“IT’S NOT OUR fault,” Jacob Rosales said. I had asked the recent high-school graduate what he wants people to know about life on the reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. “There’s a liquor store right across from the border,” he continued after a pause, pointing off into the distance. “Right over there.”

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a striking 3,469-square-mile expanse of sprawling grasslands and craggy badlands that sits in the southwest corner of South Dakota, touching Nebraska’s northern edge. Traversing the reservation by car, along its rugged matrix of two-lane highways and unmarked roads, reveals just how vast it is.

Park the car and wander around the softly bustling community hub of Pine Ridge town, and it’s clear there’s also a lot going on beyond the bluffs and tree groves and decaying trailer homes. There are the men in braids and jeans waving at each other from across the street, there are the teen girls drinking frappés at the colorful Christian coffee shop, and there are the “rez dogs” scouring piles of trash. There are also the young people, like Rosales, who are on a mission to make the world understand that it’s not their fault that this reservation—home to an estimated 20,000 Oglala Lakota Nation members—is one of the poorest, and most underdeveloped, places in the country.

Pine Ridge doesn’t get much national attention except when the news is sad. Unemployment and gang violence are rampant. The life expectancy for men is just 48. A youth-suicide epidemic has plagued the reservation in recent years, with a cluster of nearly 200 teens killing or attempting to kill themselves in the span of a few months starting in late 2014. And even though Pine Ridge remains a “dry” reservation, alcoholism is widespread; until recently, residents could, as Rosales pointed out, easily drive just a few miles south into Whiteclay, Nebraska, to buy booze. Mary Frances Berry, the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, once remarked, “Whiteclay can be said to exist only to sell beer to the Oglala Lakota.”

When Rosales spoke about culpability, he was referring to both present-day realities—the liquor stores in Whiteclay, for example—and historical ones: the legacy of centuries of oppression at the hands of European settlers and their ancestors. It’s not our fault that one-third of us drop out of school. That we participate in the labor force at a lower rate than any other racial group. That our men are incarcerated at four times the rate of their white peers.

Those realities help explain why, as Rosales explained, “it’s kind of unheard of for Native kids to go far and be successful.”

But it’s becoming less unheard of, and that’s largely because of students like Rosales who see educational attainment as key to reclaiming Native identity and culture. He is spending the summer in the Washington, D.C., area for an internship at the National Institutes of Health, after which he’ll be heading up north to start college at Yale University. Rosales has long been on a mission to attend a prestigious university, but if he hadn’t gotten in to Yale, he had plenty of backups: He was accepted to six other Ivy League schools.

Rosales, who plans on going to medical school after college and eventually working as a primary-care doctor on the reservation, is in many ways the poster child of what students at his alma mater, Red Cloud Indian School, can achieve despite growing up in one of the most destitute places in the country. A Jesuit K-12 institution at the end of a pine-tree-lined driveway in the town of Pine Ridge, Red Cloud boasts an ever-growing roster of alumni who are leaders in fields ranging from medicine to the arts and a network of faculty members with elite-college degrees. Red Cloud also has a record-high 72 Gates Millennium Scholars, more than any other school its size in the nation.

Yet Red Cloud isn’t just some prep school that hones promising Pine Ridge kids for post- and off-reservation success at the expense of their Native identity and community—at least it doesn’t try to be. Many of its educators and staff are themselves alumni of the school, people who left for a few years and then returned to give back. At Red Cloud’s high school, students must take four years of Lakota-language classes in order to graduate—on top of “spiritual-formation” courses that incorporate Catholicism and Lakota spirituality—and they can choose from a menu of culturally relevant electives, including ethnobotany and Native American literature. College and after-school-club posters line the halls, as do signs with inspirational quotes in both Lakota and English from Oglala Sioux leaders and the Pope. Its campus houses a Heritage Center, which includes an art gallery and a gift shop that features work by Lakota artisans.

The atmosphere primes Red Cloud’s students to be both community prodigies and the young leaders of an indigenous renaissance of sorts: The reservation’s young people are driving a new wave of activism, like that seen in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s a subtle yet intense movement that promises to define the future of Pine Ridge. After all, roughly half its population is under 25.

“We are part of the Seventh Generation … prophesied to be the generation that creates those individuals that will spearhead the economic, spiritual, and social renewal,” Rosales said. The tall, slim 19-year-old sported a sharp haircut, Nike skate shoes, khaki-colored jeans, and a thick, crew-neck sweater when we spoke. Rosales was referring to a prophecy made by the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse, who shortly before his death in the late 1800s predicted that a cultural renaissance was afoot. “We are going to be that group of people that makes that prophecy come true,” Rosales said. “Red Cloud is helping us to do that.”

But for youth on Pine Ridge, life—and the educational opportunities that shape it—is not confined to a single narrative. Rosales, who grew up visiting his mother’s hometown in Germany every summer, is somewhat of an anomaly even for Red Cloud’s standards. The day-to-day experiences on this immense South Dakota reservation both confirm and challenge stereotypes, complicating pervasive assumptions about the educational needs of Native Americans—and of rural Americans more generally. …

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