James Modico holds some of the craft items made by Lakota Indians.

Working with Indian reservation an unforgettable experience

Nearly half of the residents live below the federal poverty line.

Unemployment hovers near 80 percent.

Life expectancy is a mere 48 years for men and 52 years for women.

The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the national average.

Elderly residents die each year from hypothermia.

Residents suffer higher-than-average rates of youth suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tuberculosis. 

Many of the homes lack water, kitchen facilities, electricity, proper insulation and sewage systems.*

These heart-wrenching statistics about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota gripped the heart of James Modico, a psychology student graduating from Penn State Hazleton this semester.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is one of the largest in the United States, spread over more than 2.8 million acres in southwestern South Dakota.

Modico spent a week with about 60 other volunteers working with Lakota Indians, including construction of bunk beds, ramps and outhouses and installing trailer skirting.

The group worked as part of Re-Member, an outreach organization to the Lakota. Modico learned about the challenges faced on Pine Ridge reservation from a book recommended by Dr. Michael Polgar, associate professor of social sciences and education. Modico wanted to help “fix what is broken.”

“This opportunity stood out to me, in particular, because of the considerable health disparities and difficulties that the Lakota have as a result of broken treaties and other broken promises,” Modico said.

Despite these “enormous hardships,” the Lakota are still passing on culture, which both impressed and inspired Modico. Members of the tribe create a variety of crafts as a large portion of their livelihood, incorporating symbolism and cultural significance through the usage of certain colors. Many of these crafts pass on native beliefs and accounts, such as the creation story.

“This isn’t tourism. This is highly important to them. These are people who are living their lives, being resilient and carrying on their culture,” he emphasized. “They’re doing it despite the fact that unemployment is high and food is scarce. There are only one or two places to buy food and one is a gas station.”

The volunteers performed important tasks for the residents, including building a new wheelchair ramp for one woman.

“The ramp that was previously there was at almost a 90-degree angle and made it very difficult for the resident to get in her home. Our team also repaired her outhouse that had blown over,” Modico said.

For other families, they built and delivered bunkbeds and installed trailer skirting to cover the open areas under mobile homes to protect and help insulate the homes, which get very cold over the winter.

Along with occupants of the reservation, he interacted with a number of people there, including health care providers and tribal elders.

“It struck me the most that despite all their hardships, they are still incredibly warm and resilient. They continue to carry on their culture while teaching their language and their religion,” he said.

Modico’s work with the Lakota aligns with his studies and goals, which include research focusing on underserved populations. After graduating from Penn State Hazleton in December with his bachelor’s degree in psychology, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in experimental psychology with a desire to develop treatments or neuropsychological measures that are culturally relevant to underserved populations.

Modico, a native of Manhattan, chose Penn State Hazleton for its psychology program and a smaller environment where he could do research with professors, including Polgar.

Polgar said, “James took the initiative to apply his educational curriculum to social problems in our nation, spending part of his summer in service to others. He worked with other volunteers to address extensive and rural challenges faced by Lakota Sioux people on Pine Ridge in South Dakota.  He read carefully about Lakota cultures, kept a journal, participated in a variety of structural improvement projects, presented his work to a sociology course and wrote an independent research paper on health disparities faced by Native American populations. James has also advanced several other undergraduate research projects while pursuing a Penn State degree in psychology. We are proud of his research and his ongoing work for our communities.”

Modico said he hopes others want to learn about the Lakota and help in a culturally responsible manner. “I would encourage other Penn State students to volunteer with Re-Member. The experience has given me a broader knowledge of the difficulties that people go through. It’s taught me that there’s a lot more we need to learn and a lot more we need to do to make sure that the people who we live with are taken care of and that their conditions improve,” he said.

*Statistics from Red Cloud School Indian School, located on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation