GREENVILLE, N.C. – In an era when aid organizations scramble for the latest advancements in medicine and technology, it’s easy to forget that something as simple as a blanket can save a life.
Marji Forrest, founder of Restoring the Hoop, got a harsh reminder when she learned that as many as eight elderly Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota freeze to death every year during the winter months.
“This is absolutely not acceptable,” Forrest says. “These are the elderly, the people that hold all the history of the tribe.”
Driven to help others who share her Lakota heritage, Forrest launched an effort in 2003 with her friend, Resa Crane Bizzaro, to gather new and slightly-used blankets to distribute to residents of the reservation.
Since that time, Greenville-based Restoring the Hoop has sent about 200 blankets to the reservation each year, as well as children’s coats and school supplies.
The organization, which has had to contend with rising shipping costs, is trying to generate enough income to become a nonprofit. Most of its funding comes from donations collected at a semi-annual powwow at East Carolina University sponsored by Epsilon Chi Nu, the first Native American fraternity in the country.
The organization has a board of six women and about 20 volunteers.
“We’re just crawling, hoping to walk upright by the end of this year,” Forrest says.
Restoring the Hoop got its name from a Native American symbol of unity and wellness: a hoop divided into black, yellow, white and red quarters. Instead of forming a harmonious whole, the white and red quarters, representing white and Native American people, are split apart.
By giving blankets and warm clothing to Native Americans in need, the organization hopes to help mend the rift that was made almost 200 years ago when white settlers forced Native Americans from their land onto reservations.
The second-largest reservation in the country, Pine Ridge is home to about 46,000 indigenous people in the southwest corner of South Dakota.
Amy Wilson, secretary for Restoring the Hoop, began volunteering at the organization about two years ago when her son Dustin, then 10 years old, raised questions about his heritage while working on a school genealogy project. Since his Native American father had been adopted at a young age, he knew little about his Apache ancestry.
“I wanted him to get some sort of ties to his culture that he would understand,” Wilson says.
This summer, Wilson and her son took their first trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation to see first-hand how the people were benefiting from the group’s services.
Wilson came away with an image that still haunts her. Many residents live in abject poverty with no access to running water or health care. Life expectancy on the reservation is 20 years lower than the national average, she says.
“This is the United States,” Wilson says. “You’d think we’d take care of our own people.”
The unemployment rate on the reservation is a staggering 73 percent to 85 percent, compared to the national average of 6.1 percent. The nearest city, Rapid City, S.D., is about 120 miles away.
“People think, ‘They should get a job,'” Wilson says. “But it’s so isolated and it’s so cold in the wintertime, I can’t even imagine them getting access to transportation.”
Restoring the Hoop’s volunteer staff aims to establish a scholarship in the future for Native American students studying health care or education in hopes they will return to the reservation and serve its people.
For now, the organization is focused on its upcoming blanket drive, which will be held at the Nov. 1 powwow at East Carolina University.
Dustin, now 13, delivered a speech at last year’s powwow calling on attendees to take care of their elders.
“It may not have been his tribe or his people,” Wilson says. “But we’re all people.”