Native Sun News: Pine Ridge residents launch Guardian Eagles
The following story was written and reported by Randall Howell. All content © Native Sun News.

WANBLEE, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Tag used to be a school-yard game.

That kind of tag is rarely played by school children anymore.

Today, the word has taken on a new gang-like meaning, often referring to a graffiti-based, black-paint “tag” or symbolic territory marking on the exterior walls of a house or public building, such as a post office.

And, a significant number of Wanblee residents say they have had enough of that kind of tag to last several lifetimes.

“They (graffiti vandals) have tagged and retagged some buildings around here many times,” said Phyllis Swift Hawk, a long-time Wanblee resident and one of those re-organizing and rekindling the community’s five-year-old, unimplemented Neighborhood Watch program.

“The initial momentum ran out of steam somewhere along the line,” said Swift Hawk, who is helping spearhead the revival of the program, which has Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Department of Public Safety cooperation and blessing. In fact, Sgt. Larry Romano reportedly has been assigned to the community, though the Wanblee Law Enforcement substation has been shut down after the building recently was condemned as structurally unsound, according to Swift Hawk.

“We have to do something to turn this thing around,” said Swift Hawk, who noted that the fading away of the first such program left community members awash in a subsequent sea of drug use, under-age drinking and vandalism.

Melvin Bad Hand of Wanblee agreed. So did Tonette Dull Knife, also of Wanblee. And joining them were Edna Marshall, Donna Red Willow and Marie Randall.

But that’s only a few of the Wanblee residents who already have volunteered to help rebuild the Neighborhood Watch program – the only one of its kind on a South Dakota American Indian reservation.

Swift Hawk remembered that in and around 1997-98, young gangsters from outside places, such as Denver, Omaha and Minneapolis, were coming into the community with guns, knives, chains and brass knuckles.

“Most of them are in prison today,” said Swift Hawk, the mother of two sons who have gone to the Police Academy in Arizona. “We don’t want that to happen again. We don’t want our children in prison.”

Bad Hand agreed. He said that the Guardian Eagles are being organized to combat the behavior of pre-teens and teenagers in so far as they engage in high-risk behavior that ranges from injurious bullying, costly vandalism and drug abuse.

“We need to provide security,” said Bad Hand, a Wanblee resident since 1983 and a Lakota language teacher. “We plan to just watch people … and to provide security whenever they (residents) need it.”

Both Bad Hand and Swift Hawk told Native Sun News that this past summer was among the worst when it came to children bullying and to the “theft of everything.”

“The elderly are frightened in their homes at night,” said Bad Hand, explaining that he was at Oglala Lakota College “learning how to be a carpenter.”

He said that Wanblee elders and young alike need the full number of street lights for security and the re-launched Neighborhood Watch program. Bad Hand’s calculation is that Wanblee needs at least 14 more street lights to illuminate neighborhoods where the bulbs have either burned out or “been shot out” by village’s vandals.

Of course, Wanblee village also has cluster housing along Highway 44 East, about a half-mile southwest of the village. Wanblee’s cluster housing has the same problems.

Meanwhile, Tonette Dull Knife, a young, single mother, not only agreed that Wanblee’s streets should be fully lighted but also thought it would help Neighborhood Watch volunteers “keep a watch on things” at night.

Another matter that the Guardian Eagles say they face is “the challenge,” said Dull Knife, who indicated that sometimes she is frightened by the unhesitating quickness that young teens use to “challenge” their parents.

“It’s one thing to step up to paint over the graffiti,” she said. “It’s quite another to be verbally, physically and/or emotionally challenged by a young man or woman who thinks that bravado is at work instead of disrespect.”

Dull Knife said that recently the U.S. Post Office in Wanblee was vandalized. She said the building was tagged and windows – special security windows – were broken. That’s happened twice now.

“They told us we might lose our post office. The postmistress said she was on a tight budget and if they couldn’t secure the mail, they’d have to close it, moving mail service to a nearby community,” said Dull Knife, who acknowledged partying some as a teenager “but not in this way.”

“We don’t want to lose our post office,” said Dull Knife. “Many worry about that, particularly the elders. Some don’t have transportation. Getting the mail here is important to all of us.”

Both Dull Knife and Swift Hawk said that the community “is in denial” over the drug usage, the vandalism and the intimidation of others that’s going on in Wanblee. Swift Hawk said that children as young as 10 to 11 years old are known to be using meth, not to mention other drugs – marijuana, cocaine, pills, alcohol and “juice” – available in town.

“Kids are always looking for $4 – not $5, but $4 – and that’s for juice. Juice reportedly is a can of intense liquid caffeine content that creates a quick street-level high. It is no more illegal than a soda can of Dr. Pepper.

