The Daily Illini

UI students aid Indian reservation

Kola Foundation, a non-profit organization started by University MBA students, will be distributing $80,000 worth of supplies to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota on Friday.

The foundation has partnered with Latter-day Saint Charities, a national relief organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Adam Ratner, chief executive officer of Kola Foundation, said there is a high suicide rate among the young people on the reservation, a drop-out rate around 70 percent, an unemployment rate over 80 to 85 percent and a median income of $6,000.

“This is the third world right in the middle of the United States,” Ratner said. “I really could not leave there and be happy as an individual and content with my decisions if I did nothing. There was no way I could have done that.”

Nick Reynolds, chief development officer of Kola Foundation, said Latter-day Saint Charities has donated goods such as winter clothes, hygiene kits, school kits, newborn kits and several thousand quilts. He added that these goods fill an entire 55-foot semi-truck.

Reynolds said nine small communities make up the reservation with an estimated total of 20,000 to 40,000 people living in Pine Ridge.

“We really exist to build long-term sustainability and foster a sense of self-sufficiency,” he said. “We’re trying to focus on long-term sustainability so we can help them help themselves.”

Ratner said the four focus areas that fall under Kola include: education, generating hope, improving health care and stimulating the local economy.

Both Reynolds and Ratner learned about the reservation through the master’s in business program here at the University and thus formed this non-profit organization aimed to improve the lives of the people on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Ratner said he had the opportunity to work on service-based projects such as fixing roofs, where he saw 10 to 14 people living in a single trailer.

“The most compelling part of the trip for me while there wasn’t necessarily the work that we were doing because it generally wasn’t making a really big impact on the reservation — it was just putting a Band-Aid on the quality of life that is there today,” he said.

Caroline Brown, member of Native American Club and sophomore in LAS, said there is a high poverty rate, low employment and inadequate health care on Native American reservations. She added that besides the lack of proper resources, there is also a disrespect and misperception of what Indian means.

“There’s not a real representation of what Indian is,” Brown said. “If you’re not fitting that standard, you’re not Indian enough.”

She said Native American women, for example, are combating two biggest stereotypes — the construction of an Indian woman as a prize for the white man, similar to Pocahontas, and as an overly sexualized being.

“If you’re not actively combating those perceptions, you’re going to have those perceptions,” Brown said.

Kyle Mays, graduate student in history, said there are issues of impoverishment, youth suicide and alcoholism on some reservations. He added that there are about 550 Native American communities that are “federally recognized as sovereign nations.” Mays said he wants students to first tackle the issues against Native Americans on this campus, particularly in regards to the chief.

“How can one go out into a Native American reservation without adequately dealing with these issues?” Mays said.

Brown said she advocates for Native American history to be taught in schools to allow Americans to listen to the Indian voice.

“I think it needs to be taught in schools to have respect for their land we’re living on,” Brown said. “They are a part of our country.”

Reynolds said the most compelling sight on the reservation is the sense of pride and excitement local business owners have in developing their entrepreneurial ventures.

“There is a sense that they want to break out of the economic cycle that they’re in,” Reynolds said. “Right now, we are more focused with stimulating the local economy, and as our fourth pillar says, instilling a sense of hope in the people.”

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