Members of Oglala Lakota Tribe Question ‘Voluntourism’ and Church-Based Charities
The Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota is the “poster child” for charities raising money for projects in Indian Country. The tribal government would like more assurances that the funds are being used for their stated purposes, while others worry that church-based social programs are really about proselytizing and suppressing Native religion.
Davidica Little Spotted Horse has handed out flyers on the Pine Ridge reservation since 2014. It’s a seasonal thing. The weather is warmer and there’s another influx of Christian missionaries and charity groups.
The flyer warns tribal citizens about their rights to access information about charities and missionaries’ names, their intentions as well the how to report mistreatment or problems experienced during their evangelizing.
As Little Spotted Horse notes in her flyer, every year there is a another wave of missionaries, voluntourists and charity workers that descend on the Oglala Lakota Nation, also known as the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Little Spotted Horse and others who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals from church supporters described incidents of aggressive proselytizing and demeaning treatment of Lakota spirituality and language, baptizing children without parental permission, use of humiliating poverty porn to fundraise, and of forwarding a colonial agenda that privileges non-Native values and goals. Some members have made allegations of sexual abuse and financial misdeeds and point to the failure of most organizations to conduct background searches for their workers and volunteers.
Although many on Pine Ridge eagerly accept the donations of food, school supplies, toys and other goods, some people wonder about the motivations behind the seemingly uncoordinated charitable work that is seldom based on community need or any public assessment.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Pine Ridge has become one of the leading destinations for philanthropic work in Indian Country, especially among evangelical Christian churches and charities.
Indeed, poverty and unemployment rates among Native Americans in general are high; Native Americans make up the primary populations in the 27 poorest counties in the United States according to a 2016 Bloomberg News report. Although rates are high in Oglala Lakota County, they are not the highest in Indian Country. Oglala Lakota County is located within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation. For instance unemployment in three counties in Alaska with high Native American and Alaska Native populations are higher than those on Pine Ridge.
Pine Ridge, however, has the unfortunate, inexplicable distinction of being a poster child for Native American poverty.
“Many other tribes share our problems such as high unemployment and poverty so I’m not sure why philanthropists and churches are so drawn to Pine Ridge,” said Bryan Brewer, former tribal chairman. “Maybe we have greater name recognition because of our history of activism and presence in the media.”
Tribal council member Robin Tapio says there are at least 36 churches located on Pine Ridge, many of which operate charities. She said that doesn’t even include the non-profit organizations operating on or serving the reservation.
Pine Ridge has one church for every 388 people, second only to Indianapoliswith one church for every 289 people.
There is no official source verifying Pine Ridge as the location of choice for charities serving Indian Country; a casual internet search however, including terms such as “Native Americans, charity and voluntourism” produces results inevitably listing Pine Ridge as a destination.
Tribal citizens and leadership are expressing concern about the lack of oversight, transparency and intentions of the organizations that have proliferated in size and numbers in the past few years. Tribal members share stories that the primary goal of the evangelical charities is conversion to Christianity and elimination of traditional Oglala Lakota spirituality. Since most of the charities and non-profits are actively engaged in fundraising, citizens of Pine Ridge, where per capita income is about $9300.00, also want to know what happens to the money raised in their names.
In response, the Oglala Sioux Tribe began publishing a notice last year regarding donations on its official web site asking that charitable donations be made directly to the tribe’s treasurer’s office in order “to address accountability and ensure that donations are routed directly to where the donation is intended.”
Charities and philanthropic organizations purporting to raise money or provide services and items for the people of the Pine Ridge reservation are too numerous for tribal authorities to authenticate or tally, say tribal council leaders. So in 2011 the tribe created Ordinance 11-23 requiring non-profits and charities claiming to serve the Oglala Lakota Nation to register with the tribe, provide information about finances mission and intent. The ordinance includes a process under which the tribe can exact a financial penalty against organizations operating in violation of the law. A handful of organizations have provided information in keeping with the law according to tribal revenue director Bob Palmer.
Palmer would not provide details about the number or names of organizations that have complied.
