For Waylon Belt, hope was on horseback.
“This is my last resort,” Waylon said, riding a horse beside his son, Tommy and a handful of other riders just outside Rushville, Nebraska. The father and son joined the riders in Lewellen, Nebraska after they heard about the 350 mile trip that started days earlier in Boulder, Colorado.
“[We’re] a whole lot closer than we were three weeks ago. Maybe 20 miles,” said Dave Ventimiglia, executive director of the Tipi Raisers, a non-profit based on Pine Ridge.
Ventimiglia, who lives in Lakewood, led the epic horseback ride that began at Fairview High School on July 30. Volunteers and native Oglala Lakota were invited to join the journey and fundraising effort that continued a previous horseback ride from Breckenridge to Boulder. Some rode with Ventimiglia for a day. Others like Waylon and Tommy Belt, joined the ride for more than a week.
“Waylon, who rode with us, is living in conditions that it’s hard to fathom six hours from Denver,” Ventimiglia said.
Ventimiglia and the Tipi Raisers organized the 350-mile horseback ride to help people like Waylon Belt and others struggling on the reservation.
As the riders approached on horseback, Lily Larvie set up shop from a parking in Pine Ridge. A tattered American flag flew overhead
“You know, these kids, they need clothes out here,” said Larvie, standing beside a table covered in piles of used clothes. “A lot of parents are out here looking for like just little shirts [and] pants.”
Larvie said she sells what she can a couple days a week to support herself, her mother, grandfather and nephew.
“We’re out here suffering and just trying to do whatever we can to help ourselves,” Larvie said, wiping a tear from her face as she looked out across town.
If despair were a place, you’d find it two miles down the road from Pine Ridge just across the South Dakota – Nebraska border. Alcohol is banned on the reservation, but it’s legal in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town of 12 people and four liquor stores. Last year, the four stores sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer, according to data from the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.
“Alcoholism has taken so much out of my life – out of my childhood and my grownhood [sic],” said Lily Larvie. “It’s taken everything.”
Beer cans and broken bottles litter the border town and the words “legalize alcohol” are spray-painted on decrepit buildings.
“There’s a solution to Whiteclay. There is. But we need people to pay attention,” said Dave Ventimiglia. “We need people to see Whiteclay and say okay, that just shouldn’t be there.”
Ventimiglia knows some are still wary of outsiders offering to help the reservation.
“We tried to wipe the Native Americans out and that’s left deep wounds,” he said. “Helping those wounds heal and helping people come to a point where they trust each other – for me, that’s what makes the most sense.”