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On Pine Ridge, a String of Broken Promises

The needs on the reservation hit them hard, especially among the elders. One, Louis Braveheart, in his eighties, was living in a peeling tin can of a trailer with no heat or electricity. Sometimes they would bump into him on the side of the road as he walked more than 15 miles each way for groceries.

Pat Perkins, with help, began an adopt-an-elder program. Braveheart's neighbors built him a cabin, and the Perkinses found him a wood stove and a sponsor to pay his utilities.

It has "become too hard to help," says Pat Perkins, who ran an adopt-an-elder program.

Through the Internet, the adopt-an-elder program found 400 sponsors from all over the country, and beyond. The Perkinses also began holding giveaways, a Lakota tradition in which families give their possessions to neighbors, usually in honor of a loved one who has died. But the Perkinses held giveaways whenever they had enough donations to make them worthwhile.

They averaged one every three weeks. The Pine Ridge radio station, KILI, would announce the giveaways, and people would flock to the Perkins house in Wounded Knee. Eventually, Helping Hands of Wounded Knee became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a full-time preoccupation.

But the Perkinses recently called it quits.

"It's just become too hard to help people," Pat Perkins said, sitting in her back yard during what she called the last giveaway. Perkins, 44, said she had pins in her back from a fall 20 years ago, while she was in the Army, and fibromyalgia. She often felt too sick to handle Helping Hands. Requests for help always exceeded donations. She was also tired of deflecting gossip.

Rumor had it that the Perkinses were keeping the goods they collected. With Troy Perkins working full time as a security guard in the old Pine Ridge hospital, a job hard to come by, and Pat collecting a disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs, they worked the giveaway programs as volunteers. But people doubted it.

Later, as she drove to a friend's house, Perkins acknowledged that she thought the reservation's problems are too deep to solve in less than a generation, with less than major help. She and some friends on the rez want to start a public library, but obtaining land is complicated because of the bureaucracy involved in leasing land held in trust.

The Perkinses wonder whether they will stick it out in Pine Ridge as their daughters approach high school, when two out of three Pine Ridge students drop out.

"In my humble opinion," she said, slowing her car to check if her black Lab mix was among a pack of dogs foraging along the road, "the tribe should hire professional consultants who come up with a Marshall Plan for fixing every aspect of life here."

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