Manderson, South Dakota — The big open sky over the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation swelled angrily, breaking into a million tiny shards of ice. The main road through town grew whiter and lonelier. And all Principal Alice Phelps could muster as she looked out onto the Olympic-sized slush pool forming in her school’s parking lot was a sigh of resignation: another day, another obstacle to overcome.
It was two hours after the morning bell and less than half of Phelps’ students had made it to school. The freak April sleet storm had left many of them stranded down muddied dirt tracks, some as far as two miles off the main road. Most of her students’ families don’t have cars or cars in good condition. And the school’s small fleet of travel-worn school buses was down to three, none of which would’ve survived the trek across what is inhospitable terrain on a good day.
The next day would be a loss as well, as a half-day was scheduled to honor a tribal elder who had recently passed away. With no community center on the reservation, school buildings are often the only communal spaces for celebrations, meetings and mourning.
“There are no community centers. But there’s alcohol, there’s drugs, there’s gang-banging. There’s up to no good. There’s making kids,” said Phelps, principal of the Wounded Knee School, a K-8 on the reservation. “So that’s why we try to instill hope and try to instill possibilities. Maybe some of it’s circumstantial, but then again, you don’t have to drink. You don’t have to do drugs. You don’t have to neglect your family.”