McDaniel service learning touches Native American community

 12 09 25 lakota
September 25, 2012

The question professors Melanie Nilsson and Mona Becker are asking after exploring service-learning opportunities at the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota this summer is how best, amid such great need, can McDaniel students learn through making a difference.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is the site of the Wounded Knee massacre and part of the Badlands National Park. The great warrior chief Red Cloud moved his people to these starkly beautiful lands in the early 1870s under a treaty with the federal government and continued to fight for their well-being until his death in 1909. Today, the 3,400-square-mile land of sub-zero winters and blistering hot summers is the home of the Oglala Lakota Nation – the proud descendants of Red Cloud.

McDaniel service learning touches Native American community

But the Pine Ridge community is also among the poorest in America. The unemployment rate is 80-90 percent. In the entire Western Hemisphere, only Haiti has a lower life expectancy. Not all of the 15,000-30,000 (census figures are sketchy at best) residents have running water, indoor plumbing, electricity – or even homes.

Yet here, on the reservation, Becker and Nilsson also found what they were looking for – opportunities for students to learn about the rich history and culture of Native Americans while helping a community survive. Supported by the 2012 Zepp Teaching Enhancement Grant, the professors were accompanied by students Kate Hudson (below right), a senior from Manchester, Md., and Lauren Zafrir (below left), a sophomore from Baltimore.

McDaniel service learning touches Native American community

“There’s only one grocery store – and shortly before we arrived they discovered it was selling rancid meat,” says Becker, an Environmental Studies professor who brought back soil samples (below) to help determine what amendments are necessary to enable the people to grow a simple community garden. “Do you know what an outrage it would be if our grocery stores were selling rancid meat?”

McDaniel service learning touches Native American community

For one week of the three-week investigative trip, the professors and students volunteered with the local non-profit Re-member, which brings more than 1,200 volunteers to Pine Ridge each year for week-long working vacations that emphasize cultural exchange. They also explored other reservations where continuity of leadership, more fertile land along a river and more funds have improved the living conditions of the people.

McDaniel service learning touches Native American community
The Re-member Pine Ridge base camp

Volunteers with Re-Member work on projects that focus on rebuilding – everything from relationships between white and Native Americans to dilapidated homes and lives teetering on the brink of desolation. The most requested items are bunk beds – not primarily for children but for the many adults living in each house.

“I was inspired by being with a group of people who all wanted to help and were paying money to wake up at 6 in the morning to build bunk beds,” says Hudson, a Chemistry major who was surprised to find desperate living conditions that included outhouses and trailers containing asbestos. “Even though I am graduating, I know I will go back.”

McDaniel service learning touches Native American community
Kate Hudson building bunk beds

Nilsson and Becker are hoping to join those who are trying to make a difference. While still in the early stages, plans are underway to design an on-campus course followed by a summer program at Pine Ridge.

“The most important first step is education,” says Nilsson, a Chemistry professor whose service work on the reservation during her grad school days at SUNY Stony Brook sparked the idea for the recent exploratory trip. “Most people in the U.S. don’t even know the problem exists.”

The week-long $375-per-person working vacations at Re-Member offer food, dormitory housing and transportation while on the reservation, and also feature evening presentations by members of the Lakota community about their history and culture. One night, the theme is the art and craft of the Lakota people.

McDaniel service learning touches Native American community
Professor Melanie Nilsson, sophomore Lauren Zafrir, professor Mona Becker and senior Kate Hudson explore service-learning opportunities among Native American reservations in South Dakota.

Of course during the day, the theme is work. Re-Member’s formula is successful – families, individuals, church groups and college classes return once, twice, even six times. Although slow, improvements are being made.


McDaniel’s emphasis on courses that broaden and enrich students’ multi-cultural and global perspectives makes a service-learning course rooted in Native American culture and community an exciting possibility. The professors are working on a course embedded in McDaniel’s Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies program.  

“Tentatively we will have a course to prepare the students in the spring followed by summer service learning on the reservation with Re-Member and a de-briefing in the fall,” says Nilsson.

Read more about the summer trip to Pine Ridge Reservation on the blog, Lakota Experience.

More information about Re-member is available at


© 2017 McDaniel College