III. The Proud Father

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

Gabe Mesteth always knew his son, Justin, was bright. His preschool teacher said he should be in kindergarten. When Justin entered Red Cloud High School as a freshman, his counselor asked him to take the ACT college entrance exam. Only two seniors at his school scored higher. “I challenged him to do better than I did in high school, and he actually did way better than me,” Gabe says. “That was my goal.”

Pine Ridge is home to tribally operated Oglala Lakota College, which offers a variety of two-year and four-year degree programs. Still, too few students on the reservation go on to college. Gabe was unusual. He learned to be an electrician after high school and supported himself as he took classes first at a local college and then at South Dakota State University in Brookings. He spent more than 20 years as a jack-of-all-trades at Pine Ridge High School, coordinating special education programs and teaching math.

As a single father, Gabe, 47, did all he could to nurture Justin’s talents. He taught him to do math in his head by tossing dice and giving him only seconds to add up the dots. To increase his speed, he taught him to group the numbers into 10s in his head before adding up what was left. He allowed him to participate in sports but only if it didn’t hurt his school work.

He showed his son how to hunt deer with stealth and good aim, butcher a buffalo for its meat with expertise and reverence, and harvest natural food from the land, always sharing his bounty with the community. He took Justin along when he cut firewood for elders, and taught him to use and repair a chainsaw.

As vice-chair of the tribe, Gabe says, “I always had to look out not just for my family but for others.”

Gabe entered the hospital during Justin’s junior year because a wound didn’t heal due to Gabe’s type 2 diabetes, which is far more common in Pine Ridge than in the rest of the country. Justin had begged him to see a doctor, which would have required a long drive. But Gabe refused, too proud to seek help. When he finally agreed to go, Justin’s father could no longer walk. Eventually, the toes became infected and the foot had to be amputated.

Justin was his caregiver after Gabe came home from the hospital.

“I never thought I’d be taking care of my father at this age, as if he were my kid,” Justin wrote in one of his college essays. “It was an around-the-clock job. I fed him, gave him medication, changed his bedding and diapers, helped him with physical therapy, cooked, cleaned and provided moral support. Balancing all of this with school and athletics was tough, but it has shown me just how strong I am.”

Then, Gabe suffered several small strokes, and he had to go to a nursing home in Rapid City to convalesce. Gabe’s eyes fill with tears as he talks about the deaths of Justin’s grandparents, which occurred soon after he went into the hospital. “Those people were real close to both of us,” he says.

Their Lakota culture, passed down by elders, helped father and son get past their grief and deal with Gabe’s condition. “When times get tough, elders raised us to pray about it,” Gabe says. “I told Justin to pray about it.”

They also emphasized the importance of education. “One of the main things elders say is go off and get an education and come back and help your people,” Gabe says. “The elders in the community, there’s only so far that they could take us.”

Justin’s grandparents “would have been excited that he is going to one of those colleges out there,” Gabe says.

Gabe remains in the nursing home, nine months after he entered. Justin spent a day with him before going off to college. Gabe is confident his son will do well. “My family’s real proud of him. His grandmas and grandpas, they’re real happy for him.”

He is hopeful that Justin and his peers will return to the reservation after college to use their newfound knowledge and skills to build better roads and new housing, and provide medical and other services.

But, in a way, just by getting into Wesleyan, Justin has accomplished something important and lasting, Gabe says. Justin’s younger cousins are “watching Justin grow up, and they want to do well in school, too.”