Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota

Sioux YMCA | Cheyenne River

Andrew Corley


In this interview, conducted on June 30, 2020, Andrew Corley, executive director of the Sioux YMCA, discusses how the organization supports and empowers youth across the Cheyenne River Reservation with in-school safe spaces and programming, after-school and summer programs at YMCA facilities, and consistent meals. —Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros, The Lakota Nation and the Legacy of American Colonization editors

Dupree, SD. Credit: Jessie Story

Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros interviewed Andrew Corley in 2020.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros (AC and ZM): How does the Sioux YMCA typically operate within the Cheyenne River Reservation, taking into account its base in Dupree and satellite programs in other communities?

Andrew Corley (AC): At the Sioux YMCA there are four main program areas: camp, which covers our day camp and our resident camp; after school, which covers the school year; our volunteer program, which brings volunteers—either individuals, small groups, large groups, from anywhere from one week to six months; and fourth would be our, Past, Present, Future Program, which is preserving the past in the present and thinking about the future, which includes our Lakota camp, our learning garden, and our current program curriculums.

View a map noting the locations of communities and sites mentioned in this interview, along with a discussion of land ownership and governance helpful in understanding this conversation.

We have some of the highest child hunger rates in the continent. We’re really intentional that food is the primary focus for the Y: making sure that kids are eating healthy, nutritious meals. We begin with the hierarchy of needs, and the base is providing food, shelter, and clothing, because how are we expected to move up the hierarchy if we can’t even get the basics covered? All of our programs have a feeding component to it. Then the program aspect, which would be large group games, arts and crafts, youth recreational sports. Those all happen within the day camp and after-school realm. 

There is trauma-informed care infused in everything we do. It’s easier for us to implement fully in the camp setting where we have the kids on a very consistent basis, but we do our best. Everyone who walks through our door, even if they’re a volunteer, has trauma. But the youth we serve have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, vicarious trauma, historic trauma. The basis is that it’s a safe space.

Embedded Roots, Dupree, SD (left), Keep on Keeping On, Dupree, SD (right), photographs by Jessie Story

In the summer, our day camps operate at our site in Dupree; at our resident site, Camp Marrowbone; and then six mobile sites. We go and drive out to those; some are as close as 20 miles and the furthest is 70 miles, one way. 

Our resident camp is a seven-day program. We run seven sessions where kids are able to deepen connections, access skill-based programming, and dive deep into trauma-informed care curriculum and looking back at the history of Lakota culture and allowing the kids, if they choose to, to explore deeper, whatever that means to them.

During a typical school year, our after-school program runs at our site in Dupree five days a week. It is a drop-in program where kids fly down from the school and we provide them a snack when they first get here. Then they are able to select the activities that they’re going to be doing.

We do one field trip on the first Saturday of each month. For example, if we were to go down to the Rapid City YMCA to go swimming and play basketball, then we also go do service work for that YMCA or in that community at a shelter or a food bank. We started this a year ago with them really giving back to that community. They see so many volunteers come here and help out, but they don’t really understand that there are big needs in other parts of the country as well. 

Our in-school program is very much trauma-informed-care based. Currently, we’re in three of the schools and we meet with students, usually in a small group setting: between two and five students. 

We have a calming box that has a bunch of different elements to it, like bubbles so that they take deep breaths and breathe without them actually knowing it. We have those emotion charts so they can identify where they are feeling at the start of coming in there, if they’ve come in for disciplinary reasons, or behavioral reasons. Pictures of puppies and kittens, because who doesn’t like looking at those. And then a lot of sensory tools: kinetic sand, gels, noisemakers, soothing sound noisemakers. We have sage burning for that healing process and traditional aspect. We have them identify three emotions that they’re feeling, and typically they’ll go from angry to calm, or maybe they’re upset and they might not be fully happy, but they feel relaxed. 

Our new Volunteer Center is allowing us to provide all of our mobile programs. Without it, we would be just in Dupree, with maybe two mobile day camps. It allows us to be in seven, eight places at once, which is amazing for the impact we have. The big community aspect is the dining hall that’s attached. We feed the kids there every day and it’s an indoor space for when it’s hot or rainy. It’s a community space when people need it for a birthday party or family reunion. We do movies once a week, and we have our support groups there. 

And then the final silo would be the Past, Present, Future project. It’s kicked off with our learning garden, which was a way to address the healthy living aspect of the current state. We had a really difficult time with incentive-based programming to get kids to eat their vegetables, and we don’t have any problem now! We just measured it out, and we have thirty beds. And we just built a greenhouse. It covers like half an acre now, and we have 11 chickens. 

The reservation is a food desert. There’s only two grocery stores currently on the reservation, and South Dakota does not have the best growing soil, especially in this area on the reservation. We’ve built beds, raised beds, down in Cherry Creek with our future strategic plan. We’re hoping to have learning gardens in ten of the communities. That is really the present and future part of the project.

AC and ZM: Can you tell us more about the Y’s in-school programming? Which schools are you in?

AC: There’s a population of about 15,000, and 50 percent of the population is under 18. These are rough estimates, because the census is never accurate; it’s always cut down because of the lack of trust in filling out US government forms. So we estimate that there’s about 7,000 to 8,000 people under eighteen. 

