by it, directly or indirectly. With so much instability, and financial pressure, it is small wonder that the dropout rate in Pine Ridge High School – home of the Thorpes – approaches 50%, according to school records, though numerous published accounts put the reservation-wide dropout rate at 70 %.
But the biggest problem of all, tribal leaders say, is teenage suicide, which one Pine Ridge School official says is 150 times greater than the national average.
Amanda Carlow, one of the Pine Ridge runners who came east to run the marathon, is a counselor at Red Cloud Middle School, five miles outside of the town of Pine Ridge. When Carlow reported to work one recent morning, she got a visit from a girl who had 50 cuts around her wrists and forearms. Carlow immediately took her to the hospital on the reservation, and then arranged for the girl to get treatment at a pediatric psychiatric unit in Rapid City, 100 miles away. Carlow wishes this case were an anomaly, but it is not.
“In my experience, a lot of the times suicidal ideation (happens) because of issues at home - whether it’s not feeling loved or getting attention, or drinking and drugs,” Carlow says. The problems are often compounded by the kids’ lack of coping skills, and inability to see beyond the bleakness of their immediate surroundings.
“It’s a tough life around here,” says Dale Pine, the highly regarded cross-country coach at Pine Ridge High – and the man who came to coach the five Lakota runners in the marathon. “It’s probably more like a city here than New York is.”
Nobody needs to remind Alex Wilson, a 24-year-old former state cross-country champion who also came to run in New York, about that. Wilson grew up in a home where there was a shortage of food, and an abundance of alcohol. He got tired of seeing people passed out all the time. He wound up moving in with Dale Pine at Pine’s home near the school. One day Wilson came home to find his step-sister, Cassandra, dead on her waterbed. Cassandra was 15 years old. She had just taken her own life.
“I push myself so hard when I run that sometimes I see flashbacks of my sister,” Wilson says. He tries to remember the good things. It’s not easy to skip over the waterbed.
Everybody has a story in Pine Ridge, it seems. Not many of them have happy endings. Kelsey Good Lance is 21 and has two kids and took his first plane trip four days ago, when he flew to New York. Good Lance grew up with an abusive father in an alcoholic home, the oldest of 12 kids. He washed his siblings’ clothes, got them ready for school, looked after them, an adult way before his time. His life took the best turn ever when his mother left and got remarried to a man who became the kindest and most steadfast force in his life, a stepfather both wise and nurturing.
Good Lance felt profoundly blessed every time they talked. What a gift my stepfather is, he thought. When his stepfather died of a heart attack, it was too much to bear. Kelsey Good Lance tried to hang himself. He cut his wrists. He did not die. Good Lance used to drink and smoke, but stopped earlier this year and when he heard that Charles (Bamm) Brewer, a tribal leader who is a vice president of One Spirit, was looking for marathon runners, he signed up. Brewer is a man who knows everyone, and everything, about life on the reservation, a hunting guide and buffalo rancher and self-styled motivator of youth whose great grandmother, Lizzie Charging, was a Wounded Knee massacre survivor.
He has made it his life’s mission to help kids believe there is something better out there for them.
“People here are disadvantaged – you hear that all the time,” Brewer says, looking out on snow-covered pasture with a lone buffalo in it. “It’s alcoholism. It’s poverty. It’s what the government is doing to us.” All of it is true – the U.S. government has repeatedly broken its treaties and seized enough gold-laden Lakota land to fill half of Fort Knox – but Brewer’s point is that you can’t live life as a victim.
“We have to understand that this is what’s holding us down. We need to summon the spirit of our ancestors and and be fully dedicated (to the belief) that every dream can come true.”
Kelsey Good Lance wants to buy in.
“I go through a lot of emotions when I run,” Good Lance says. “That’s what pushes me. In New York I was going to do something way bigger, something a lot of people want to do. I still hope that the training we did, and the example we tried to set, will inspire a whole generation of kids.”
A retired social-services worker from Scotch Plains, N.J. Jeri Baker started One Spirit eight years ago. Earlier this year, she got the idea to apply to get bibs for this year’s race to bolster her mission. New York Road Runners officials were impressed with what One Spirit was doing and, eager to expand the reach of the marathon’s charitable component, awarded them five spots, and footed the costs of the hotel rooms for the five runners – Nupa White Plume, Amanda Carlow, Alex Wilson, Kelsey Good Lance and Jeff Turning Heart Jr., along with Bamm Brewer and Dale Pine, and even helped One Spirit cover a portion of the airfares.
Now the race day is here, except they won’t run 26.2 miles through five boroughs; they will spend marathon Sunday waist-deep in muck, in Staten Island. Just to get their legs moving Saturday Nupa White Plume and Alex Wilson went on a 19-mile run, from midtown south, across the Manhattan Bridge and into Brooklyn, and back again.
‘We met some guys from Kenya. It was fun to get out and run in the city,” Wilson says. White Plume can’t help himself. No matter how often Dale Pine would talk to him about tapering off on his mileage, he would keep going. Nine days before what was going to be marathon Sunday, White Plume went out for 22 miles.
Down off the ridge now, Nupa White Plume is sitting outside the compound of ramshackle trailers he calls home. The yard is strewn with old toys and debris and rusted remains of appliances. There is an outhouse out back. Most nights there are 10 or 11 people packed into the front trailer. It is not an unusual living situation on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Nupa White Plume makes beaded jewelry and sells it where and when he can. This is the only life he has known. He is not complaining. He is in New York City, intent on running. There may be no marathon Sunday for the first time in 42 years, but that won’t stop him from aiming to live by the gospel of Bamm Brewer.
“When I get up in the morning and run, I get a sense of stability,” Nupa White Plume says. “It gives me a feeling that I have a purpose and that things can change. It gives me hope.”
Alex Wilson (l.) with coach Dale Pine.
(For more information about One Spirit, please go to nativeprogress.org)