Scott James, the tribe’s attorney general, said no one has yet been charged under the ordinance that was created prior to his tenure; he was not aware of its history but noted that some tribal ordinances are enacted in response to an emergency situation but end up being disregarded later on.
Last year, however, council members voted to use Ordinance 11-23 to hold the nonprofit True Sioux Hope Foundation accountable for failing to honor commitments to fund an emergency shelter for children, The Safe Home.
Opened in February 2017, the Safe Home provides emergency placement for children removed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s protective services from unsafe home situations, according to director Barbara Dullknife.
“The Home has capacity for ten children and is always full,” Dullknife said.
According to the tribe’s former protective services director Jerrod Weston, there is a tremendous need. In 2018, however, funding from the True Sioux Hope Foundation began to dwindle. Dullknife was sometimes unable to meet the Safe Home’s staff payroll or pay for basic needs. The foundation’s executive director Twila True stopped taking her phone calls according to Dullknife.
At last she turned to the tribal council for help. Although the council agreed to provide Dullknife with emergency funding they voted during the November 2018 council meeting to file criminal charges under Ordinance 11-23 against the True Sioux Hope Foundation for raising money in the name of the home and not meeting its financial commitments.
Founded in 2014 by tribal member Twila True, co-founder of True Investments, the Foundation’s mission includes funding a children’s safe house, providing formula and other supplies for infants, healthy food boxes for families in need as well as operating The True Thrift store that employs and serves residents on the reservation.
True’s goal, according to the Foundation’s website is to “to inspire unprecedented, permanent, positive change for the Sioux Tribe by providing critical aid for the most vulnerable, as well as sustainability efforts including programs that support education, health and wellness and employment.”
Although born on the reservation, True moved away as a child and is co-founder along with her husband Alan True of True Family Enterprises that oversees a number of businesses including True Investments, Twila True Fine Jewelry and nail salons Rival Glam and Polished Perfect. The couple lives in Newport Beach, California.
In July 2017, True and her Foundation brought 170 wealthy supporters and celebrities including Julia Ormond, Frances Fisher, Swati Mandela (daughter of Nelson Mandela) and others to Pine Ridge for a tour of the reservation and her programs; she also organized a gala event in 2016 in Newport Beach, raising $450,000 for the Foundation.
During a January 2019 tribal council meeting, members learned that Dullknife had no formal written agreement with the True Sioux Hope Foundation regarding funding for the Safe Home according to OST council member Jackie Siers. Council members rescinded the decision to file criminal charges against the foundation.
“We are trying to work with Barb to find a way to keep the Safe Home open,” said Siers.
The True Sioux Hope Foundation office and the True Thrift Store in the town of Pine Ridge were closed during Indian Country Today’s January 2019 visit. The sign over the True Thrift store had been removed.
Representatives for the True Hope Foundation failed to return phone calls or emails from Indian Country Today regarding the status of the Foundation. It appears that the foundation’s last Internal Revenue Service filing of a 990 form for nonprofit organizations was in 2016.
The foundation website however, is still accepting donations. Indian Country Today successfully donated $10.00 via the foundation’s website in January 2019.
The cost of pursuing criminal charges against the foundation versus the amount of potential return may have deterred the tribal council from charging the True Hope Foundation under the tribe’s 11-23 ordinance noted Tim Bormann, chief of staff at the South Dakota Attorney General Office.
Although the tribe could potentially succeed in getting South Dakota state court to recognize a tribal court lien against a charity, there’s no guarantee they would be paid any penalties according to Bormann.
“The reward would largely be in the form of a moral victory,” he said.
Bormann noted that South Dakota state laws governing charitable fundraising are almost nonexistent. “The state regulates telephone solicitation by charities; that’s about it,” he said.
A combination of poverty and tribal government dysfunction keep most people on Pine Ridge from asking questions about philanthropic organizations, according to Little Spotted Horse.
A local activist and musician, Spotted Horse has been a leader in a grassroots effort to push for transparency among these organizations.
“Some people are so poor that they’re afraid to ask too many questions; they don’t want to jeopardize the few dollars or food they may receive from charities,” she said.
More than 52 percent of the tribe’s 19,639 members living on the reservation live below the poverty level.
