When the Link Center Foundation (LCF) decided to close its doors in 2009, many of the board members were left with heavy hearts.
Audrey Link formed LCF in 2008 to provide emergency heating and utility assistance to the elderly, disabled and sick residents in the Lakota reservations in South Dakota. The needs were great, but due to unforeseen circumstances (namely two untimely deaths of LCF administrators), the LCF board reluctantly disbanded. Atashnaa Werner, a long-time supporter of LCF, as well as an ad hoc activist for the Lakota peoples, began to envision a new organization that not only would continue the good works of the LCF, but also expand upon them by forming sustainable housing solutions with partnering organizations.
The Buffalo Heart Project (BHP) is the direct result of this vision and will be hosting its inaugural event in conjunction with Conscious Alliance, featuring local musicians Elephant Revival, Boulder Acoustic Society and others on Feb. 5 at the Boulder Theater. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the event will help BHP complete its short-term goals of emergency heating assistance on different reservations, including Pine Ridge, as well as long-term goals of providing eligible families access to sustainable housing. Werner views this event as an investment in the future of families at Pine Ridge as well as a “seed of awareness for change in regards to the plight of American Indian communities.”
America’s own Third-World country
While many people have been involved with the rescue and donation efforts for Haiti’s post-earthquake devastation, few are aware that such disastrous living conditions exist within a couple hundred miles of us. The poverty statistics on the Pine Ridge reservation are staggering: the average life expectancy is 46; 65 percent of the residents live with sub-standard conditions such as lack of water and electricity; unemployment is approximately 85 percent to 95 percent; average income is $2,600 to $3,500 annually. With average utility costs during winter months averaging $1,500 to $1,800, families are living in untenable situations.
“In the tribal culture of the Lakota, you take care of your [extended] family. Last winter, the heater went out in the trailer where an extended family of nine was living. The floor of the bathroom collapsed from rot and a portion of the roof in the kitchen fell in. They lived in a tent through the remaining winter with a wood stove,” Werner says of a family living on one of the reservations. She says there are many more stories like this that illustrate the daily life and the challenges BHP is facing. While national unemployment rates have skyrocketed in the past year, the recession has even more dangerous implications for those living on Pine Ridge and other reservations.
“There are no cities, only small settlements. There is little to no economy or jobs. No [viable] hospital or doctors. … The schools lack everything,” explains Werner. “The conditions for most residents on the reservations are akin to living in Appalachia at the turn of the 20th century. Being poor in our urban areas is like being middle class on the rez.”
And with government budgets being cut in every arena, there is urgency for non-government agencies to act on behalf of the residents. Conscious Alliance, a nonprofit that hosts food drives with offices in Boulder, already began work to alleviate some of these issues on Pine Ridge, which made its partnership with Buffalo Heart Project a natural fit.
Before partnering with BHP, Conscious Alliance had a similar program in place.
“We are establishing a hunger relief network [on reservations] among young people through the facilitation of service-based learning opportunities and collegiate student groups,” says Justin Levy, director of service learning at Conscious Alliance. “We work within the music industry to gain support while hosting food drives at major music concerts and festivals.”
And the formula seems to be effective. From The String Cheese Incident to Sound Tribe Sector 9, Conscious Alliance has grown to encompass more than 35 bands that help bring awareness as well as provide attendees a direct outlet to get involved.
Music as the great connector
If the Buffalo Heart Project and Conscious Alliance are the bread of this service sandwich, then it could be said that Elephant Revival is the grilled tempeh in the middle. The Nederland–based quintet will be headlining the Feb. 5 event. Werner originally approached Elephant Revival last fall, expressing interest in putting on a benefit show to raise funds for BHP, and the activist-musicians were happy to oblige. As Elephant Revival gains momentum both locally and nationally, they will continue to be the model that Conscious Alliance uses to promote its events and causes.
Elephant Revival consists of Bonnie Paine (vocals, washboard, Djember, musical saw, guitar), Bridget Law (vocals, fiddle), Dango Rose (upright bass, mandolin, banjo, vocals), Sage Cook (vocals, electric banjo, guitar, mandolin, upright bass) and Daniel Rodriguez (vocals, guitar, banjo).
“[Elephant Revival] plays a unique blend of original songs in an emerging new musical genre called transcendental folk,” says Dango Rose of both the style and purpose of their chosen craft.
“[Our] mission is to close the gap of separation between us through the eternal revelry of song and dance. We are all participants in this eternal dance, the creation of this sacred song, creators of the world in which we live.”
The evening’s festivities will open with the Plenty Wolf Singers, a Native American drum group whose members hail from Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, followed by the emcee (as well as singer/songwriter) of the evening, Jim Page. With varied acts throughout the night, as well as a silent auction and information on how to get involved, it promises to be as interactive as it will be supportive of Pine Ridge’s residents, as well as many other reservations in need.
Levy adds that Pine Ridge is a special place for the staff at Conscious Alliance.
“Although the Pine Ridge community is struggling financially, they live their life in such a compassionate, humble way by taking care of those around them and giving from their hearts,” Levy says. “I believe we all have something to learn from the Lakota people.”
For more information on the event as well as how to contribute, please visit www.thebuffaloheartproject.org and www.consciousalliance.org.