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Bringing the family back to life

Rosebud Reservation makes steady strides

Rosebud Reservation is the home of the Sicangu Sioux and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, a branch of the Lakota people. Rosebud Reservation encompasses nearly one million acres of land in south-central South Dakota, an area lush with grasslands, canyons, hills and valleys, and sweeping vistas of sky and clouds.

“When you see beautiful places, your mental health is lifted,” says Marlies White Hat, the facilitator for the Society of Care Expansion Program. Their program, SGU Tiwahe Flu Kini Pi External Site, translates to "bringing the family back to life." Their mission is to improve the lives and conditions of children and families with serious emotional, behavioral and spiritual needs.

“We have historical generational trauma resulting in poverty, grief, lack of resources, and physical and mental health issues,” says White Hat. “We get overwhelmed. We look at our problems and ask, ‘Can we continue?’ and ‘What can we do about this?’ And the help comes, in some way, shape or form. And we carry on,” says White Hat. “To carry on is important to the Lakota people.”

The systemic problems that plague the reservation can be traced back to the loss of land, language, way of life, culture and traditions. “We strive to return all the positive aspects of the Lakota culture to the people who live here,” says White Hat. “We depend on spirituality, one of the many virtues of the Lakota. Spirituality guides and motivate our actions, along with other virtues like fortitude, courage, patience, honesty and humility."

Rosebud Reservation has been carrying on despite the many obstacles before them, working to provide fresh, healthy food to its 11,000 residents, providing opportunities for physical activity, and striving to reframe the conversation around mental health, so those who need help are more willing to seek treatment.

As a result of its ongoing work to improve their community, Rosebud Reservation received the 2021 Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Community Award. Here are just a few projects Rosebud Reservation completed in the last year that helped them earn this recognition.

Providing access to healthy food

There are 20 communities in Rosebud Reservation and most of them do not have a grocery store. With high rates of obesity and lack of access to fresh produce, something had to be done. “We simply need more ways for people to acquire healthy foods,” says White Hat.

To encourage tribal members to purchase and consume healthy foods, the Sicangu Community Development Corporation External Site developed a mobile market to bring fresh, local produce, indigenous ingredients, and pantry staples to the people. They use a cargo van to travel to three communities across Rosebud, selling produce and eggs from their farm, as well as products from local and regional vendors. In 2020, they expanded to visit 16 communities across the Rosebud Reservation.

The community development group also launched a pilot Food Rx Program in 2021. To participate, community members attend monthly sessions to learn about nutrition and take cooking classes. Upon completion, they receive credit, or "prescriptions," which they can redeem at the farmer’s market. Prescriptions include fruit and vegetables, as well indigenous foods like chokecherries, timpsila and medicinal plants.

Keeping children active and engaged

In Parmalee, a community of about 700 people within the Rosebud Reservation, The Boys & Girls Club has been playing a vital role in the mental and physical health of local children. The program provides children with a safe and fun place to go after school.

“They do an incredible job serving our youth,” says White Hat. “They provide transportation to and from school, help with homework assignments, prepare a homemade meal for children after school, and organize academic and enrichment activities.”

She adds, “During the height of the pandemic, virtual learning was hard for these children. Some of the families weren’t able to help their children. The Boys & Girls club played a vital role in helping children with homework and motivated them to keep up on their schoolwork."

Recently, the Boys & Girls Club applied for a grant to purchase new bike racks, which encourage children to engage in active transportation. “The bike racks were put to good use this summer,” says White Hat.

Staff has also worked to improve playground area safety, adding loads of playground sand.

To get children moving even more, the Boys & Girls Club offers a running club for children and organizes youth baseball leagues.

Refurbishing recreational areas

The Boys & Girls club also worked to refurbish the waterfront at Eagle Feather Lake, where children swim, fish, kayak and use the beach. It required a lot of manual labor, clearing debris, bushes, repairing the dock and more.

For safety purposes, they also added opportunities for staff to be certified as lifeguards. “This has been so important to our community,” says White Hat. “When parents know a lifeguard is present; they’re more inclined to let their children go there and play.”

Their efforts have saved at least one child’s life in 2021, when a lifeguard rescued an unresponsive swimmer at the lake.

“Providing safe spaces for children to play, like the playground and beach, are important to the physical and mental health of our youth," says White Hat. It’s safe to say every child in Parmalee and surrounding areas makes use of these spaces.”

Opened a second skatepark

In December 2020, Antelope Skatepark External Site opened to the public. It is the second concrete skatepark built as part of the Rosebud Skatepark Development Project, a collaboration of entities and volunteers devoted to developing high-quality concrete skateboard infrastructures and park areas. The parks are free, public, use-at-your-own-risk areas, and they are always open.

The skatepark uses a unique work program designed to encourage youth involvement and ownership of the area, distributing donated skateboard equipment on an hourly credit system. For example, after working for 12 hours, volunteers earn a skateboard. The park was built and is maintained by a few local adults and a core group of volunteers, and it’s estimated 100 children make use of it every week.

“The park provides a free opportunity for physical activity and social connectedness,” says White Hat. “We had great leadership in getting the place built and having youth involvement. It’s important, because we don’t have many places where children can gather like this. It helps that the people who use the park have invested time and effort to make it a success.”

Antelope Skatepark also offers community park space, a seating area and fire pit open to the public. During 2020–2021, the Rosebud Skatepark Development Project maintained and planted fruit trees at the skatepark. Due to the popularity of the space, they have started construction of another skatepark.

Carrying on toward the future

Rosebud Reservation has so many projects it would like to complete, it’s hard to keep track of them all. “We were the first Native American community to undergo a walking assessment. Some of the projects are easy to pursue, such as resurfacing the track at the middle school for people to use for walking. “That’s an easy win,” says White Hat. “Other recommendations from the study would require resources we don’t have at this time.”

Rosebud Reservation also has a city park that has little more than a canopy. “The city has purchased some playground equipment, but we’ll need picnic tables, trash cans, gravel for the parking and a safe playground surface,” says White Hat.

Another long-term goal is to refurbish the swimming pool, which sits in a state of disrepair. “It would be such a tremendous source of recreation for families,” says White Hat. “But the cost is steep, so we’re considering repurposing it into another skatepark, and finding other water sources for families to play, such as a splash pad, that would cost less.”

Overall, the leaders in the community strive to improve the mental and physical health of the people. “In Rosebud, it’s all about relationships, children and family,” says White Hat. “We need spaces where families can gather and enjoy time together. It’s such a tremendous boost to their mental health. In Rosebud Reservation, it’s all about bringing the family back to life.”

“My advice for other communities that are doing this type of work is to work with your partners," says White Hat. "Collaborate every way you can and see what develops. You can accomplish so much more working with your partners than you can working by yourself.”

Learn more about Healthy Hometown

The Healthy HometownSM Powered by Wellmark Community Award is an annual award that celebrates the successes of communities in Iowa and South Dakota that are working to make their hometowns healthier, more active places to live. If you want to follow in the Rosebud Reservation's footsteps and make positive changes to your community, check out Healthy Hometown online Opens New Window or email Send Email for more information.