It took Joe several minutes to come to the door -- partly because it takes awhile for him to hear the increasingly loud banging on his front door and also because at 83, he takes his time responding. When he finally answered his door, I couldn't help but think that I had met him before. Something about the twinkle in his eyes, his beautiful smile and laugh seemed not only comforting, but familiar. I'd figure that out later.
I spent the next couple of days going back to visit Joe -- not only to talk with him about the work he most needed done on his home, but also so that I could listen to him tell me stories about living on Pine Ridge and growing up Lakota.
Born in his Grandmother's home just down the dirt road in 1932, he was sent to the Holy Rosary Boarding School where he graduated and then joined the U.S. Army's 24th Division to fight in Korea -- retiring with the rank of Sergeant. When he returned to Dry Wood after Korea, he discovered that his grandmother's home had burned down and so, he asked the Tribe if he could move into the vacant house just down the road -- receiving permission to do so. It was a small house, in very bad shape, but it had a roof, running water, electricity, a concrete foundation and was on his family's land, so he was grateful. It was the mid 60's and he was raising a family of five with his wife in a very very remote part of the United States. He had a job in a not so nearby sugar processing plant and then a lumber yard where he worked for 15 years. There were deer that would come up -- right up to him, he says -- black footed ferrets, bobcats and birds of prey all around. And so, he was grateful.
Things got even better when for the first time in years, a Tribal official came out to visit him. His wife and children were gone by then -- two of the children having died early on -- and so he was living along the White River Creek by himself. He was grateful to have the official's company and even more grateful when they told him they would no longer charge him the $25/monthly rent, though they were now condemning the old house ("It failed 5 of the 7 compliance tests for living in.").
He hasn't had a visit from the Tribe since that visit more than 50 years ago and he has made the most of living in his humble and condemned house since then. The deer still walk up to him, his water is good and he tells stories of Big Foot moving across the prairie land all around him. He's grateful also that Big Foot doesn't bother him or his "neighbors" as long as they give the large Being plenty of space.
After listening to his stories, I could tell that Joe Hawk was getting tired now. He has degenerative arthritis, has had five stomach surgeries and now has a growth on his spine that makes going up and down the three front steps to his door difficult. It's difficult just to watch him go up and down the steps as he faces the wall, grasps the window frame and carefully side steps down -- or up -- one at a time. So, it was time to figure out how we can help him be comfortable in his condemned prairie home that he has managed to keep up 50 years after first having it condemned. As I looked around, I started getting overwhelmed. The roof was likely the same one the Tribal official had sat under when delivering the news 50 years ago, the siding had likely not seen paint for at least that long, the original five issues that it failed have not been addressed . . . . . . . Elder Hawk looked at me with those twinkling eyes and saw that I was trying to figure out how exactly to help with a group of 15 students for just two days. "Do what you can. It's ok. I'm grateful for what you can get done." He laughed his beautiful sweet laugh and looked deeply into me with his twinkling eyes. "I'm really grateful for what you can get done. It's enough."
We shook hands and he slowly and painfully eased himself back up the three front steps to his door. I knew then that I had seen those eyes, and that smile, and the sincere gratitude for anything that is good in the eyes of Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Along the banks of the White Creek River, I was reminded again about the wisdom of Elders and of gratitude --- "wapilapi" in the Lakota language.
Executive Director - The Tipi Raisers/Ti Ikciya Pa Slata Pi
PROJECT NAME: Joe Hawk
- Construct a small ramp to front door.
- Paint exterior of house.
- Replace roof.
ESTIMATED PROJECT COST: $10,000
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