That being said, there’s technically five school districts within that population, and that means five different superintendents, and they all have at least two principals. We work with four of them. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe runs Takini School. The Dupree school is a public school, so that adheres to the state. La Plant is a BIA school, so it reports to the federal government. In Eagle Butte, they are a blend between public and BIA and tribal government. Eagle Butte’s been very difficult because it is such a blended system, so we don’t do much in that school system. We do a lot in Dupree, Takini, and La Plant1Tiospaya Topa tribal school..

AC and ZM: Can you talk about how you’ve come to understand the mental and physical health impacts of historic trauma on the community?

AC: The US government stepped away from actual genocide and went for cultural genocide. What happened to the Native American populations, especially in the northern plains, is that they removed the kids from a very young age into these boarding school systems, where they were eating maggoty, rat-infested bread. They were being taught different trades. If you were doing carpentry or welding or animal husbandry, you were doing all those things for the school. The Senate later did a research project and determined that those schools wouldn’t have been able to operate if it wasn’t for the student labor, the equivalent of slave labor2The 1969 congressional report, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge (Kennedy Report),” concluded that “national policies for educating American Indians are a failure of major proportions.”.

Read the 1969 report Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge (known as the Kennedy Report) by the United States Senate Special Committee on Indian Welfare.

The big thing was, they were able to phrase it as giving Native Americans that white Anglo-Saxon life experience and preparing them for that. My point of view is that they were trying to disrupt the family structures for Native Americans. Look at today’s day and age. I was really frustrated with parents for not being guardians, for not being involved in the children’s lives who were coming to the Y on a daily basis, because we’d be sending them home or calling home and they wouldn’t really care. We’d have repeat offenders with behavioral issues. In my first 18 months, I didn’t see a single adult come to the YMCA. That’s troubling when you’re seeing 300 kids through your doors each year. 

When I learned about boarding schools, that’s historic trauma. You had a hundred years of boarding schools, of people getting beaten for speaking their native language when they were never explicitly told the rules of why they’re being beaten. They weren’t able to talk to any family members. They were brainwashed, tortured, sexually exploited, raped, abused, neglected, all in this system designed to do that3Mary Annette Pember, “Death by Civilization, Thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools created to strip them of their culture. My mother was one of them.,” The Atlantic, March 8, 2019.. And now you wonder why parents aren’t involved, because their parents were in boarding schools. The grandparents in today’s generation all grew up in the boarding school program. So they never had parents, they only had nuns or military commanders as personnel. Then when they were bringing up their kids 30 or 20 years ago, they didn’t know how to do it. 

That’s the same thing with this current generation. You see all these health disparities happen because these kids aren’t eating well, because no one who’s parenting knows what is healthy or appropriate to be feeding them. A bag of chips goes a lot further than an apple, and it costs about the same. A bag of chips, you can share among a lot more people. Just one apple could serve one, maybe two. So you have people eating junk food, which leads to diabetes and obesity. 

There hasn’t been a big focus ever on sports, so the physical education aspect of things is a perpetuating system. Reading levels are typically three to four years behind, so if you’re in sixth grade, you’re typically at a second or third grade reading level. That impacts what jobs they can get. 

All these things are just this big cycle. How do you break a wheel that is in full motion? If you were sexually exploited as a kid, you’re 75 percent more likely to be a predator when you get older. When you have all these Catholic and military schools4The boarding schools instilled Christian values as part of the assimilation effort. The Carlisle School, one of the first prototypical boarding schools, was founded by a former lieutenant and used strict military protocol. For a first hand account, read Boarding Schools and the Cultural Genocide of the Lakota People. that were sexually exploiting these kids, you have a whole generation of kids who were exploited, they’re going to become predators when they get older because there’s been no mental health counseling ever in a population that probably needs 100 percent counseling. 

Suicide rates on Native American reservations in the northern plains are four times the national average. When you’re at our camp, anyone who’s 12 or older, you’ll notice their arms have self-harm marks. Everyone has someone either directly related to them or a really close friend who’s committed suicide. If someone close to you has killed themselves, or if there’s been a tragic death close to you, you’re four times more likely to commit suicide. Everyone here has someone, either a sibling or someone living in their household, who’s been taken away for a 72-hour hold. 

I started looking at our residential camp program, where we were using language like, “It’s good for you to be here,” “You’ll learn all these skills,” “You’ll be living in bunks with all your friends,” and it was all language that their grandparents were hearing when they were going to boarding schools. And we were calling other cabin leaders camp “counselors”, which is a very common term in the camp world, but their viewpoint of a counselor is when they get picked up and brought down to Rapid City without much explanation to a counselor, where they’re kept for 72 hours. They’re living in a cell with a three-inch foam mattress and just a blanket. It’s very minimal so they can’t harm themselves within the hold. It’s a very traumatic experience, and it’s triggering that historic trauma of getting snatched up by the government. That’s what happened to their grandparents with boarding schools. 

