Vic Glover’s Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge

Vic Glover’s Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge is a fascinating, moving, and often compelling look at life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  I bought this book in anticipation of our mission trip to Pine Ridge last Fall and have only just finished it.  It was intriguing to be able to see in my mind the locations of which Glover speaks.  Glover lives on the reservation, is himself a Lakota Indian, and is well-suited to paint the vivid picture he paints of life “on the rez.”

The book is often very funny, recounting the colorful personalities and sometimes eccentric lives that surround him.  In truth, the characters are certainly no more colorful or eccentric than we all are, but in Glover’s hands, and against the sometimes surreal backdrop of the reservation, they leap from the page and really grab the reader’s attention.  His description of rez cars and the ingenuity with which they keep these old cars together was really interesting, just as his description of road conditions on the rez was frustrating.

Humor notwithstanding, there is a deep undercurrent in Glover’s book of serious reflection on the social, political, and spiritual dynamics on the rez.  Spiritually, the Lakota are seeking to retain their heritage, and Glover’s description of the sweat lodges and “the Sun Dance” were really quite moving and very insightful.  They also reveal the seriousness with which the Lakota approach their spiritual exercises.  The book paints a picture of the rez as a deeply spiritual place.  He addresses the presence of Christianity on the rez respectfully, suggesting that the spiritual makeup of the people is fluid enough to where Christianity is not seen as an imposition.  Glover says Jesus is welcome on the rez.  Even so, the understandable hesitancy that the Native Americans feel towards the tragic history of their treatment at the hands of “Christian” men and nations is an ever-present dynamic.

This was one thought I kept having while at Pine Ridge:  how the sins of “Christian” people affect adversely the advance of the gospel today.  The Lakota are a generous and kind people, and their spirituality renders them hesitant to offend Christians, but the pain of earlier memories are alive and well on the reservation and, in ways subtle and kind to his readers, in Glover’s book as well.

His depiction of the food stuffs given to the Indians by the government is unsettling, especially as the low quality of the food is evident in the soaring obesity and diabetes rates among the Native Americans today.  Having stood outside of Lakota Nation, where those who live on the rez go to collect their food, I can envision the Lakota lining up for their food and envision the troubling scene of welfare state food distribution.  (Glover refers to the rez as a welfare state.)  Glover himself, however, speaks of the efforts to have the Native Americans plant gardens for fresh food, a project he himself participates in.

A few other things stand out.  For one, his depictions of death on the reservation are unsettling.  Be they death by gunfire or stabbing or car crash, Glover depicts the rez as a place of too-frequent tragedy.  Also, his frequent descriptions of drunkenness on the rez regrettable confirm the stereotype and the statistical evidence of a heart-breaking epidemic of alcoholism among the Native Americans.  I was also intrigued by his occasional discussion of how those on the rez view outsiders, particularly white people who attend the spiritual gatherings of the people.  Glover himself strikes me as a profoundly generous person who welcomes all, and he seems to paint a picture of real openness among many of the elders for to whoever would like to attend, say, a sweat lodge.  But there is clearly a strain of resentment among some (younger people?) who bristle at what is viewed as the intrusion of white people into the Native American sacred ceremonies.

Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge will give a person about as accurate a depiction of actual everyday life on the rez as can be had.  The writing is engaging, the stories are compelling, and the overall picture is more than memorable.  There is a note of hope in the writing.  He is neither parodying the reservation nor bemoaning it.  Glover seems to feel that life can be lived with a sense of meaning and sacredness there, and I would agree.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, the challenge of the evangelization of Native Americans is difficult indeed, given the tragic history and, in many ways, the tragic present for those on reservations.  I truly believe the Lakota need Jesus.  It is just a shame that the actions of so many of Jesus’ ostensible followers over the years have made this so difficult.  Regardless, understanding the minds and hearts of Native Americans is a good place to start, and Keeping Heart on Pine Ridge is a great tool to help in that effort.