From the Fall 2004 issue of Relationships magazine.The Standing Rock Indian Reservation sits on 2.3 million acres straddling the North and South Dakota borders. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is part of the Great Sioux Nation and encompasses tribal bands of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations. Although the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota name means friend or ally, the Chippewa Indians called the Lakota people “Nadowesioux,” which means little snake or enemy. French traders and trappers shortened the word to “Sioux,” and this is the name the U.S. government adopted for the nation.
Indian nations moved into the Dakotas for buffalo. When settlers began decimating buffalo herds during the mid-1800s, conflict between the settlers and Native Americans led to the Plains Wars. The federal government brokered a tenuous peace by way of treaties. But by 1873, the federal government confiscated 7.7 million acres of the tribe’s sacred lands in the Black Hills.
Conflict between the Lakotas and the federal government continued, with the most notable protest led by Sitting Bull, who was shot and killed in 1890. Hoping to avoid further violence, his followers fled south, joining the Big Foot band along the way. As this combined tribal group made its way to the Pine Ridge Reservation, 500 troops from the 7th Cavalry caught them at a place called Wounded Knee Creek. Chief Big Foot was flying a white flag when patrolling soldiers surrounded roughly 230 Sioux Indian women and children and 120 Sioux Indian men on Dec. 28, 1890.
Early the following morning, an unidentified shot ignited the Wounded Knee Massacre. Some 300 unarmed Lakota men, women and children were killed. As a blizzard set in, the bodies of those killed were left to freeze in the snow. This marked the last major engagement in American history between the Plains Indians and the U.S. Army and became a defining tragedy for the Lakota Nation.
Even their name “Sioux” is derogatory. It is an abbreviated Chippewa Indian name meaning enemy or little snake. But when they speak among themselves, the Standing Rock Sioux are the Lakotas/Dakotas, a name meaning friend.
For Sloane Floberg — mother of three boys, wife of the Standing Rock Episcopal Church rector, church deacon responsible for youth and outreach and part-time Young Life staff member — becoming a trusted friend of the Lakota people has meant building a life in Standing Rock. While many with a call to Native American missions come for a summer and leave, Floberg has been reaching out to Standing Rock’s kids for 11 years.
But it wasn’t until her third year there that the community began to accept her. In that time, Floberg identified the influentials among the tribe, those who cared deeply about their people and had the respect and authority to work with her for renewal. In the context of her youth outreach work at the Standing Rock Episcopal Church, Floberg was earning the right to be heard.
Mark LoMurray, Young Life area developer and project director of the North Dakota Adolescent Suicide Prevention Project, noted Floberg’s rapport with the tribal leaders immediately. “Whenever she’d walk into a gathering, often a teenager’s funeral, she’d be with native leaders. She had a great relational way with local native leadership,” LoMurray said. “I approached the Flobergs because they were doing great things with a pretty traditional church youth model,” he said. “Because their hearts were in outreach, I knew if they could adopt some proven Young Life ministry methods, new doors would open for them.”
In fact, Floberg had realized that her youth ministry needed greater investment and connection from summer missions work into the school year. So two years ago, Floberg and Standing Rock Episcopal partnered with Young Life to direct the only youth ministry on the north side of Standing Rock and the only one with ongoing programs for teens.
Each week they run club for 50 to 80 teens from four Standing Rock communities. In addition to the usual club program of singing, laughter, fun and club talks, Standing Rock leaders provide transportation to and from club, snacks or supper and small group sharing time for these Native American teens. On club night, leaders spend up to five hours in direct ministry with kids, building life-changing relationships. Close to 50 high school and middle school kids attended camp at Castaway Club in summer 2004.
At Standing Rock Reservation, Young Life is helping to make friends out of kids who have been rivals. “It warms my heart to see how bringing kids to the foot of the cross also brings a reservation together,” Floberg said.
Up against statistics
If drama and change characterize the typical adolescent experience, trauma and grief are the hallmarks of adolescence on the “rez.” High unemployment, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and single-parent homes are the norm. In one area school, the dropout rate is as high as six in every 10 kids.
LoMurray also said that in the last decade, Standing Rock teen suicide rates have been among the highest in the country. In North Dakota, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds. A 1999 study found that 18 percent of North Dakota adolescents seriously considered suicide, while another 7 percent, or 2,600 teens, attempted it one or more times in the previous 12 months.
“During a recent club, kids shared during a small group time about their families. More than 80 percent of kids had lost a family member or friend to suicide, car accidents or other alcohol-related accidents in just the past two years,” Floberg said. “But the biggest issue for these kids is not alcohol or drugs as most people think. The biggest issue for them is unresolved grief,” Floberg said. “They need a safe and caring place to talk about their losses. Young Life provides that.”
Whom shall I send?
Angie Buckley is a 21-year-old volunteer leader for Young Life. A Standing Rock native, she knows firsthand the anguish of loss and hope denied.
“Before I surrendered to Christ, I was in trouble, rebellious,” Buckley said. “All my life I was told I had a bad attitude. I was a bad person. I had no future. I could only fight it so much before those words sank into my spirit. I carried those titles, those names, in my heart. I tainted myself.”
Even after Buckley accepted Christ, she struggled to let go of the burdens she dragged with her. “How do I give up 14 years of burdens to follow you?” she asked God. “He answered me, ‘Let me tell you a secret: You are redeemed. My Spirit lives in you.’ And once I got a taste of that, there was no turning back.”
Buckley said that God has put the forgotten people, the outcast and the downtrodden on her heart. And when she doubts her ability or her suitability to the mission, she said God reminds her, “I didn’t ask if you were good enough. I asked, ‘Whom shall I send?’”
A future and a hope
LoMurray hopes that in two years, Castaway Club can host a week of camp focused exclusively on Native American youth. In the same way that Young Life tailors certain camp weeks to urban kids, he would love to see 300 “rez” campers served by an entirely Native American team of work crew, speakers and musicians playing a mix of rap, country western and traditional drum. His vision for Young Life among tribal communities includes the long-term commitment of Native American leaders to build the ministry, becoming examples and beacons to teenagers who need to see “Jesus with skin on.”
Floberg’s vision for the ministry was given to her years ago. As a young woman just out of school, she was one of only six nationwide who was selected for a unique missions project. At one church during this journey, a woman approached her and said God had put on her heart a message for Floberg.
“Actually it was a song. The woman told me that this would be my song:
I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Lonely or afraid
I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face”
(DJ Butler, copyright 1987,
It’s become the song of her life, but she claims it as her deepest desire for the community and the kids she serves: That these people, wounded and outcast, lonely and afraid, would take on a new, God-given name. That a people called the Sioux, meaning enemy, would be known as the Lakotas and Dakotas, meaning friend. And that they would become friends of God and seekers of His face.