Looking at our resident camp program, we were doing the exact same thing. We’re pulling into communities with the bus, bringing them to these bunks where there’s not much in the cabins because the kids all have to bring their own stuff, and they’re sleeping on bunks that are three-inch foam mattresses and being forced to stay with counselors. 

So we changed up our camp language. Now we have cabin leaders instead of camp counselors. We’ve tried to make the cabins a much more welcoming experience. We have sleeping bags on the beds and make them look nice before they get there. We have socks, underwear, t-shirts, shorts, towels, anything that they might need for a typical camp experience already there, so that they’re not walking into a bare cabin. We have banners hung up and different themes for the week. 

It’s a very triggering process, that mental health viewpoint. It isn’t as negative as it’s portrayed in other areas in the US, but there’s just a lack of it. And I think when people hear “mental health” or “talking to a counselor,” a 72-hour hold is their first thought. 

AC and ZM: If you had all the money and resources in the world, what could be done to help Cheyenne River? What is the best possible future?

AC: There’s a TED Talk [by Aaron Huey] he says, “Nothing short of a time machine would fix these problems. If you had all the resources, you’d have to build a time machine and just disrupt this system, because this system is working exactly how it was designed.”

Watch Aaron Huey’s 2010 TED Talk “America’s Native Prisoners of War.”

But for a programmatic solution, I’ve always said that having constant transportation would be huge—a light rail system from Faith to Gettysburg that had stops at all the towns on the main highway, and then things that shoot off to each highway.5In our interview with Dana Dupris, he recalled that in the 1950s, “We had a railroad system in place. We could jump on the train at Red Elm and go all the way to La Plant, and then the railroad would curve north towards Mobridge.” Then people are able to get a step closer to Rapid City or that step closer to Standing Rock or Pierre. You’re creating infrastructure, you’re creating jobs, and a sense of community. People from Dupree don’t get along with people in Iron Lightning, who don’t get along with people in Bear Creek. Everyone’s siloed off in their own communities because there’s no fluidity of transportation between those communities. People only go to Eagle Butte to get what they need. All the communities hate Eagle Butte, because they think that they receive everything. But I mean, half of nothing is still nothing. 

AC and ZM: How often do you think people forgo travel because they don’t have gas money or a vehicle? 

AC: We’ve hired people from different communities and maybe they’re able to get to us for a month, but then excuses come up. And we’re very flexible with it, because I understand the systematic oppression that’s been put in place here. There’s a design to all these communities being 20 miles apart. You know, Cherry Creek’s a beautiful spot. I get why people developed there. But some of these communities, you know, were clearly just plopped down, so far away from the other people that you couldn’t travel by horse and wagon in one day. That’s why they’re so spread out. And Cherry Creek has zero, nothing. It doesn’t have a vending machine. No school, no post office, nothing but homes. 

AC and ZM: Can you talk about the need for sustainability as it relates to the climate?

AC: Another future project is sustainability. We’re looking at getting windmills and other hydroelectric systems so that we can try and take our buildings off the grid. We have rain barrel collection systems going up both at our resident camp and at all of our sites in Dupree. We have drip irrigation that goes around from those rain barrel collection systems.

Although I’ve been living here for seven years, I’ll always advocate that no one should have been living in South Dakota year-round. In the present day, it makes a lot more sense with heaters and air conditioners. But it’s expensive in the winter to be running the heat all the time. We have on-demand water heaters as part of our development, so that that would keep our costs down while also being very green conscious. Personally, I’d like for the Y to be off the grid and as green as possible. 

The weather conditions here are so harsh. I’ve seen -40 degrees, which is where both Fahrenheit and Celsius meet, so you don’t have to clarify which one it is. In the summertime, I’ve seen it get as hot as 116 degrees. The Lakota people, Sioux Nation, most Northern Plains natives were migratory people, following the buffalo. In the summertime they’d be further north, closer to Canada, and then in wintertime, they’d be further south. Evidence shows they would have been as far south as Mexico. I’ve seen people sitting in the wintertime with their windows only covered with a blanket and nothing else, no glass, no plastic, and it’s -30 to -40 degrees out. I’ve knocked on some families’ doors when I’ve been trying to drop a kid off at home and seen open flames in a trash barrel, burning trash to stay warm. They’re inhaling these toxic fumes, but that’s a down-the-road problem; they’re worried about making it through the night. Same thing with the summertime. People just will sleep in basements all day because it just gets so hot. There’s no trees, nothing much for shaded structures. Whatever we can do to help alleviate any of the costs of keeping things at an appropriate temperature in any part of the year is important.

Bubbles, a photograph by Jessie Story


Andrew Corley

has worked with the YMCA movement for over a decade, starting as a counselor in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He came to Cheyenne River in 2014, working as the site director of the Sioux YMCA until taking over as executive director in 2016. The Sioux YMCA works closely with youth and families at its main site in Dupree and provides meals and programming in several of the outlying communities, the furthest of which is 70 miles away. The organization was founded in 1879 by tribal members. Unlike most YMCAs throughout the United States, it has no membership base, but is rather a nonprofit funded solely through donations and support from other YMCAs.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

Note: Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros, editors of the report, serve on the Board of Trustees of the Sioux YMCA.