GLASTONBURY, Connecticut – As the granddaughter of Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors on her mother’s side and a full-blooded Lakota Sioux on her father’s side, Rochelle Ripley feels compelled to make a difference.
“I’m pre-programmed to give back. I come from two Holocaust histories. I carry that as a huge responsibility,” Ripley, 67, said, speaking of how her dual heritage shaped her life.
Ripley’s sense of duty was born of a childhood promise to her paternal grandmother, Arbie Kaeck, to someday help her people. Today, Ripley is making good on that vow through hawkwing, a non-profit, volunteer organization that benefits the Lakota tribe of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. As of December 2014 the organization has delivered $9 million in goods and services to the reservation.
One of hawkwing’s first projects was to bring 283 beds, bed frames, pillows and mattresses to the tribal elders. The project was one area where her Jewish and Lakota heritages intersect.
‘I come from two Holocaust histories. I carry that as a huge responsibility’
“There are some key commonalities that make me comfortable in both communities,” Ripley said. “There is a great respect for elders and children. Women are the core of family and culture and there are similar beliefs regarding the spirit after death.”
Recently named a 2015 “CNN Hero” for her work, Ripley travels to the South Dakota reservation from her home in Connecticut about four to five times a year. There, she and volunteers work alongside tribal members doing home repairs, stocking food pantries and distributing much-needed basic services.
Doctors, nurses, naturopaths, nutritionists and dentists also visit the reservation several times a year to provide free medical care.
Born in New York City to a Jewish mother and a father who converted to Judaism after marrying her mother, Ripley spent summers on her Lakota grandmother’s farm in northern Indiana (her grandmother left the reservation in South Dakota when she was young). The rural setting became a refuge from a sometimes troubled home.
‘I have great respect for my Jewish traditions and beliefs though I am active in my Lakota spirituality’
“I love my Jewish roots. I went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. I have great respect for my Jewish traditions and beliefs though I am active in my Lakota spirituality,” Ripley said. “I felt more comfortable with my grandmother than anyone else. She loved me unconditionally and protected me.”
When Ripley was five she suffered “a traumatic event” and stopped speaking. She found solace with her grandmother. One afternoon her grandmother took Ripley outside to her medicine tree, a graceful weeping willow, and performed a healing ceremony.
“When it was finished my grandmother told me I could speak,” Ripley recalled. “Then she told me that people were born for a reason and that I was born to bring two worlds together. She asked me to help her people when I grew up.”
And she did.
Life on the reservation
Daily life is a struggle for the 6,640 people living on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, which at nearly 4,300 square miles is the fourth largest Native American reservation in the United States.
With a median income of $2,926, some 60 percent of the reservation lives below the federal poverty line. Many tribal elders survive on $300 a month and unemployment sits at 90%.
Many tribal elders survive on $300 a month and unemployment sits at 90%
Most of the Lakota on the reservation don’t own cars and, as the reservation lies three hours from the nearest large city, public transportation is limited. Most of the reservation’s 13 communities lack water and sewer systems, according to the American Indian Relief Council.
Moreover, alcoholism, diabetes and suicide rates are high: more than one in 10 girls on the reservation have attempted suicide. The life expectancy hovers at 48-years-old.
Most basic services, like going to the dentist or to the doctor, are not just around the corner. Likewise shopping for basics require a great deal of travel. For example, if someone needs a new pair of shoes, they might have to drive 150 miles, said Reverend Richard Allen of the South Glastonbury Congregational Church, who worked as a minister on the reservation from 1973 to 1980.
Allen met Ripley years later and has since volunteered his time with hawkwing.
Calling Ripley a “spiritual soul mate,” Allen said, “I’m just thrilled that Rochelle had this vision to do something good for her people. She just draws people in. And nobody in hawkwing or the reservation asks whether you are Jewish, a Lutheran or Catholic. The work transcends all that.”
Making good on a promise
Turning her childhood promise into reality took time. There is a long history of distrust for outsiders, stemming from the US government’s Indian removal policy.
The Indian Removal Act, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in 1830, authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. A few tribes went peacefully, but many resisted the relocation policy.
Ripley’s grandmother was born in 1889, just one year before the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota, which saw 200 Lakota men, women and children killed and more than 50 wounded at the hands of the US Seventh Cavalry.
‘Trust is evolutionary. It’s also a two-way street’
“There’s a good reason for the Lakota not to trust an outsider. However, there are benefits from the outside and if they are brought openly with a good heart and no strings attached than a lot of good can be done,” Ripley said. “Trust is evolutionary. It’s also a two-way street. We really need to learn to understand each other.”
Hence, hawkwing strives to build cross-cultural awareness. As part of that, and to honor her heritage, Ripley started learning Lakota. She now speaks it “like a two-year-old.”
Her commitment impressed Tribal Council Member Raymond Uses the Knife, of the Paint Horse Ranch in Butte County, South Dakota.
“I know a lot of people who come, do a little bit of volunteering and then we never see them again,” the council member said. “One thing I notice about Rochelle is she’s pretty consistent.”
Elaine Reynolds, a pediatric nurse, serves as the medical outreach director for hawkwing. She said the organization’s success lies in its ability to discover, not dictate, what needs doing.
“It took time to gain trust because the thing you have to be able to do, which Rochelle is very good at, is to listen,” Reynolds said. “You can’t go in and say, ‘You need this’ or ‘This will be good for you.’ You have to listen and do what the people ask of you.”
The nonprofit keeps the food pantry stocked and provides materials and equipment to the reservation’s schools and tribal programs. It also runs an annual holiday giveaway for the reservation’s 2,600 children. Each child receives new toys, books, warm clothes and personal care products.
Another concern is housing. Many people on the reservation live in homes in disrepair.
To that end, the reservation looks forward to next spring when, together with hawkwing, volunteers will build nine log cabin-style housing units with a lodge at the center. The idea is for professional plumbers, electricians and carpenters to teach high school students on the reservation different skills.
Several years ago the tribe adopted Ripley as an honorary grandmother member for her work and dedication. It was then when she received her Lakota name “Wa oyike Win,” or “Women Who Helps the People.”
“I was overwhelmed when I got this name,” Ripley said. “It’s a term of generosity, and it reminds me how as a community we can do so much together.”