Cheyenne River Sioux Chief Joe Brings Plenty shown with students at Harvard College after speaking at a Winthrop House forum. (Photo courtesy of Erint Images)
|The Cheyenne River cuts a meandering path through the plains of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. (Photo courtesy of Erint Images)
|(Photo courtesy of Erint Images)|
When severe ice storms struck the Great Plains last January, power lines toppled, roofs collapsed and water heaters burst.
Residents left without electricity were in imminent danger of freezing to death as the storms and subzero temperatures lashed the region for nearly a week.
The hardest-hit area was also one of the poorest — the vast Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in central South Dakota, where less than 10,000 tribal members are spread across 2.8 million acres of scenic grasslands, meandering river valleys and flinty hills.
Responding to the crisis, Chief Joe Brings Plenty, the 39-year-old tribal chairman, called an emergency meeting in Eagle Butte to assess the damage and direct operations to rescue tribal members from the cold and shelter them in homes still intact after the freezing winds and rain passed through.
“I was as calm and as focused as I could be during the meeting,” said the chairman during a forum at Harvard last week, “but when I walked out, the enormity of the crisis came over me. As chairman and chief, I was responsible for the safety and welfare of my people.”
Tall and strong, with a long braid running down his back, Chief Brings Plenty said he walked out of the tribal headquarters, fell to his knees under the stars, and wept for the First People of the land — members of the Lakota bands living under his care and protection.
That’s when the prayers came.
“We cannot survive if we forget the spirits of our ancestors and neglect to seek their guidance,” said Brings Plenty, speaking to an audience in an oak-paneled room at Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s undergraduate residences.
Between the spirits and the pick-up trucks he deployed to bring his people to safety, the Cheyenne River Sioux survived the storm without losing a single member.
The relief operation illustrated the approach the dynamic Native American leader has brought to his chairmanship since his election to a four-year term in 2006 by the largest margin in tribal history.
After a period of turbulent tribal leadership, Brings Plenty campaigned on a platform of combining native traditions and modern management to bring new hope to the scattered descendants of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and the Sioux warriors who defeated Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the infamous 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn.
It didn’t hurt that a week before the election, a photograph appeared in the local paper showing the photogenic Brings Plenty, in full war paint and wielding a club, pulling down a cavalry soldier during the filming of a battle scene for one of the many movies shot on the sweeping landscape of HeSapa — otherwise known as the Black Hills.
“You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” he said.
As much as the photo boosted his bid, the young candidate had already made his mark working with tribal youth to pull them away from drugs and despair. A talented Lakota singer and father of five, Brings Plenty ran a championship boxing program and revived sweat lodge ceremonies and other sacred practices to keep young people off the bottle and the meth pipe in a place where unemployment runs as high as 80 percent.
After 10 years as a tribal police officer and four as a social worker, Brings Plenty decided new leadership was needed at tribal headquarters to offer more than just promises of a brighter day to a generation in danger of self-extinction. In 2004, he ran for tribal council and lost after a close recount. Defying the odds, he ran for tribal chairman two years later and won in a landslide.
Intent on shaking things up, he made the tribe the first in the U.S. to endorse the presidential campaign of a little-known U.S. senator from Chicago and began courting renewable energy developers to bring jobs and revenues to the reservation.
Thanks to federal stimulus funds set aside for tribal projects after aggressive lobbying of President Obama by Brings Plenty and other tribal leaders, a new health center is rising in Eagle Butte.
More help is needed, including some $65 million to repair the antiquated water system serving an area the size of Connecticut. Many homes have never had running water, sewer hook-ups or electricity. The tough budgetary climate has dimmed hope for relief, making alternative sources of funds even more important.
While in Boston to speak at Harvard, he met with former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, chairman of non-profit Citizens Energy Corporation, which is partnering with the tribe to build a 120-megawatt, utility-scale wind farm on the reservation.
Too far from population centers to harness casino revenues, Brings Plenty said Cheyenne River’s future lies in harnessing its own resources through deals that offer not just lease payments but ownership and control.
