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Changing Lives, Minds, and Bodies: Gym Offers Hope for Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

pine ridge reservation

“A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky.” – Crazy Horse, 19th century Lakota Native American leader

Like many 19th century Native Americans left devastated by years of war, upheaval, and turmoil, the need for a great vision resonated deeply among the Lakota Native Americans. Though fighting eventually gave way to settlement on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the Lakota continue to face devastation as they try to make a life for themselves. From a failed economy to isolation from the outside world, the Lakota’s fight today is simply to survive and to find a great vision of hope amid poverty, depression, and a recent wave of teen suicides.

With an 80-90% unemployment rate, 80% alcoholism rate, 70% high school drop-out rate, a health-related life expectancy rate of 48-52 years, and 60% of the population living without electricity and clean running water, conditions on the Reservation are comparable to third world poverty and hope is understandably dim.

But there is one young hopeful Lakota who is pursuing a vision to help his people. Brad Piper, a lifelong resident of the Reservation, is attempting to open a gym with the hopes that it will give what so many young people on the Reservation don’t have: a safe haven to do something productive, purposeful, and both physically and emotionally good for them.

While there has been no solid explanation as to why there has been so much suicide among Lakota teens, there are a number of factors working against them. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is said to be one of the most isolated places in America today. Situated on 2.2 million acres of mostly non-arable land, a functioning economy on the Reservation has been virtually non-existent since its birth in 1889. When the Wasi’chu (Lakota word for a non-Indian person or “white person”), decimated almost all of their life-supporting buffalo in the 19th century, the Lakota people were forced to become dependent on the US government for their living.

Because of that, the Lakota people have never had the opportunity to turn their money around for the profit of their own economy and most businesses that are common in the rest of America–like gyms, restaurants, and stores–are sparse if not completely absent on the Reservation. Today, only 1 in 5 Lakota Indians have a job, which forces them to find work off the Reservation, and even then, it is a difficult task.

“The people give us no chances whatsoever,” said Piper of the businesses in the outlining towns around the Reservation. “If one of us tries to go get a job somewhere else we have to do thirty times as much work as anybody else does, so there’s a lot more work for less pay and it’s just not fair…there is a lot of racism.”

Since jobs are already hard to come by on the Reservation, when jobs even off the Reservation seem unattainable, the young people are left without hope to build a future for themselves.

Piper believes the suicides among youth are due to “depression and hopelessness.” Almost half of the population of Pine Ridge is children under the age of 17, many of whom live under the roof of alcoholic or abusive adults. Combine that with there being little to no recreational or educational activities to do on the Reservation, life is difficult and often times depressing for the young people.

But living with depression, and learning how to overcome it, is something Piper understands having lived with depression since high school. This allows him to especially relate to the youth he is trying to reach.

It wasn’t until Piper discovered weightlifting that he found an outlet for the frustrations and struggles of life on the Reservation.

“As time went on I found that whenever I came across a problem that I’d be able to go put on a lot of weight and do a couple reps with that, and then I felt so much better physically and emotionally,” Piper said, adding with enthusiasm, “You feel like you can conquer the world!”

Weightlifting was the breakthrough Piper needed to fill him with motivation for living, and it is what he believes will also help many other young people on the Reservation.

“If I could get those kind of results from weightlifting, why can’t I help other people get the same kind of benefits?” he continued.

The need for a space where young people can work out in a safe atmosphere is what drives Piper to do what is seemingly impossible on the Reservation – start up a business.

But Piper is not the only entrepreneur in his family doing the impossible. Piper’s forerunners—his parents, Leon Blunt Horn and Belle Thunder Hawk-Matthews—started up their own coffee shop in 2004 with similar intentions to help their community. Named Higher Ground Coffee Shop, the Reservation’s first and only coffee shop, it is a converted old house situated on the large property of their church, Pine Ridge Gospel Fellowship. Fortunately, there is room to spare on the property for Piper’s gym.

The Matthews also know the difficulties of starting and maintaining a business on the Reservation, but they are more than confident that Piper is the right person for the job.

“[There is a need] to open a gym to combat obesity in children as well as the poor diet most impoverished communities deal with,” said Piper’s father, “Brad started working out as a young teenager and has continued…now 25 years old, he is a husband and father. He is the best person to open a gym and train people because he has the love and patience to help people,” concluded Matthews.

That is the deeper significance of Piper’s gym opening up that only those living on the economically-desolate Reservation can truly appreciate. It is about one act of helping an entire community, born out of a love for the people living there. It represents a fresh start for a new generation with goals of building a healthy economy on Pine Ridge, both for the well being and independence of the Lakota people.

The centuries-old Lakota character trait of caring for neighbors, friends, and family still runs deep in Piper and his generation, and it is that Lakota way of life that is sure to be their strength in becoming economically independent.

“If you are going to look [at the Reservation], don’t just look at my gym and don’t just look at the coffee shop either. There are a lot of other businesses, like me, that are struggling to get started. But if they got started it would make the biggest difference in the world,” Piper emphasized.

Piper may be up to the challenge of starting up a business, but like many other people on the Reservation, he can only go so far without enough start-up funds.

The motivation pushing Piper to open the gym is his heart to see his people climb out of this crisis.

“I was hoping that it would let people see that it doesn’t matter where you are or where you come from or what people say about you, there is always a way to make it out,” Piper said.

Brad Piper and his wife, Stephanie
Brad Piper and his wife, Stephanie

Piper’s focus isn’t on the unfortunate circumstances stacked up against him, but the hope of a nearby future where the people of Pine Ridge are both physically and emotionally prospering, and where the days of unrest, injustice, severe poverty, and high suicide rates will only be a shadow of things past.

If you would like to join Piper’s efforts in making a difference in the lives of the Lakota people, he is accepting donations to help make the gym a reality. To donate, please give whatever amount you are able on his Go Fund Me account: Changing Lives, Minds, and Bodies.

Featured Photo: Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by Raymond Bucko, SJ, CC/Flickr

About the author

Heather Harris

Heather was born and raised in Sacramento and is a community contributor who enjoys writing real stories that real people can relate to. She works full time at a local small business, but there is nothing she loves more than engaging with people in her community. In her free time you'll usually find her outdoors, reading, or spending time with family & friends.

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