Gwen Nilles - 2008 Matthew 25 Award Recipient

“I’ll never forget that morning in 1996, when we first drove onto Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,” says Gwen Nilles, long-time member of Resurrection Parish in Dubuque, Iowa. “My husband, Duane, and I were taking our daughter, DeAnn, there to teach at Crazy Horse School.” Looking around, Gwen said to Duane, “This is the most desolate place I’ve ever seen. It’s obvious why we’ve forced the Indians to live here.” Rock formations sculptured the barren landscape and giant grasshoppers exploded in every direction, accompanied by the mournful, relentless wind. Yet these Dakota Badlands have long been sacred territory – and home – to the Lakota Indian Nation. “They still see the beauty in that land,” Gwen adds, “but I saw conditions you’d expect to see in 3rd world countries, not here in America.”  

One of the largest reservations in the United States, Pine Ridge is home to approximately 46,000 Indians, half of them under the age of 18. Life expectancies for both men and women are 20 years below national average. Because the reservation lacks any form of industry (not even a casino), work is scarce; unemployment hovers between 75-85%, with an average per capita income of $4,000. Infant mortality rate is over twice the national average. Of the children who survive, 69% live below America’s poverty level. Diabetes and heart disease are crucial health issues, and alcoholism, substance abuse and despair are prevalent.

Concerned by the desperate situation at Pine Ridge and inspired by other successful Partner Parish programs, Gwen broached the idea to Resurrection’s Social Justice Committee. “We would partner with St. Ignatius Loyola Parish, in Wanblee, South Dakota, located within the reservation,” she explains. The issue was still under consideration by the parish council when Fr. Joe Hauer became pastor at Resurrection in 2000. Together, he and Gwen initiated the program through the committee. “Both parishes would support and learn from each other on many levels,” Gwen continues. “Getting to Know Our Neighbors,” a video produced by the committee, was shown at Sunday masses, helping to acquaint parishioners with Pine Ridge Reservation. The word Lakota means “friend,” and Resurrection parish embraced their new friends whole-heartedly.

On Wednesday, March 12, 2008, family and friends joined Divine Word College in honoring Gwen Nilles as the 2008 recipient of the Matthew 25 Award – presented annually to someone engaged in front-line ministries with the “least among us” in the spirit of the gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25. Award recipients minister among immigrants and refugees, street people, AIDS victims, inner-city youth, prisoners – all those who live at the margins of our society and still lack a public voice.

Rev. Michael Hutchins, DWC president, says, “We are pleased to honor Gwen Nilles as this year’s Matthew 25 Award recipient. With the support of friends and collaborators at Resurrection Parish in Dubuque, Gwen has been a sign of “joyful hope,” making a difference in the lives of others as Jesus would have us do. She has brought Native Americans and Dubuque area residents face to face in ways that have served and enriched both. She helps us recognize Jesus in fresh and revitalizing ways.”   

A unique and gentle people, the Lakota at Pine Ridge have beliefs grounded in seven virtues: Prayer, Respect, Compassion, Honesty, Generosity, Humility and Wisdom. Forced out of their traditional lifestyle, they exist on land that is not conducive to farming, ranching or industry. Atrocities like the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 haunt the history of Pine Ridge. In 1942, reservation land was used as a bombing range and gunnery practice site by the US government. After years of war and violated treaties, the land originally allotted to the Lakota slowly decreased to the present borders of Pine Ridge – the only remaining reservation left for them. Adding insult to injury, “destructive government programs of assimilation” are stripping away the essence of the Lakota culture.

“The Lakota people are quiet and soft-spoken,” Gwen reflects. “I have learned so much from them, especially the value and importance of nature and family.” But she feels that both the problems and solutions of the Lakota Nation are complex. “Poverty, unemployment and substance abuse have led to violence. The Indians are still isolated from society – and are still one of the last minorities that we think of to help. I’ve seen discrimination and injustices that I didn’t know existed.” Government programs of health and education don’t always follow through on its promises for the reservation’s people. And many Indians equate education with assimilation – and a subsequent loss of identity – and resist enforced schooling. Gwen feels that “our Parish Partner program can help promote mutual understanding, knowledge, prayer and spirituality.”

Red Cloud Indian School helps address Pine Ridge Reservation’s needs with support and education. It fosters the students’ pride in their Lakota heritage, language and spirituality. Originally founded in 1888 by the Jesuits as Holy Rosary Mission, the school fulfilled the dream of Chief Red Cloud, a respected leader of the Oglala Sioux Indians at Pine Ridge. In 1969, Holy Rosary officially changed its name to Red Cloud Indian School, as a token of respect for the Chief and to enhance the bond between cultures – helping Lakota youth to be “able to walk equally in both worlds” and to “strive to succeed wherever their paths may take them.”

Though she is chairperson of the Partner Parish Committee, Gwen is quick to emphasize that “the committee is fluid and its members rotate. Everyone works very hard.” The third Sunday of each month is Partner Parish Sunday at Resurrection. “We inform parishioners about events at Pine Ridge, and each parish prays for the other. We have a special petition and collection, and average about $1,200 each month.” The money is sent to Red Cloud Indian School. One month, $1,000 is used to pay Deacon Gerald Busch’s salary. As the only Lakota Deacon on the reservation, he and his wife, Sandra, work together to minister to parish needs. In the alternating month, $1,000 goes to the building fund for a future parish center. Excess money is used for mutual exchange trips.

“We coordinate our service trips to St. Ignatius through the Jesuits at Red Cloud. These trips include prayer, education and service work,” Gwen explains. “The Lakota entertain us with events like the “Drum Circles” and Indian speakers educate us in their culture and spirituality.” This spring, they hope to go on another service trip to St. Ignatius. “We like to involve parishioners of all ages,” says Gwen. “On our last trip, members ranged in age from 10 to 72.”

The Lakota also come to visit Resurrection. This past January, Gwen hosted three visitors from St. Ignatius Parish: current parish pastor, Fr. Rob Kroll, SJ, parishioner Michelle Long Soldier and Luke Busch, a teen member of St. Ignatius. The group visited some local tourist spots and learned about our Midwestern lifestyles. They presented Fr. Hauer and Resurrection Parish with a beautiful hand-crafted Indian Star quilt. Each year, St. Ignatius Parish donates a new Star quilt to raffle at Resurrection’s Parish Festival in August.

“It’s very humbling to see the generosity of our parish,” says Gwen. “I am honored to receive the Matthew 25 Award, but I don’t feel worthy. This should be a parish and committee award. I am accepting this award for them.”

Whose voice I hear in the winds,
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
Hear me! I am small and weak,
I need your strength and wisdom…
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.”

The words of this bookmark prayer, a gift from the children of the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota, remind us that in cherishing nature, we find reverence for the spiritual. We are all united as one in our powerlessness and dependence on God, the “Great Spirit.”