“They say the Dakotas is the Saudi Arabia of wind,” he told the mixed crowd of graduate and college students at Winthrop House. “It does blow out there sometimes over 50 miles an hour. We can use what we have to provide power that produces jobs but no pollution.”
The chief’s approach has attracted notice on both the national and international scenes. He serves as president of the Council of Large Land-Based Tribes, a coalition of tribes from seven western states covering 60 percent of all Native American lands, and has traveled to Latin America to meet with indigenous leaders from throughout the continent.
The chairman grew up on the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations during a period of frequent clashes between members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and less radical Native American factions.
He was too young to remember the 1973 takeover and shoot-out at Wounded Knee between AIM and the FBI, but said intra-tribe violence continued long after the lethal stand-off at the site of the 1890 U.S. Army massacre of hundreds of defenseless Sioux.
At age 8, while taking a short-cut home through territory controlled by AIM, Brings Plenty and his pet dog came under fire. “A bullet passed through my leg,” he said. “Right through my jeans and my calf. I used a willow stick to get out the .22 bullet and had to throw away my jeans because I didn’t want my parents to know.”
The anger of tribal members, especially disaffected and unemployed young men, has led to high rates of substance abuse and violence, said Brings Plenty. “We cannot survive if we can’t overcome it,” he said, citing his own awakening to the effects of drinking on his life.
“We cannot turn our backs on the modern ways, but we cannot forget the old either,” he says. “It will take a combination to keep us going.”
His search of the old ways led to long sessions with tribal elders, who taught him sacred songs and ceremonies. Brings Plenty opened his talk at Winthrop House with a prayer song — his voice filling the room as students passing in the courtyard outside stopped to listen in the fading light.
While in Cambridge, he also toured an exhibit of rare Lakota artifacts at Harvard’s Peabody Museum and examined objects in the archives, many of them dating back to the 1800s and exhibiting decorative motifs still in use today.
In contrast to its troubled early history of attempting to educate and convert Native Americans, Harvard in recent decades has strengthened ties with tribes through repatriating remains and other sacred items, stepping up support of scholarship programs, and establishing development partnerships. Brings Plenty praised the current Peabody exhibit, “Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West,” which was co-curated by Lakota artist Butch Thunder Hawk.
The exhibit includes a Lakota ledger book, recovered from the Little Big Horn battlefield, containing drawings from Plains Indian warriors.
In 2007, just a year after taking reins as tribal chairman, the chief’s leadership and reverence for tradition led to a rare convocation of elders of the four Lakota bands living on Cheyenne River. During the unusual ceremony, they selected Brings Plenty as a lifetime chief.
“My unci — an elder woman — named Clara High Elk came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes and said she was 83 years old and had never seen this ceremony until now. She looked back and pointed at all the people and said that they would probably never see this again,” said Brings Plenty.
“She said she didn’t think it would ever be held again in the lifetime of those who were there to witness it. Then she turned to me and said, ‘Now I don’t have to worry about the people because you will always be here to take care of us.’
“My unci made me understand but it also made me sad to hear the history of this ceremony,” he said. “Maybe it’s true that we won’t see it again. And maybe not. It’s up to us.”
BEDFORD — Army veteran Craig Cournoyer left behind his community of 400 people on a South Dakota reservation, moving thousands of miles to learn how to fix moldy, broken-down ventilation systems.
With the nearest town 30 miles away, there is not enough skilled labor remaining among his fellow Yankton Sioux in Wagner, S.D. Any construction work puts a financial drain on the tribe, because members have to hire outside workers. More »
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. and Stephanie Robinson were chosen last month to become the first African American house masters in Harvard University’s nearly 400-year history.
The couple, both of whom are alumni of Harvard Law School, will become the house masters of Winthrop House this coming fall. More »
Stephanie Robinson is very clear on her next mission. “It’s giving a voice to the voiceless,” she says. That’s the goal she hopes to achieve by becoming the next commentator on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” More »