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  • Dr. Ted Klontz

POW Camp 334

The morning after I attended the Red Rocks concert that I spoke of last month, I went to Kyle, South Dakota; a little town located on the Pine Ridge reservation. My reason for going was to spend some time with people living there who are trying to keep their children alive. They average 1 suicide a week (of a population of 20,000).

The week before I arrived, they counted three and while I was there, they lost another. Their suicide rate is twice the national average. Those are just the known ones. The number of youth and women who go missing is beyond counting, and except for family and friends, no one is looking for them.

Driving into that little town, I was aware that the very same forces, beliefs, behaviors, justifications, rationalizations, etc. that were at work in the concentration camps in Europe during WWII, were used here, in America, with these people 75 years before. They still exist, to some degree, on this “reservation” that our ancestors set aside for those who were living in North America when we colonized the continent.

As you are aware, much of the ‘dirty work’ of the European concentration camps was carried out by those imprisoned IN the camps. Same here. Factors such as suicide, horizontal violence in its various forms, poverty, starvation, little to no health care, unbelievable mortality rates, forced separation of family members, alcohol/and other drugs, intentional exposure to infectious diseases, stripping people of their language, spiritual beliefs, hair, name, and personal identity, etc. These are just a few of the long list of factors that were used both in Europe and here. Many of those factors are still a part of the reservation system today.

All this should come as no great surprise, understanding that what we now call “reservations” were initially dedicated as Prisoner of War Camps. The Pine Ridge Reservation was POW camp 334.

Being on that land on that day, I found myself wondering how the descendants of the Germans (and others) whose ancestors were active perpetrators (or passive enablers) of the European holocaust feel today as they visit one of the concentration camps. I realized I was one of those people, a descendant of those who actively (or passively) created this situation, in this former POW camp.

I wonder how the descendants of those who were the victims feel as they walk those European killing grounds. I am one of those also. Both from my Irish ancestry and now as an adopted brother of those living on the Pine Ridge. That day I felt both, deeply. Deeply enough that tears fell.

It is painful to watch the forces that be work to eradicate the parts of American History they don’t like. Parts that would fill out the narrative that we tell our young ones about what happened here, and the other “inconvenient” truths that are a part of our country’s heritage. Here, in America, they try with the force of law to hide our history. I wonder what they are afraid of.

As of ten years ago when I last visited, every German youth was required to spend a day at one of the concentration camps, learning what their ancestors were responsible for doing with the idea that this might prevent those things from happening again.

I spoke recently of having become a brother to a man and his family who live on the reservation. I openly asked myself then, what it might mean to become a brother to him. That answer went to an entirely new depth as I stood there, feeling the living conditions, the historic and current grief and loss of my adopted Lakota family and at the same time feeling the guilt and shame of the other side of my family, being the descendant of the historical (and current) perpetrators of the (on-going) genocide.

What did I do with all this? I was able to be with three young men who had all seriously considered or attempted to end their own lives, as recently as two weeks prior, as my ancestors would have wished.

Along with three beautiful souled, lighter skinned colleagues, with my Lakota brother and his daughter, we were able to micro-dose them with unconditional love and watched in awe as we saw the light of life come back into their eyes, which my adopted family’s ancestors would have delighted in.

What does all this mean for me? I am not sure, but I have redoubled my efforts to be a part of a solution, whatever that means. And, I have found others who are willing to help me. I am grateful for them. Many people funded my efforts through our non-profit Chroi fund. They made this week with those who live on the Pine Ridge possible. I know you; and I want you to know that you literally saved lives that week.

Our time together was heavily infused with Lakota traditional ceremonies, prayers, stories, blessings, etc. During one ceremony as a representative of the dominant culture I was able to apologize on behalf of our country for our historic (and current) genocidal behaviors. We also offered that apology on behalf of all who we believed truly understood and would have joined us. They wept as they heard our words, and we felt our own tears. Tears of regret, recognition, acceptance and reconciliation.

As we were leaving, I asked what I could do that would help the most, they said, ‘You’ve done what is most valuable. You are here. You sat with us, listened to us, cried with us, prayed with us, ate with us, honored us, were present with us, and in doing so, loved us.”

I ask myself (as do others) why I do I purposely expose myself to such incredibly hopeless situations like this. I always leave overwhelmed, knowing I am powerless to make things better. I honestly can’t answer that, but Richard Rohr posits that:

“We, the privileged are gifted with these moments of (witnessing) seemingly hopeless situations. We must not separate ourselves from the suffering…... When we are close to those in pain, their need evokes love in us. Very few of us have (on our own) the largess, the magnanimity to just decide to be loving. Someone has to ask it of us.”

If you have the urge to help, let me know and we can talk about options.


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