Gwen Caldwell’s neighborhood activism began when she started seeing people she knew dying in her community.” Around two years ago, her friend’s son froze to death in a park right across the street from city hall. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me,” she says. “At some point, there had to be a response; in particular, to help the homeless veterans. There were ongoing problems that were continually repeating. We have brilliant minds in Rapid City, we have the School of Mines and Technology, we have very creative people and diversity – and we’ve got people freezing to death across the street from city hall? I’m sorry, that’s unacceptable.”
Shortly after, Caldwell joined with other Native people in the Rapid City community to form Medicine Horse Village, an organization designed primarily to assist Native people who have migrated from their jobs-poor reservations to try to make a better life in Rapid City. Caldwell had heard their stories repeatedly: of too expensive housing, of the need for transportation when the city busses weren’t running. Of stretching dollars from paycheck to paycheck and only falling further behind.
Worst of all, she said, were the stories of good, hard-working Native people giving up and returning to the reservation. “I have never known a Lakota man or woman who did not have some marketable skill,” said Caldwell. Arriving in a city with very little money, no housing, no car, no job, and very little understanding about where to find help, is the challenge Medicine Horse Village chose to tackle.
New arrivals from the reservation drop right into a dilemma. If they get jobs, usually entry level and therefore low paying, state and federal social services will either cut help completely or reduce it to the point of being a devil’s bargain: Survive on the welfare or fight a losing battle on minimum wage. This is where Medicine Horse Village focuses its efforts.
While the organization does not provide transportation, they have purchased cars for clients when it meant getting or keeping a job. The cars were very used, low-budget, but they did run, says the Director. Caldwell emphasizes such expenditures are made solely on a case by case basis, and do not happen often. “What happens is we will put a shout out and say: We’ve got this client, and they’re in desperate need of a car. Can you either donate funds toward the cost of a car, or are you willing to give one.”
The Director says it’s all down to the network that Medicine Horse Village has helped to assemble, a kind of urban moccasin telegraph. “We’re all about community building. That’s what’s unique about Medicine Horse Village. We want to create that urban Tiyospaye (extended family) so that there is support, there are people who have been through it, that know the ropes and can assist you and speak for you, and open those doors or make those referrals.”
The Medicine Horse Village effort is designed so that new arrivals can know they are safe, that there is help, and, most importantly believes Caldwell, that they are not being judged. “They need to feel right away that they are accepted, that there is not a racism thing going on,” says the founder. Their needs to be someone there to help them overcome their issues so they can be successful at what they’re trying to do.”
Thus far, the staff at Medicine Horse Village feels they have helped dozens of Native newcomers. But Caldwell does allow for the enormity of what remains to be done. “At times, I feel overwhelmed. Because the need is huge and the resources are so minimal in comparison.” With a permanent administrative staff of three, and a handful of volunteers that varies from day to day, fundraising for Medicine Horse Village is a daily necessity, and outreach is an all hands-on-deck proposition.
“Culturally and spiritually speaking, we have a people who can provide so much for this community. Why is that not being more treasured?” asks Caldwell. “As part of our fundraising effort, we will do events that market and sell our clients handmade goods and art. Then 25 percent of that will go back to Medicine Horse Village. But we’re not selling earrings for $5 either. They’re getting the true market value of what they’re worth. So, even after our 25 percent for selling it, they’re still making double and triple what they’d get at the pawn shop.”
Medicine Horse Village’s help even extends to helping its clients purchase the raw materials needed to create their beadwork, quillwork, jewelry and paintings. “Everything depends on what we have when they walk in the door,” says Caldwell. “Sometimes, if they come in the door and need money for a deposit, we might have to say: I’m sorry, we don’t have that today. If they come in and they need some leather, we can call around and come up with that for you.”
“It’s all based on funding availability. We’ve got a few blankets and a few towels – we’re getting low on household items. We work where we’re at – Rapid City – we do what we can do with what we’ve got. We’re reaching out to everybody: Okay, how can we do this? Do you have this – that one needs beads, this one needs leather. This one needs pots and pans … we need blankets. Do you have beds? We’re always doing this networking so we can build a system to serve our own people.”
Medicine Horse Village has brochures strategically placed throughout the city to reach potential new clients. “The minute they go to Hope City or the minute they go to United Sioux Tribes, we have people there who will tell them about us. “We’re even collaborating with United Sioux Tribes to provide employment training. United Sioux Tribes has a jobs training program where they will pay $9 an hour so workers can come and help us for six months and learn to do what we do. We also have community service hours that we can provide for people coming out of jails and prisons, many of whom are our people.
“There’s a wide array of what we’re doing,” said Caldwell, “It just seems like the homelessness issue is so big here. And when you don’t have money, it’s insurmountable. We don’t want people feeling like they can’t be successful and that they’re only option is to go back to the reservation. Clearly, we know there is no housing and no jobs back there. I know for a lot of people, it means going back to their community, it means going back to where their family is. That’s the homeland. But, quite frankly, I don’t see any good outcome there.”