Pine Ridge is about one hundred miles southeast of Rapid City and sits on the edge of the Badlands among rolling hills and endless meadows. Among the natural beauty though are eyesores. Old, dilapidated, vacant, boarded-up buildings covered with graffiti line many of the streets. But despite the perception of hopelessness in this small, poverty-stricken South Dakota town, one smart, driven, and inspiring young lady says she sees beauty.
Rilda Means grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She is twenty-three now and recently graduated from Black Hills State University with a degree in Political Science and American Indian Studies. She says she wants to use her knowledge and her degree to help bring much-needed change and inspiration to her people and her beloved home town.
Means says she is optimistic about the future of Pine Ridge – but not everyone shares her excitement and enthusiasm.
“People are always like why are you happy to be down here? Why do you want to do that? Why do you want to work for the tribe? I’ve been hearing that and it’s like, stop it! So what if I want to work down here. So what if this is where I want be at. I can go work anywhere I want, but I choose to be here, I choose to want to help,” says Means.
She says a shift in the mentality of her people is essential to a brighter future, and that’s her mission – to open people’s eyes to a different perspective.
Means says she’s up for the task.
“I think it’s going to take someone that can be strong and be brave and stand up and be like hey guys we’re done looking at the world like this. Let’s stop it now. Look at the age we’re in – the world around us is so much bigger - it’s evolving every day but you come here it’s like we’re stuck in time – it really is – like with our attitudes and how we live,” says Means.
It is common in Pine Ridge to see residents riding horses on the main roads in the busy center of town. Many homes have years worth of broken down cars on their lots. She says she didn’t see that in Spearfish where she went to college.
Means says she hears many frustrated residents talk about problems the reservation faces, but she doesn’t see enough action.
“So what’re we going to do about it? What are our options here? What can we fix? What can’t we fix? What are our limits? We’ve got to think like that and that gives you hope – whether you think so or not. Just working out those problems – What are you going to do about it? You’re not going to do anything about it? Then it’s always going to be a problem. That’s why I say we’re in such a stand-still, we talk about it and talk about it,” says Means.
Means says opportunities are limited and the business atmosphere on the reservation is stagnant. She says that makes it tough to do simple things – things that the average person takes for granted.
“You can’t get ahead down here because we have nothing here. We have our grocery store and our tribal building but that’s it. Everything else you have to travel to, you have to go spend that money somewhere else, where if we was to invest in stores and stuff down here we wouldn’t have to travel out and make that money circulate out there, we can circulate it down here, and you know, prosper,” says Means.
She says despite the lack of businesses on the reservation, her people have many things to be grateful for.
Means says one of the things holding her people back is that there are too many that dwell on the past, and on the problems, and not enough people are concentrating on solutions.
Means says it’s important for her people to learn from the past, but it’s more important to keep moving forward. She says it will take a grass-roots effort to bring about true change.
“We’ve got to inspire one another, we really do whether we think so or not. And when we’re negative we bring out the negative in others. It’s the yin-yang affect. If you think positive, positive will come but if you think negative, it’s all negative,” says Means.
Speaking of negativity, Means says Pine Ridge has gotten a lot of bad press lately, and she wants to change that too.
“Quit with this negative press, stop it! Yeah, we know the statistics, we know that, we live here. Let’s stop that and bring out the positive press, positive words, the positive side so the whole world can see too that we’re not just this negative thing,” says Means.
Means says she wants to show the flip-side to all the negative publicity and bring hope back to her people and show the world the positive side of Pine Ridge. But that's hard to do when some of the negatives ring true. Take alcohol abuse for example. It does exist - she lost her own father to alcoholism - but she feels that lately it is being blown it out of proportion in the media. She says not everyone on Pine Ridge is an alcoholic.
“Like why is the press coming in and saying this when a lot of them aren’t like that? You know, some of them, yeah they’ll drink, you know have a couple beers, chill out – that’s it, they’re not getting out of hand. The bad part of it is is alcohol is illegal down here, that’s the only part. But they love it when they say everyone drinks, they just love it - when it’s not even like that,” says Means.
Means says in addition to cleaning up the image of Pine Ridge, she’d also like to clean up the town. She wants to start by picking up trash and giving some of the homes a fresh coat of paint. She says a little effort goes a long way, and that hard work brings a sense of pride and accomplishment – and it’s contagious.
She says that although many youth and elders share her enthusiasm, she is concerned that she will face backlash from fellow Pine Ridge residents for speaking out, but says she won’t let that stop her.
“I want to change people’s perspective – both native and non-native to look toward the positive, quit looking at skin color and the past, like seriously we need to let the past go, as hard as it is. We’ve got to let it be. We’ve got to let it rest. We hold on to it like a person and we keep bringing it up. We’ve got to let them go, just like when someone passes away that’s really close to you, you’ve got to let them go,” says Means.
She says her people have a long, hard road ahead of them, but she believes that they have the grit, character, and perseverance needed.
“Take that challenge on, let’s do this, let’s try it. Keep it up – let’s keep that drive. And don’t underestimate yourself – that’s probably the worst thing you could ever do to yourself is sell yourself short,” says Means.
Means says she believes a bright future lies ahead for her people and if people doubt her she says that’s okay because doubt drives her into action – action for her and her people.