“These kids get jacked up and then hit the streets,” said Bad Hand. “Most are out without parental permission, but in some cases they’re out while their parents are at home drinking, high or passed out themselves.

“Even if you see them (the kids) do it and confront the parents with what you saw, they deny it was their child who did it,” said Dull Knife, a single, working mother.

“We have to put some of this back on ourselves,” she said. “We want our children to have everything, we ask them to do nothing, and what they show us is disrespect. If you confront the kids who did it, they challenge you.”

Dull Knife said she gets concerned about retribution, too.

“You go out to visit or run an errand in the morning and you find all of the tires on your car slashed,” she said. “Because it’s a small community, we have a pretty good idea who did it, but to report them just triggers more retribution. They may break your windshield next.”

Dull Knife, who lives in Cluster Housing, said she not only gets concerned about retribution from teen gangsters, but also gets concerned about retribution that can come from the parents of teens and pre-teens who she witnesses as vandals.

“One couple came right to my house, stood in the doorway and accused me of talking bad in the community about their son,” she said. “I saw him do what he did. They stood up for him and ended up yelling at me in my own house.”

Several Guardian Eagles said that vandalism of buildings in town has not been limited to the post office.

“They’ve vandalized most all the churches two out of the three,” said Dull Knife. Wanblee has a Roman Catholic Church on the south end, the Lakota Chapel on Main Street and an Episcopal church at the north end of town.

One of the churches was vandalized just a couple of weeks ago, despite the negative impact previous church vandalism has had on the community, according to Dull Knife, who said that “almost none of the damage” gets done in the daylight.

“Once the parents go to bed and fall asleep, the kids are up and out the door putting their little gangs together,” said Dull Knife. “There’s lots of fights and the gangs are there watching, but when the cops show up, nobody knows anything.”

Red Willow said that one night a couple of weeks ago, she had just finished dinner when she heard noises just outside her kitchen window.

“I don’t have pets … but I saw someone running from my house,” she said.

“I looked out and there they were – kids who should have been at their own houses doing homework – running from my yard. Who knows what they were planning to do,” said Red Willow, who is fairly sure she knows the youngsters involved. “This is a small community and the moccasin telegraph works well. Within 24 to 48 hours, I was even more sure about who those kids were.”

Not only is gangsterism and vandalism in Wanblee a concern of many, but also some of the elders quickly focus on the children. Marie Randall is one of those elders.

“I worry about the children,” said Randall, a 90-year-old resident and member of Wanblee’s Neighborhood Watch program. “The young ones are watching this in their own homes … the lack of respect. They do what they see.”

Today, many adults in Wanblee are watching more. Members of the re-organizing group have stepped forward, getting a better handle on who’s doing what. And when required, repairing damages.

The post office, for instance, was vandalized twice before the young gangsters moved to the churches. Every window was broken in one of the churches, said Marshall, also a single mother. She said that “all the windows were pushed in and broken,” forcing the congregation to patch the openings with plastic for Sunday services.

“Those are expensive windows, too,” said Dull Knife.

“We stepped up and got rid of the graffiti and fixed the windows so we wouldn’t lose our post office,” said Dull Knife. “We watch it more now. That’s what this is about – a Neighborhood Watch. We’ve become more aware of what people are up to. We’re just trying to protect people and property.”

She agreed that the town has a “bad habit” that it needs to break.

“We deny that our own kids are involved,” she said. “Now, when we see it, we have started to write things down – it adds more weight to know I saw this happen and then see the names of the kids I wrote down – the kids who did it.”

Hence, the continued training of volunteer members for what promises to be the resurrection of the Neighborhood Watch program, which gives rise to the Guardian Eagles, who can view Eagles Nest Butte – a sacred spiritual site – a few miles south of Wanblee.

The butte itself has become part of the Neighborhood Watch program as a place to hike, experience both public and private spirituality and to learn about the Lakota culture, including the aboriginal language, according to Swift Hawk. Students are allowed to join supervised hikes to the top of the butte, said Swift Hawk.

“This is not a ‘gotcha’ program so much as it is finding age-appropriate ways – learning experiences – for our youth so that the community feels safer and the kids are engaged in it instead of fighting against it,” said Swift Hawk.

“Today’s lifestyle is such that these kids, most of them anyway, get precious little time from their parents,” Swift Hawk said. “We have so many single mothers with children who also are working fulltime to take care of their families, that it’s a wonder things aren’t worse. That’s why we did this – to give those youngsters a safe home and a future.”

She said that Wanblee has some basic critical needs, including providing parenting classes for all parents, particularly young parents and those planning to be together to raise a family.

“We need a youth center, for instance,” Swift Hawk said. “It would be a place where we can teach and learn, work and play – channeling energy into constructive tasks that leave such things as vandalism in the dust.”

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