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 needs to make a difference.
“I’m pre-programmed to give back. I come from two Holocaust histories. I carry that as a huge responsibility,” Ms. Ripley says.
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 pledge through hawkwing Inc., a nonprofit, all volunteer organization that benefits the Lakota Indian tribe of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. To date her organization has delivered $9 million in goods and services to the reservation.
Ripley grew up in New York City. But it was during summers spent on her grandmother’s farm in northern Indiana that she felt most at home.
“When I was with her I felt like I belonged. I knew she loved me more than anyone else,” Ripley says. “There were a lot of problems in my home in New York City – mental illness, alcohol. So when I was with my grandmother I wanted to stay there.”
That was especially true after she suffered a violent trauma at the age of five. That summer her grandmother performed a healing ceremony.
“When it was finished my grandmother told me that people were born for a reason and that I was born to bring two worlds together. Before she died she asked me to promise to help her people when I grew up,” Ripley says.
Recently named a 2015 “CNN Hero” for her work, Ripley travels to the reservation from Connecticut about five times a year. Together with volunteers she works alongside tribal members doing home repairs, stocking food pantries, and distributing much needed basic services. Doctors, nurses, nutritionists, and dentists also visit the reservation several times a year to provide free medical care.
Daily life is a struggle for the 6,640 people living on the reservation, which is twice the size of Connecticut. With a median income of $2,926, many families on the reservation face poverty. Many tribal elders live on $300 a month and unemployment is around 80 percent. Most people don’t own working cars, and public transportation is limited.
There are only four schools, and 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 has attempted suicide. Life expectancy hovers around 48 years.
“Most basic services, like going to the dentist or to the doctor, are not easy. It’s not like everything is just around the corner. The miles people have to travel are incredible. If you needed a new pair of shoes, for example, sometimes you have to go 150 miles,” says Rev. Richard Allen of the South Glastonbury (Conn.) Congregational Church, who worked as a minister on the reservation from 1973 to 1980.
Calling Ripley a “spiritual soul mate,” Revered Allen says, “I’m just thrilled that Rochelle had this vision to do something good for her people. She just draws people in and nobody there asks whether you are Jewish, Lutheran, or Catholic. The work transcends all that.”
Ripley has worked hard to build trust on the reservation.
“There’s a good reason for the Lakota not to trust an outsider," she says. "However, there are benefits from the outside, and if they are brought openly with a good heart and no strings attached, then a lot of good can be done. Trust is evolutionary.”
Hence, hawkwing works to build cross-cultural awareness. The idea embodies the Lakota belief of Mitakuye Oyasin, “We are all related.”
Ripley's commitment has impressed Raymond Uses the Knife, a rancher and tribal council member.
“I know a lot of people who come, do a little bit of volunteering, and then we never see them again,” he says. “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 hawkwing’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,” Ms. Reynolds says. “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.”
One of hawkwing’s earliest projects was to bring 283 beds, bed frames, pillows, and mattresses to the elders. The nonprofit keeps the food pantry stocked and provides materials and equipment to the reservation’s schools and other tribal programs. It also runs an annual holiday giveaway for the reservation’s 2,600 children.
Another concern is housing. Many people live in homes in disrepair where black mold runs rampant. To that end, Uses The Knife 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 construction skills.
Several years ago the tribe adopted Ripley as an honorary grandmother member. It was then when she received her Lakota name “Wa oyike Win,” or “Woman Who Helps the People.”
“I was overwhelmed when I got this name,” Ripley says. “It’s a term of generosity, and it reminds me how as a community we can do so much together.”
• To learn more about hawkwing visit www.hawkwing.org.