Worse, however, is a culture of acceptance of disrespectful treatment, especially from religious groups according to Little Spotted Horse.
“Some of our people have come to accept the disdain; it’s the price they have to pay for a few crumbs.” Little Spotted Horse said.
“In many ways, it’s like the early missionaries who came to our lands looking to convert us to Christianity and kill our culture; it’s assimilation all over again,” she added.
Newcomb, who researches the origins and implications of the Doctrine notes that the law gave European explorers the right to kill Indigenous inhabitants of the New World who refused to convert to Christianity. This philosophy of white Christian hegemony continues to drive contemporary Christian proselytizing and conversion among Native peoples. He describes their current methods as stealth evangelizing.
Rachel Tabachnick, a writer and researcher about the religious right, says contemporary evangelical charities and churches often cloak their agendas by offering social programming such as drug and alcohol recovery, child care, food and activities for teenagers.
Modern evangelical missionaries, however, remain guided by the same tenets of the Doctrine that describe global domination by the Christian faith as a desired goal and means to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, according to Newcomb, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.”
“The evangelical agenda of converting Native Americans to Christianity is a very well thought out strategy,” said Newcomb.
Indeed, Native American membership in evangelical Christian churches and ministries seems to be growing. In a 2016 article in the Journal of Religious and Political Practice, Elizabeth McAlister, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, describes how evangelicals have broadened their appeal to Native Americans. According to McAlister, beginning in the 1980’s evangelical Christians began framing their proselytizing and prayer narrative in military terms such as spiritual warfare or battles. In this line of thinking, all of human history is an ongoing battle of Satan against God. Native Americans have a special role to play in this world view. Denouncing the evil of idolatry inherent in traditional Native spirituality forwards the evangelical mission to drive out demons from the earth and paves the way for the end times and entry into the kingdom of God.
Eric Sutton pastor of the Oglala Re-Creation and Worship Center on Pine Ridge insists that the church, part of the Assemblies of God missions does not forbid its Native American members or program participants from practicing traditional Native spirituality.
He notes, however, that the congregation is literally Christ-centered and doesn’t permit mixing of Native spirituality in its worship services.
“It would be like me trying to participate in Lakota spirituality. We are all about Jesus here, but we don’t try to force our ways down people’s throats,” he said.
“We must be careful not to mix the true worship of the Creator (and Jesus) with the old religions that do not honor him. These (traditional) spirits have refused to honor the plan of the Creator,” the Native Book of Hope states.
“Our traditional Lakota spirituality is our greatest gift; it has the power to heal us,” said Little Spotted Horse.
Demonizing traditional spirituality while offering help seems wrong-headed at best noted Little Spotted Horse.
According to Little Spotted Horse, community members have told her of their children being baptized without permission and being scolded for speaking the Lakota language at the Re-Creation Center and other evangelical churches and charities on the reservation.
Sutton denied these allegations. “That is absolutely untrue,” he said.
Sutton describes the Re-Creation mission in a video on the church’s website. In addition to providing an open gym that is a place where kids can come and feel safe after school and during summers, eat free lunch and participate in play activities, he said, “We are able to show them Christ throughout life and share the good news of Jesus Christ. From that we are hoping god will have his way here and bring deliverance and light.”
“We do background checks on all of our adult workers and volunteers. We serve children here,” Sutton said.
According to a former participant at Re-Creation activities, however, the church has not always been a safe place. A young Lakota woman, T. asked that only her initial be used over fear of reprisals from church members, described years of sexual abuse at the hands of a former church employee.
T. attended after school programming at the Center from ages five to 11 and described an atmosphere of high pressure proselytizing that discouraged practice of traditional Lakota ways.
“They seemed to have this idea that we were from a Third World country and in need of saving. I felt shamed by their messages that following Jesus is the only way, that we were bad if we followed traditional ways,” T said.
According to T. she saw Lakota children being baptized in a small plastic child’s swimming pool without their parents present during church programming.
As T. got older, her experiences at the church took a painful turn for the worse.
“One of the men at the church would give us rides home; he started driving me to far away locations where he would sexually abuse me,” T. said.
In speaking with other girls attending the church’s after school programs, she learned that the man abused them as well and rewarded them with toys and gifts.
