For generations, they have made pilgrimages to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Each summer, waves of church groups, charitable organizations and volunteers from every imaginable source visit the reservation home of the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota, bringing supplies, food, clothing and other kinds of help. Unfortunately, although such well-intentioned efforts may help a few residents in the short term, many in Pine Ridge complain that they undermine grassroots efforts toward self-empowerment.
On July 7-9, the True Sioux Hope Foundation made an especially ambitious effort to help out at Pine Ridge. Wealthy entrepreneur Twila True brought two busloads of about 170 wealthy supporters for a whirlwind tour of the reservation and the programs supported by her foundation.
True, an Oglala Sioux tribal member, founded the non-profit organization in 2014 with a mission to combat poverty on the reservation and, according to its website, “to inspire unprecedented, permanent, positive change for the Sioux Tribe by providing critical aid for the most vulnerable, as well as sustainability efforts including programs that support education, health and wellness and employment.”
True was born on Pine Ridge, and moved away from the reservation as a child. She is co-founder of True Investments, a real estate private equity firm based in Newport Beach, California where she makes her home with her husband Alan True. Named as one of the Most Influential People of 2015 by the Orange County Register, she also owns a chain of upscale nail studios, Polished Perfect, where she plans to hire Native Americans. True is also owner of Twila True by Mardo, a jewelry retailer.
In 2016, according to its website, the foundation raised $450,000 during the inaugural gala in November 2016. The gala was held at the tony Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach and attended by many of the city’s most prominent families according to an earlier ICMN article.
According to a press release from the foundation, proceeds from the 2016 gala in Newport Beach were used to fund a Children’s Safe Home and two full scholarships for reservation youth to Arizona State University (a foundation partner), while providing 200 boxes of emergency food, 85 cords of firewood for the elderly, 7,400 diapers and 400 containers of infant formula. Funds also supported 2 fulltime and 23 part-time jobs through the opening of the Children’s Safe Home and a thrift store operated by Deseret Industries, a business owned by the Mormon Church.
Supporters who joined True’s tour, described as a cultural connectivity event, brought donated clothing, personal hygiene items, household supplies and mattresses that they personally distributed to the hundreds of Pine Ridge residents who lined up outside of the foundation offices in order to receive the donations.
Supporters, including actresses Frances Fisher and Julia Ormond, as well as Swati Mandela, from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, toured the Wakanyeja Gluwitayan Otipi Children’s Safe Home, one of the Foundation’s projects. The Home provides emergency placement for children removed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) of Pine Ridge Child Protection Services from unsafe home situations.
According to Jerod Weston, specialist with OST Child Protective Services, there is a tremendous need on the reservation for emergency housing for children. “The tribe is working to create more safe houses but currently there is a tremendous need for this service,” he noted.
The Safe Home houses 10 children but plans to create room soon for 14.
The Home opened in February 2017 and according to manager Cheryl Noisy Hawk, “There hasn’t yet been a time when we haven’t been full.”
True Sioux Hope visitors took turns touring the small home and holding several of the children.
Although appreciative of donors’ good intentions, several Pine Ridge residents expressed concern about the philosophy underlying not only the True Sioux Foundation but also other charitable organizations focused on Pine Ridge.
Basil Brave Heart, 83, Lakota elder and well known alcohol and drug abuse counselor on Pine Ridge noted that he has seen many organizations such as True Sioux Hope come to the reservation to help the community.
“Over the years, I have seen many wonderful well-meaning people come to Pine Ridge with the best of intentions but they don’t spend enough time first finding out what the community wants. Unfortunately, these projects last maybe three years at the most,” he said.
Mark Tilsen, president of Native American Natural Foods based in Pine Ridge notes that although many charities visiting Pine Ridge may help solve immediate needs, they fail to support meaningful local empowerment.
For instance, in response to the 2011 ABC network television special A Hidden American: Children of the Plains, a program that many Pine Ridge residents described as exploitative, Tilsen wrote, “If we are all going to help the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation break out of generational poverty, they are going to have to become empowered to make their own decisions for their community and build their own future. We can't do it for them; we can only help encourage and support with whatever resources we have.”
The Pine Ridge reservation has historically attracted a great deal of the philanthropic world’s attention.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times once described Pine Ridge as a poster child of American poverty and of the failures of the reservation system.
Undeniably, the Pine Ridge reservation has problems. The Oglala Lakota County, home to the reservation, has consistently ranked as the poorest county in the U.S., unemployment is about 80 percent, and life expectancy is the lowest in the U.S.
Changing these statistics, however, will take more than periodic charitable handouts according to people I interviewed who live and work on Pine Ridge.
Elicia Goodsoldier, Spirit Lake Dakota, expressed exasperation with the ineffectiveness and self-serving nature of what she described as a “white savior complex” of outside charitable groups. “I’m so tired of this poverty porn narrative. The wounds of our people are 500 plus years old and deep. Healing must and will come from within the communities,” she said.
Goodsoldier does not currently live on Pine Ridge but has lived and worked there as an advocate with programs serving children’s mental health needs.
True, however, insists that she and her organization are determined to stay in Pine Ridge for the long haul and emphasized the need for sustainability.
Asked about sustainability plans for the Foundation supported Wakanyeja Gluwitayan Otipi Children’s Safe Home, however, local partner, Barbara Dullknife noted plans were limited to an effort to hire a grant writer to help seek funding. The Foundation has committed to fund the Children’s Safe Home for one year.
Dullknife , a veteran advocate for children services has also worked in several tribal social service agencies serving children on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Her great hope is that the True Sioux Hope Foundation can help build a 40-bed safe house for children on personal land that she has donated to the cause.
The good intentions of True and her Foundation, however, met some tough questions during a press conference at the Prairie Knights Casino on Pine Ridge. True waved away questions about the troubled history between Native peoples and the Mormon church. (ICMN published a story about the growing sex abuse scandal in the Mormon Church’s Indian Placement Program.)
“I am a business woman; I want to promote a business here that will be successful. Deseret Industries has a track record of success,” she said.
“Are you concerned that your promotional efforts verge on poverty porn,” asked Natalie Hand, local independent journalist. Hand was referring to the images on the True Sioux Hope website depicting dilapidated housing and ragged children on Pine Ridge.
True’s husband Alan True became visibly angry. “Poverty porn?! I don’t’ even know what that is. What kind of a question is that to ask?”
In response to my question about engaging the community in determining her organization’s philanthropic efforts, True said that her foundation had not yet conducted a needs assessment seeking community input about types of help that is most desired on Pine Ridge.
She indicated that the foundation would seek out that information later.
“Hey, they need everything here,” she said.
The tendency for charities to focus on their organization’s mission versus looking at the desires of people living in the community is a long-standing problem, according to critics.
“Wallowing in the problems afflicting Pine Ridge while failing to notice most of what works has become a fetish of sorts,” wrote Akim Reinhardt in 2016 article for Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
“Yes, Pine Ridge is full of hardships and life is very hard there. But where are the stories of strength around the reservation? Youth are reconnecting and thriving! I want those stories! They exist!” insisted Goodsoldier.
In the end, however, critics such as Braveheart and Hand were generous and circumspect about their evaluations of True Sioux Hope’s work and intentions.
Natalie Hand was impressed that the donors took the time and traveled the long distance to visit Pine Ridge.
Braveheart noted, “You can never tell who these organizations may help. Helping that one person could have far reaching implications for the entire community.”
An Indian Journalist's Notebook - Pine Ridge