An Elder Reflects on the Rosebud Reservation

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe reservation in South Dakota was established in 1899 and is home to more than 10,000 residents today. Rosebud is a complicated place, where new projects designed to help residents on the reservation both enhance and sometimes delay progress. With this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to provide readers with an inside look at Rosebud through the lens of one its lifelong tribal members, Irene Young.

Irene was born on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in October of 1962. The Parmalee community was her hometown, and she visits often as many family members still reside there. I recently spoke with Irene who shared more about Rosebud’s history – what it is, what it has been and what she’s seen change over the years.

Irene Young, Sicangu Sioux

TP: What do you remember about your childhood on Rosebud?

IY: When I was little, we didn’t have a community. Our houses were at least half a mile to a mile apart. There were dirt roads, no pavement. And we walked everywhere, no rides. We used to walk over to our neighbors or to my grandpa’s house. The school bus came to the end of our driveway, but it was still a quarter-mile walk to get to it. When I was about 13 years old, our [house] was one of the first few houses to have a telephone – and it had party lines. You picked up a phone and could hear three conversations of people in the area. Today, everyone has a television and even kids have phones. We’d just sit around and visit, talk about anything and everything, like how the clouds came in.

TP: How close were you to Lakota traditions and culture growing up?

IY: We didn’t practice much [traditions] or attend powwows. [The reservation] used to have powwows, but I don’t remember past about age 9. My grandpa could speak broken English but really was closer to Lakota. My grandma could understand English but was also fluent in Lakota, so she helped translate.

TP: What do you think happened to the Lakota language?

IY: The boarding schools probably affected our language. Speaking in Lakota was forbidden, and if we did, our hands were hit, or we were beaten. I went to boarding school when I was 5 for about three quarters of the school year. Then my sister learned I was there and pulled me out.

TP: What do you think keeps the Rosebud community going?

IY: For me, it is the closeness of kin that keeps the community together and strong. When winter storms hit,  for example, so many people live out in the countryside that assistance isn’t immediately available, but neighbors make it a point to assist each other in hard times.

Although they weren’t so long ago, some of the stories we hear about are easily forgotten, especially stories of lack of transportation, the need for good homes, and even substance abuse problems. Today, man-made meth is a problem, more than alcohol. We heard these stories before they became the problems they are today, and I think they’re what’s behind the high suicide rates on the reservation. I don’t remember there being a lot of suicides back in the day. I was little when I lived there, so if it happened, they probably wouldn’t tell me. But it happens more nowadays. I think the children probably feel alone. Fortunately, I don’t remember even funerals as completely unhappy moments. Family comes, people re-tell old stories, new generations meet, and in the end it’s less about mourning and more about celebrating the life that happened. The people of Rosebud have always had a way of seeing the good in the bad and making the best of a bad situation. That’s what keeps them strong.

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