“He told us nobody would believe us if we reported him; we were afraid to say anything,” she said.
In 2012, T. told her parents about the abuse. They reported it to tribal police.
Sutton said, “I fired him as soon as I heard about the charges. The last I heard, he was in Pennsylvania.”
“I spoke to the tribal council about what happened too but there hasn’t been any follow up,” T. said.
There is no record of the man’s arrest or charges according to tribal attorney general Scott.
Tribal police did not respond to inquiries about the perpetrators arrest or if charges were referred to court in another jurisdiction. There is no record of any case against T’s perpetrator in PACER, the federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records.
T. hasn’t received any updates on her case from any law enforcement agency.
T. has given up any hope of getting justice. Now an adult, she lives away from the reservation and is pursuing a college degree; she is working to overcome the lingering trauma from the abuse.
‘Right now, it’s best I stay away from Pine Ridge; I’m still hurt by the way tribal authorities failed to help and support me.”
Reservation communities, usually strapped for cash and resources, may not look too hard at charities offering to help address social problems in their communities and offer programs for young people.
The tribal government infrastructure budget, mostly based on federal funds, is stretched thin these days.
“In the past we had money from settlements with the federal government coming in; those funds are now depleted,” said tribal council member Jackie Siers.
In the meantime, the number and capacity of philanthropic organizations on the reservation are growing.
“Churches and charities are constructing buildings on the reservation. It almost seems as though they spring up overnight. They’re using our people to raise donations; how are they using the funding? Our people have a lot of unanswered questions,” said Chauncy Wilson, who is also a tribal council member.
For instance, in 2011 Priscilla Locke of Pine Ridge was shocked to learn that the Wings as Eagles evangelical ministry was using the story of her 12-year-old grandson’s suicide as a fundraising tool on the organization’s website.
According to Locke, her grandson John participated in one of the ministries events for children but had no ongoing relationship with the church. After hearing of John’s death, the minister offered to create a memorial for the boy.
“At first we thought that was nice and supported the idea until someone showed us their website. They printed John’s name and used the story of his death as an example to raise money for their mission to help reduce suicide on Pine Ridge,” said Locke.
Posts on the ministry’s website implied that John was a regular participant in the organization’s programming.
Locke and her family follow traditional Lakota spirituality.
Locke asked ministry Pastor Lori McAfee to remove the posts regarding John. Locke said McAfee refused.
“I got so mad at her but she (McAfee) told me she could put anything she wanted on her website even if I didn’t give permission. They even had a video including John’s picture,” Locke said.
At last, Locke filed an injunction against McAfee in tribal court demanding that the ministry stop using John’s name, information about his death or requests for donations in his name. The court agreed and ordered McAfee to submit to the demands in the injunction. Locke said the postings regarding John remained on the site until recently. She kept screen shots of postings featuring John and his story.
The current Wings as Eagles site makes no mention of John or his suicide; Locke is still hurt and angry over the incident.
“These white people are just using us; they’re not nice people over there at that church,” Locke said.
McAfee did not respond to Indian Country Today’s phone call or email request for comment.
Natalie Hand, a resident of Pine Ridge complained that some charities objectify and misuse citizens through the use of poverty porn, images that exploit the poor’s living conditions, in their donation campaigns. Hand is a citizen of the Shawnee Nation but lives on the reservation with her children who are OST tribal members. She is field director of Conscious Alliance, a nonprofit organization that operates a free food bank on Pine Ridge.
Moreover, Hand and others complain that organizations seldom conduct needs assessments among reservation communities they claim to serve.
During a 2017 press conference, Hand asked Twila True if her foundation had conducted a needs assessment. True answered, “No, they need everything here.”
Similarly, the Re-Member Center, a nonprofit business located on the reservation that coordinates visits to Pine Ridge in which volunteers build bunk beds, trailer skirting, outhouses, wheelchair ramps and other construction projects, does not base their work on community needs assessments.
About 1400 volunteers per year pay $575.00 per person to participate in one week of Re-Member projects according to Executive Director Cory True (no relation to Twila True). The fee covers food and dormitory style lodging at the Re-Member Center but doesn’t include transportation to and from the reservation.
