FFB grant creates needed synergy between humanists and Lakota


Thunder Valley LogoFoundation Beyond Belief is a charitable foundation functioning internationally. Thunder Valley CDC’s Lakota Language Initiative and Iyápi Glukínipi language immersion preschool, on the other hand, are located on the edge of a tiny town in one corner of a vast Indian reservation on the northern Great Plains. What connects these two programs, in such seemingly disparate situations? At it turns out, quite a lot!

As a secular humanist myself, I had heard from various sources about the generous works being done by  FBB.We worked hard in our application to convey the common ground that I believe our programs occupy. I had read on the FBB website that their Humanist Giving initiative selects charitable areas in five different cause areas, Our program fit for at least three of these: education, poverty and health, and human rights.

The education connection is the most obvious, as it is the most central to our organization’s work, particularly at the immersion daycare. But what about the other categories? Anyone who has any familiarity with the famous (perhaps notorious) Pine Ridge Reservation knows it to be a high-poverty environment. If this does not ring a bell, Google “Pine Ridge Reservation” and prepare to be astonished. Regularly at the very top of the list of poorest counties in the United States, our reservation’s demographics are a parade of grim statistics: an unemployment rate (80%+) that America cannot dream of during even the most crippling economic depressions, a life expectancy (54/57) that is the lowest in the entire Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti, a shockingly high infant mortality rate, and much more.

For those us who exist in such an environment, all of our work ends up coming back to the bottom of the hierarchy of basic needs; food, water, shelter, etc. When so many in the community struggle to make ends meet that the average middle class American can’t even fathom going without, our work becomes inextricable from questions of health and human rights. And in the setting of a Native American homeland, the natural world – and its defense and preservation – is paramount.

main-oyate-omniciye-oglala-lakota-plan.500717d0cbb2825f9ee4cb2fbc543b7dFurthermore, all of the issues that we deal with are deeply interconnected. In striving to revitalize the Lakota language, we recognize that by working hard over several generations to strip Native people of their tribal language and otherwise assimilate them into American society, the U.S. government and the churches caused much of the societal damage that continue to negatively affect the people today. And conversely, studies have shown that for indigenous children, learning their heritage language contributes to their confidence, cultural competency, and self-image, while the resulting bilingualism confers various academic advantages, and is even linked to higher graduation outcomes and improved college matriculation.

And why is the secular humanist angle pertinent? People who have never been to a reservation may not realize how entrenched Christian churches are in Native American communities. Some have priorities that we would recognize as aligning with our own values, but far too often, they exist primarily to proselytize and convert.

Many Americans aren’t aware that back in 1879, the United States government tallied up the various reservations and divvied them up among the various church denominations, in order that they would stop competing for souls in the same territories. Thus, as other reservations were “assigned” to the Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc., Pine Ridge was given over to the Episcopal church (although the “Black Robes” – Catholics – maintained a strong presence over the years). In more recent decades, denominations such as the Mormon church have made inroads, along with various evangelical groups.

Lakȟótiya Škíŋčiyapi Program RunAs one might expect, much of the outreach, charitable, and service work in the area is carried out by these churches and their affiliates. During the summer, the reservation teems with church buses and rental vans, traveling to the different remote villages to do volunteer work, host vacation bible school camps, or organize tent revivals or prayer gatherings. For this reason, members of the local communities could be forgiven for entirely conflating charitable work with the institution of the Christian church, in its various forms. And so I believe that  Foundation Beyond Belief’s support of our program sends an important message, one that it at the core of  FBB’s mission: secular humanism has just as great of a capacity to demonstrate generosity, engage in outreach, and help the less fortunate, and does so with no hidden agenda or expectation of divine reward.

And so, as my colleagues and I work to strengthen education, reduce poverty, improve health, defend human rights, preserve the natural world, all in this remote corner of the Lakota homeland, the Foundation Beyond Belief has heeded our call for partnership, and given us resources to assist us on this journey. And for that, we are tremendously grateful.


For more information on how Thunder Valley CDC’s work encompasses a far wider set of local concerns than language revitalization, visit www.thundervalley.org, or www.oglalalakotaplan.org.