Natives meeting Natives’ needs during the height of the pandemic and beyond

Disaster Recovery in Native Communities impact story

“The CDP grant started all of this. Without it, I don’t know where we’d be,” said Chris White Eagle, board chair of Wambli Ska Society.

Great Plains Tribal Leaders Health Board (GPTLHB) (a grantee partner) introduced the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to Wambli Ska Society, a local (Rapid City, South Dakota) organization doing amazing work to help meet Native Americans’ needs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an August 2021 impact story, we shared how Wambli Ska Society emerged as project leaders and became an obvious CDP grantee partner during introductory and planning meetings with GPTLHB, Woyatan (Native, Lutheran church) and Calvary Lutheran Church in Rapid City.

Wambli Ska Society started as a drum society, teaching youth about drum making, singing and drumming to provide a positive cultural experience. They were re-invigorated prior to the pandemic, providing basketball tournaments, mentoring and drumming outreach.

Meeting their community’s needs

When COVID-19 hit Rapid City, it impacted the Native community more than others. Just 9% of South Dakota’s population is American Indian, yet the South Dakota Department of Health reported 12% of COVID-19 cases in Pennington County were in Native Americans, with 13% of deaths (at times as high as 17%, data from January 2020).

In Lakota, the phrase Mitakuye Oyasin roughly translates to “we are all related” or “all my relations” from the Indigenous understanding that all life is sacred and related. In the height of the pandemic, Wambli Ska became an important resource for their Relatives. Reservations had different levels of organized COVID-19 response efforts. However, there was no response directed toward assisting urban Indians in Rapid City, so Native community members helped their Relatives in the best way they could. Woyatan church became an unofficial drop-in center to pick up food and supplies from Wambli Ska and they organized food deliveries to homes in isolation due to COVID-19 cases and those in quarantine due to exposure.

In 2020, CDP asked Wambli Ska about community needs and how we could meet those needs with grant support. The leaders of Wambli Ska and Woyatan had recently visited with their Elders, asking them what they needed and where to focus their work. The Elders counseled to focus on the children, youth and education.

“I sincerely say Wopila Tanka (Lakota for “greatest of thanks”) [to CDP] for believing in us in the very beginnings of what is now Wambli Ska. I was told to dream big at the beginning of this when we were working on getting our first-ever grant,” said Pastor Jonathan Fast Thunder of Woyatan Church.

Doing even more with support from CDP

CDP awarded a $129,100 grant from the Midwest Early Recovery Fund to Wambli Ska Society. The grant supported a neighborhood Native food pantry; computers and supplies for online, after-school time, and homework help; more regalia making and drum building; nightly feeds for youth with food sent home on weekends; summer neighborhood feeds; and perhaps most importantly, a safe place for kids to go when they opened their Youth Center.

Tarah White Eagle, coordinator for Wambli Ska explains it best, “These kids have somewhere to go, get help with homework – a caring adult asks them about school and life. They get a hot meal and some food to take home. We are hoping the ceremonies are helping them to get back in touch with their culture and to share that with their families.”

Tarah also helped families work on housing and advocated for repairs and responses from housing providers. Wambli Ska also built two inipis (ceremonial sweat lodges) and have almost weekly sweats and several Pow Wows.

“The CDP grant started all of this. Without it, I don’t know where we’d be,” said Chris White Eagle, board chair of Wambli Ska Society.

Building momentum

Since partnering with CDP, Wambli Ska has done even more than what was in the project design of the grant. They’ve hosted holiday parties for kids, taught Native hand games and participated in hand game tournaments, continued hosting basketball and three-on-three basketball tournaments, and sponsored a Native traveling basketball team. They have instituted neighborhood patrols to improve safety and decrease violence, as well as established a justice system for youth to divert them from the jail and prison system. Their Oyate Court, where Elders hear youth cases, has grown and is scaling to other communities in South Dakota. A school is now meeting at the Wambli Ska youth center with approximately 20 home-schooled kids participating in a Lakota language and tradition-centered curriculum. They provided a sacred ceremonial experience of a lifetime to youth when they took some kids to a sunrise buffalo hunt—something that had been missed by two or three generations. Wambli Ska and Woyatan opened a cold weather shelter for unhoused Relatives last winter during a cold spell and are working with multiple organizations on creating a permanent Native shelter in Rapid City.

At the close of the CDP grant period, Pastor Jon thanked CDP, “That’s what grants and believing in someone can do. It can unleash the brightest of sparks that ignited a fire.”

CDP is honored and proud to partner with Wambli Ska and the Native community residing in Rapid City, South Dakota. The learning and relationships were rewarding, and the future growth and impact will be exciting to watch. CDP says Wopila for the opportunity.

(Photo: Pastor Jonathan Thunder Horse leads prayers in the four directions at Woyatan Lutheran Church in Rapid City, South Dakota. Source: Wambli Ska Society.)