“We chose these projects because our volunteers want to do them and we felt Re-Member could accomplish them,” True said.
Re-Member also provides limited assistance to tribal members in the form of firewood and help in paying heating bills. Re-Member collects used mattresses from universities to be used with the volunteer-built bunk bed frames.
Although Re-Member claims to be non-denominational, most volunteers are part of organized church groups; board members are affiliated with evangelical churches. According to the its website, “Re-Member has entered into “covenantal relationships” with individual churches.
Since most volunteers are members of Christian church groups, Re-Member does not require background checks for participants according to True.
“We are very concerned about the lack of background checks on volunteers coming onto the reservation. Many of these people come into our homes and are near our children,” said Little Spotted Horse.
Re-Member has not submitted information to the tribe in keeping with Ordinance 11-23 according to True. “The tribe hasn’t asked us for any information,” True said.
“Our 990 tax forms are on file with the IRS and a matter of public record,” True said. According to the IRS, nonprofit organizations with gross receipts of $50,000 or more must file a 990-form detailing their missions, programs and finances.
According to True, Re-Member provides volunteers with valuable cultural exchange experiences during their visits. Volunteers who have attended at least two previous Re-Member trips can pay to participate in the Wicouncage “way of life” program taught by Lakota elders.
In its online promotional materials Re-Member describes the Pine Ridge reservation as home to the “lowest and the last.”
“I feel like these volunteer groups treat the reservation like a human zoo; they come here to gaze at the poor Indians. They leave feeling all warm and fuzzy about helping us without bothering to find out what we want or need, ” said Hand.
In the online review site Yelp, a former volunteer Laura Giles. of Henrico, VA wrote of her 2016 experience at the Re-Member Center, “There were so many volunteers and so little work that we were loaned out to Red Cloud Renewable Energy. Total income produced by our group of 50 plus volunteers was in the neighborhood of $23,000 for one week. Eleven bunk beds and skirting for two homes doesn’t’ seem like a great return on investment.”
There is growing criticism regarding voluntourism in general as an effective way to help impoverished communities. Critics say that voluntourism focuses on the volunteer’s quest for experience rather than on community needs. Tourists ability to pay for the privilege of volunteering pushes out job opportunities for local people.
Christian missionaries and voluntourists are greatly interested in fulfilling their personal visions. In his piece for the New York Times, Jacob Kushner who reports on foreign aid and immigration, quoted a missionary in Haiti who claimed she was called to be there by God and moved to the country without knowing what she would do when she arrived. According to Kushner, this attitude is typical of many missionaries and voluntourists who rely on good intentions rather than their abilities or skills in meeting community needs.
Darby Matt describes voluntourism as neo-colonialism, a continuation of the imperialism and colonialism first displayed among early Christian missionaries who sought to evangelize Native Americans.
Tribal council member Tapio has been working to gather information about churches and charities on the reservation.
“It’s so hard to find out anything about them but most run some sort of charity,” she said.
Although Tapio belongs to the Oglala House of Worship, a Pentecostal church and eschews traditional Lakota spirituality as a host for bad spirits, she opposes the lack of transparency among some Christian charities on Pine Ridge.
“The churches here on the reservation have a black eye among our people, they think churches are just raising money off them,” Tapio said.
She thinks, however, that most of the churches sincerely want to help tribal members.
“The problem is that many are led by non-Native pastors who aren’t from here,” she said.
Tapio wants to bridge the gap between the tribe and churches and coordinate philanthropic work into meeting community needs. She has organized 10 of the churches so far and hopes they can work with the tribe to build and maintain a homeless shelter.
“Homelessness is one of our biggest problems right now. Since our tribe is running into debt, it would be really helpful if the churches could combine their resources in order to address this need,” she said.
Many church leaders were offended that the tribe passed Ordinance 11-23 according to Tapio and refused to abide by it.
Since some of the congregations purchased land for their churches their leaders argued that they shouldn’t have to answer to the tribe, according to Tapio.
“But they are located on the reservation and the tribe owns the right of way; if they have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t be offended,” she said.
“They need to work with us.”
Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.