II. A Mother Figure

The windswept prairie, canyons and peaks of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the neighboring Badlands form a landscape that is beautiful and foreboding. It can also feel isolating — few paved roads cross it, and most services are two hours away in Rapid City, South Dakota. For young people growing up on Pine Ridge, their future can seem determined from birth.

The legacy of generations of oppression of Native Americans lives on here. High rates of unemployment, substance abuse and adolescent suicide, as well as health issues such as diabetes, contribute to a life expectancy that exceeds only Haiti’s in the Western hemisphere. The percentage of adults who have a bachelor’s degree is 14 percent, half the national average. During the past seven years, the U.S. Department of Education has worked with the White House, other federal agencies, and state, local and tribal leaders to improve conditions and outcomes for Native American students, including those on Pine Ridge.

With the help of dedicated teachers, parents and community elders, some students are planting the seeds of a new history, pursuing education beyond high school and inspiring ambition and optimism among their peers. One such student is 18-year-old Justin Mesteth, who starts at Wesleyan University in Connecticut this fall with a goal of eventually returning to Pine Ridge to be a leader in his community.

This four-part series tells the story of his journey and the support from caring adults who helped him complete it.

This is Part II of IV. Read Part I, Part III, Part IV

Nakina Mills, 36, has spent most of her life traveling back and forth along the state highway that cuts through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and runs toward Rapid City, South Dakota on one end and to Nebraska on the other. But as she drove to Rapid City recently, neither she nor her passenger, Justin Mesteth, could recall the road’s name.

“We just call it ‘the road’ — and then there’s ‘the other road,’ ” Nakina jokes, looking out over the seemingly endless golden brown hills and prairie.

Nakina, who like Justin is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, is director of student advancement and alumni relations at Red Cloud High School. Her mission is to do whatever it takes to get students such as Justin to embrace their potential and the education they can receive if they follow “the road” — and support them so they don’t turn back too early.

Justin will be entering college at Wesleyan University having earned a full scholarship, and on this day, Nakina is driving him to see his father at a nursing home 90 miles away from Pine Ridge. This is just one example of how Nakina develops close relationships with Red Cloud students and continues to support them after they go to college.

Thanks to her efforts, and those of the teachers, counselors and spiritual leaders of both the Roman Catholic and Lakota traditions at the school, 94 percent of Red Cloud’s 2016 graduates will attend college or enroll in some other postsecondary program. A few plan to enlist in the military.

Nakina graduated from Red Cloud and was the first in her family to go to college, earning academic honors and a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Creighton University in Nebraska.

She returned to Pine Ridge to work as a tour guide but soon changed course to become a social worker with various agencies on the reservation. There, she had a window into social ills and lives cut short by the effects of poverty and a lack of opportunity, and felt compelled to try to prevent such tragedies by getting involved in education.

At Red Cloud, she shepherds students through the college application process, from advising them on their personal statements to taking them on tours of far-flung campuses. And she keeps in touch with administrators at colleges and universities that offer strong support systems for Native students, including her alma mater as well other schools such as Brown, Dartmouth and Stanford. Admissions officers travel across the country to Red Cloud to pitch their programs and interview promising applicants.

Typically, Nakina starts working intensely with students when they are juniors. But she met Justin his freshman year. He was outgoing and outspoken, and stood out from his peers. He knew, even then, that he wanted to go to college and study engineering. She encouraged him to join the track team, which she coaches, and, over the years, Justin came to know that he could call on her whenever he needed help. If he missed the bus, she’d come to get him. If he needed advice, she was there.

The ease and teasing humor between Justin and Nakina makes them seem like siblings, but she calls him “my hunka son,” using a Lakota term to describe someone who is informally adopted. She says she is his “hunka mother.” She teared up recalling the emotional setbacks he had overcome in the past year — his father’s illness and the deaths of his grandparents. She was proud of Justin’s resilience and his determination to take care of his family and serve his tribe.

“He’s such a great young man and role model. I have a 5-year-old son, and I sit there and think about Justin and, I’m like, I want my kid to be like that.”

She wants Justin to know that her support won’t stop now just because he’s headed to college. She is keenly aware of the opportunities as well as the challenges that the Red Cloud’s Class of 2016 will face in college. The shock of being off the reservation, far from family and the familiar, can cause many to flirt with dropping out.

She wants Justin to know that her support won’t stop now just because he’s headed to college. She is keenly aware of the opportunities as well as the challenges that the Red Cloud’s Class of 2016 will face in college. The transition to college — the increased academic demands, the newfound freedoms and responsibilities, the social upheaval — can be difficult for any teenager. Those difficulties are compounded for students like Justin — far from home and isolated from peers and adults with similar experiences.

“One of the biggest things students struggle with is asking for help,” Nakina says. She’s there before they even have to ask.

Once graduates are in college, Nakina stays in touch through Facebook messages, texts and phone calls to check their progress and offer encouragement. And when she sees any sign that one of her former students is wavering, she utilizes her networks to dispatch a fellow Red Cloud alumnus or one of the university contacts she’s cultivated to make sure the student gets back on track. She has even visited anxious students herself so they know they are not alone.

Many will also face harmful stereotypes and insensitive questions and misconceptions about their Native heritage and their culture. Nakina prepares Red Cloud seniors to expect this, to keep an open mind, and even practice how they might respond. She urges students to “get involved and share your culture and language with people. That’s how you will make connections. You’ll expand people’s awareness and knowledge of our culture.”

“Yes, there are going to be hurdles,” she says. “Things happen, and they’re going to need good coping skills. But with the right guidance and right support, and people telling them it is going to be OK, they can get through it.”