God and man at Whiteclay


When Bruce Bonfleur arrived on Pine Ridge Reservation, he traveled a well-worn path: that of the white Christian come to save the Indian. Since the Rez’s inception, Lakota people have been, depending on your point of view, blessed or cursed by these missionaries. My dad says back in the 1920s they were already calling them SOTS (saviors of the Sioux).

In August 1998, Bruce Bonfleur did not see it that way. He had merely answered a call. “We had no training, no personal agendas, little knowledge of Lakota history and total ignorance of Lakota language and culture.”

With such simple honesty and candor, he could but thrive.

Confessing his early lack of clarity, Bruce says:

“I was teaching at Pine Ridge Christian Academy and taking pictures for a school yearbook. There was this little Lakota boy in my viewfinder when, suddenly, it hit me. I lowered my camera. ‘You’re here to see him,’ I thought. God has called you to truly see these people of His. To help them know the great love He has for them.”

Should Bruce raise a viewfinder today, 14 years later, in it would be the poorest of the poor, the most degradingly afflicted, the sad denizens of Whiteclay, Neb. After four years, in 2002, Bruce received another call: “Put my light in Whiteclay.”

Bruce’s wife, Marsha, was given word, too: “Stop looking around at what you see and begin to praise Me for the transformation I am going to do here.”

Speaking for myself, if I’d received that call, it would have been, “Uh, Lord … you got any other openings?”

But Bruce and Marsha heeded the call. Their Lakota Hope Ministries is located just on the south end of Whiteclay on a little campus called Lakota Hope Center at Green Tipi Gardens. Already an oasis in the desert, the steady sights and sounds of construction indicate it will become more so.

I admit an easy predilection to applaud their efforts, but, given my history, I confess amazement, too.

Thirty years ago, I worked in Whiteclay. I sold alcohol, gas and ran a little unlicensed pawn shop on the side. I was a drunk, a drug addict and a lout.

I was something else, too: in chains. Nights and days in Whiteclay were a nightmare. The first weekends of the months were redolent of Francis Ford Coppola’s scenes of the last outpost in his Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now.”

There is something worse than being an end-stage drunk passed out in the weeds behind an abandoned Whiteclay flophouse. There is being the one who sold him the booze. There is looking inward, deeply, and seeing only the certainty of hell. It is a pitiless equation when deserved.

Whiteclay, and my soul, were a godless space. Such is memory.

Most would say Whiteclay hasn’t changed much, particularly the first days of the month. Since the town has been much in the news of late, they’re probably right. Except for one, relatively unobtrusive, thing: There is a man of God who’s cast his lot with the people of her streets. With a caring eye, he sees them. Humbly, he repeats:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor;

he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and the opening of the prison to those who are bound …”

— Isaiah 61: 1-2

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