Standing in the biting wind of the South Dakota plains in late October, the president of the Douglas Indian Association knew the Natives there needed his help.
Norman Sarabia is organizing a drive to collect coats and warm clothing for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of many Sioux.
"I saw how they lived," he said. "It's pretty sad."
He described the reservation as a "place of great beauty." Leaders treated him as a brother, despite having so little, he said. The reservation encompasses what is widely recognized as the two poorest counties in the United States.
U.S. Census figures estimate that 52.3 percent in the reservation's Shannon County and 39.2 percent in adjacent Bennett County were living below the federal poverty line. They estimated the median income of Shannon County households to be less than one-third the national average.
Sarabia is asking people who have clean clothing in good shape - especially coats - to drop them off at the Marine Engineer's Beneficial Association, 229 Fourth St., in downtown Juneau. The coats and clothing will be boxed up and sent off Dec. 15, he said.
"We could also use small donations to assist with the shipping," he said.
Sarabia said he didn't want to talk about the worst of the poverty he saw. But he recalled seeing a man sleeping on the floor in a trailer with no door and the windows broken out. "Dogs were running in and out," he said.
"We think we've got it bad," Sarabia said.
He felt the cold first-hand, standing in front of the post office meeting people from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., as the wind off the flat, empty plain cut through him, long before the depths of winter.
"It was blowing, and I was frozen to death," Sarabia said. "A lot of people there didn't have the right kind of clothing."
The reservation is the home to Wounded Knee, the site of the last confrontation between plains Indians and the U.S. soldiers, on Dec. 29, 1890.
But as little as people on the reservation had, the Oglala Sioux picked him up in Rapid City and honored him as a Native leader from Alaska. He spoke on the reservation's radio station, and in the tribal office, Sarabia said, "they presented me with a handmade quilt.
"They put it around my shoulders." he said. "It just blew me away. I was speechless."
He said he feels like he has to do something for the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Already he has talked to people on the bus in Juneau about it, and he believes people here see the need.
It won't just be Christmas that's cold on the reservation, he said. "It's January and February ...."
Tony Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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