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Rosebud reaches out for the future

Boys and Girls Club steps up for Rosebud students

PARMELEE | Thursday is tribal primary election day in Rosebud. The DJ on 96.1 KILI Radio interrupts the music to update listeners on primary vote totals.

"Upper Cut Meat has 13 voters," he announces. "He Dog with 25 voters. Swift Bear has 1 voter."

In the Community Center in Parmelee, a sign hangs from the wall, "Vote Here." Poll workers stand outside. But in a cramped, busy adjacent room, hunched around tablet computers or math worksheets, more than a dozen children in this small town of 562 Census-counted residents busily work on their studies.

"We don't want them to lose their skills over the summer," said Rose Elk Looks Back, the supervisor for the Boys and Girls Club in Parmelee.

This Parmelee site is the newest edition to the Boys and Girls Club's offerings on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. A few years ago, due to financial constraints, the Parmelee site closed. In June, however, Director Glen Marshall secured financing to open this small site that operates for four hours a day, four days a week. Now, Parmelee — a small town in Todd County that is 97 percent Native American — has a place for children to go in the summer. 

And kids are hungry for it.

"These boys walk in seven or eight miles," said Georgia "Dete" Guerue, pointing to twin brothers sitting next to each other, completing math exercises. Guerue is Elk Looks Back's sister and also coaches the boys on the baseball team. "Their mom just got a car, so she's now able to drive them home after the game."

Across the treaty lands for the Sicangu Lakota, the high school graduation rate hovers around 50 percent. Unemployment is north of 80 percent. For Katelyn Bladel, art director at the club, that's why learning takes precedence.

"We focus more on academics than other Boys and Girls Clubs," she says. "We want to close the achievement gap."

The Boys and Girls Club serves mostly elementary and middle school children (though the club opened a teen center in Mission), and space in Parmelee, staff admit, is tight.

In one corner of the room, half a dozen children wearing blue headphones operate tablets running Stride Academy, a learning tool to assess student learning. Elk Looks Back walks amongst others handing back times tables. In late July, students can get fidgety. The staff incorporates an hour a day of physical activity. And they go on kayaking trips to nearby dams and Eagle Feather Lake. REDCO (the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation) has been coming in to cook through Shawn Sherman (a.k.a. the Sioux Chef's) new cookbook with the kids.

"We've done wild rice sorbet and gone mint harvesting in creek beds," Bladel says.

On Thursday, a group of Catholic missionary students from Omaha — high schoolers mostly — engaged with students. Bladel is grateful for the help but is diplomatic about the tensions of accommodating a new group of new faces into a tight space every week ready to help.

"It's best when they come to help out with our programming."

Last month, three women from the East Coast brought photography equipment and loaned each of the students a digital camera and sent them out to take photos. Some photographs shot by students — including humorous images of a boy between archery targets and a girl in a wrap reading "Miss Antelope" — hang on the wall in the gymnasium at the larger club in Mission. 

The Boys and Girls Club arrived on Rosebud in 2004 and, according to its website, is the only "after school program" for the just shy of 10,000 people living on the 1,900-square mile reservation (not counting trust lands). According to the recently released Kids Count Data Book, rates of childhood mortality are high on Rosebud. Car crashes and suicide are leading causes. Type-II Diabetes is also a threat.

But in Mission, in a converted bowling alley, Lisa McKnight makes grilled cheese sandwiches for an early supper and students can connect with Vance Giroux, who is a monitor for the summer in the teen center. 

"I'm like an uncle — leksi," he says, pronouncing the Lakota translation.

Giroux grew up mostly with his mother's tribe on Standing Rock but spent summers on Rosebud, his father's tribe. He moved down to Rosebud to invest more deeply into what he terms the "old ways" and just finished his second Sun Dance a few weekends earlier.

"People see a lot of trouble in Parm'," he says, "But I think there's a lot of good, too."

Guerue, back in Parmelee, echoes this sentiment.

"The community is excited to have them back open."

Since June, they've signed up 22 kids for the site. A mat of carpet sits near an activities box. Letters spell out "Mitakuye Oyasin" ("all are related" in Lakota) and "LOVE." Underneath fly paper strips hanging from the wall, Elk Looks Back talks about her work as a paraprofessional at nearby He Dog Elementary School. She drives the bus and grew up in Parmelee.

"I do it for the kids," she said.

She acknowledged recent vandalism. At night, the Rosebud site needs to bring in the basketball hoops after-hours.

"I do take the laptops home each night," she says.

But she points to the glistening certificate on the wall dated June 25: the official Boys and Girls Club stamp.

"Take a picture of that," Elk Looks Back says.

After they switch stations, she exits to show off the Boys and Girls Club's next project. Outside it's a stunning portrait of a sky with rolling clouds. Cars are streaming in to vote. Parmelee is greener this summer, as are many South Dakota towns, with the rainfall. Last week, they finally got someone to mow the overgrown yard, so they can play kickball outside. A girl bikes past, while a young boy walks toward the swings.

"That's the famous boy's brother," Elk Looks Back said. Last week,  the Todd County Tribune carried the photograph of a little leaguer — his ponytail dipping below his helmet — mid-swing; he'd hit a home run over the fence, the first time anyone can remember that happening.

"This is our next project," said Elk Looks Back, pointing to a turquoise blue building sitting behind a fence and a mask of graffiti. "We want to buy it and clean it up and have our own space again." 

The building needs some TLC, but momentum is good with the Boys and Girls Club on Rosebud. Walking back to the community center, Elk Looks Back stops to talk to the poll workers, as a woman with her dog comes in to vote.

"Hey Rose," a poll worker says.

"Hi Violet," says Elk Looks Back.

They stop and chat, the sounds of the children's voices spilling out of the building. Two futures are at work in Parmelee — the immediate and the long-term. But, on a nice sunny day, there's always time to say hello to a neighbor.

Contact Christopher Vondracek at

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