Success Stories

Living Lakota Values

Photo of Ben in his home. Ben is a 68-year-old US Marine veteran of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Ben is a resident and citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in southwestern South Dakota.

At 68 years of age, he was an Elder and a father. He raised his two girls, Vicky and Ruby, who were in middle school, since the eldest was 3 and the youngest an infant. About 12 years ago, they moved to the small tribal community of Red Shirt on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Ben grew up in the community of Payabya, to the south between the larger communities of Oglala and Pine Ridge. He attended Flandreau Indian School on the eastern side of the state, and then volunteered for the military as one way to show bravery — a Lakota value. As a Marine, he served from 1968 to 1971, returning home “after getting blown away.” For Ben, the hardest part of military service was “being ordered around and wearing the same clothes. I used my Lakota instincts and that helped me.”

A photo of Ben's girls. Ben passed on his grandfather's teachings of treaties and the Lakota values to his daughters.

Taught by his grandfather about treaties, Ben passed on those teachings and the Lakota values to his daughters. Ben saw recent (land) consolidation agreements and state compacts (for gaming rights) as a loss of sovereignty and a violation of the treaties, and he credited many of the tribes’ challenges to colonization. “Treaty law equals freedom,” he said, “free to hunt and fish. There are so many resources out there for Lakota — like the water.”

A photo of Ben and Ruby by a helicopter. Ben tells his daughters, "Take whatever is offered and don't turn anyone away if they don't have enough."

Ben was glad to see a lot of people supporting protection of the environment and local water sources and elaborated about the impact of contaminated water, not just for the Lakota, but for all the other thousands of people who relied on shared water sources.

From his traditional upbringing to his military service, he saw the value of ensuring language and culture is embedded into the school curriculum. He explained, “There is a positive correlation between better grades and teaching language and culture [to our youth].” On the day of our visit, Ben helped with the morning songs at the school.

Ben talked about teaching his own daughters to give and be generous, another Lakota value. He said, “I took Ruby and Vicki one summer to the Yakama Tribe in Washington to visit my sister. They attended classes in marketing and telemarketing, then returned home and started selling pop, ice cream and water. I told them… ‘water is free—grandmother earth will be mad at you’… so they offered the water for free and sold the soda and ice cream.” Even though each item was priced, Ben told them, “Take whatever is offered and don’t turn anyone away if they don’t have enough. If someone is hurting, you help them. Have people in your heart — help that person. For me, I tell them the positive side — be yourself.”

Ben felt that graduation ceremonies were the thing that most positively reflected his community. “We honor them [graduates] with songs, talking positively of how this group is going to change things. People are smiling, and seeing how parents react as they graduate. Why can’t we live like that every day — positive, a moment of happiness?”

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