Sage to Saddle: Harnessing Horsemanship to Support Native Youth in South Dakota
In 2018, Nate Bressler visited Pine Ridge Reservation on assignment for Outdoor Magazine and walked away inspired by the Native American youth of the Lakota Nation.
Flash forward a few years later and Bressler now runs Sage to Saddle, an initiative to build an indoor riding arena on Pine Ridge where Native youth can work on their equestrian skills, as well as receive after-school homework help. The idea is to create something like a girls and boys club on the reservation– a space that provides kids with a purpose and support during the harsh South Dakota winters.
How Sage to Saddle Was Born
Bressler has always had a heart for Native youth, working with them on weekend camps throughout his twenties and thirties. But it was on assignment to Pine Ridge that the photographer’s attention was captured by the Lakota nation’s plight. He was there to cover the story of Stan Brewer and his legendary team of relay horse racers.
“What inspired Sage to Saddle was knowing that this is a horse nation, seeing the kids’ connections with these horses,” Bressler said. “It’s a big part of their history and who they are. And it’s just a natural thing within them.”
With the creation of an indoor riding arena, Bressler hopes that the Native youth will be able to tap into this heritage in a positive, safe environment. He believes that just having one constructive distraction will help these kids deal with the challenges they face growing up on the reservation.
The Challenges on Pine Ridge
For people who aren’t familiar, it’s easy to lump all Native American culture and issues into one homogenous mass. However, every nation and every reservation faces a different set of circumstances. For example, all Native American nations have permission to run legalized casinos, but not all reservations are well-placed to run a successful gambling operation. Those far from metropolitan areas will have to rely on alternative sources of income.
The Lakota’s reservation is the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and located in the second least populated state in the country. Not the ideal formula for attracting tourist dollars. So you have a nation with little income, high unemployment rates and many families living in overcrowded conditions. Addiction, suicide and incarceration are all too common at Pine Ridge, correlating with the poverty in the area.
It’s not only the poverty that feeds into these issues. Bressler said that many people don’t understand the psychological impacts of what the Lakota have been through generationally.
“People do have this misconception that [Native Americans] just sit around and collect government checks, but they don’t realize the mental anguish and what it actually does to a psyche and to a family and a nation when you’re beat down for so long,” Bressler said.
Although many Native American tribes in the east were decimated centuries ago during America’s colonization, the final reckoning of the Lakota was only seven generations ago. The infamous Battle of Little Bighorn was in 1876 – less than 150 years ago.
“You’ve got elders alive now that knew people that were alive during Little Bighorn,” Bressler said. “So there’s a lot of depth to what they’ve gone through. People don’t really understand the facts of how they got to this point. And the fact that it is still quite a bit like a prison on the reservation – they’re still basically prisoners of war.”
How to Support the Native American Community
Sage to Saddle is currently raising funds for the indoor riding arena, but until then, Bressler is hosting multi-day rides for the Pine Ridge community, as well as for outsiders that want to get involved. After long days of riding, there’s food and fireside stories at camp.
Despite the challenges, Bressler said that every person that has joined him working with the kids on the Pine Ridge reservation has the same comment: that they’re touched by the sweet, incredible character of the youth.
Bressler cites visiting a Native reservation as one of the first steps anyone can take to start supporting the Indigenous community. You can read and watch shows about what the Indigenous community is going through, but it will never hit home like when you see it with your own eyes, he said.
Additionally, there are so many great organizations supporting the Native American community, but Bressler favors advocating for the youth.
“There’s so many ways to help but I’m a big fan of trying to get back to the youth, because that is the future,” Bressler said. “And if you don’t catch this problem before it gets to a certain point, it’s really hard to clean up the damage afterwards. At 25 years old, you’ve seen so much, and you’ve probably already attempted suicide and have already been thrown in jail. So I think a big area of concentration for all of us as Americans that actually want to care about our Indigenous culture is giving back to those youth programs.”
If you’re interested in supporting Sage to Saddle’s mission to care for Native American youth, please visit their website here.
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