by Brendan G-W
Ramshackle homes built of scrap timber, no electricity, water service or even furniture are images naturally evoked by the phrase "third-world conditions." Our mind transports across distance, to different countries and continents. It may as well be worlds away, right?
Consider what you'll find along Nebraska's northern border with South Dakota.
The Pine Ridge Indian reservation might as well be the opposite of an “oasis.” Poverty is widespread – the three counties that Pine Ridge occupies are three of the most impoverished in the United States. Unemployment is higher than 80 percent and the high school drop out rate is 70 percent. Teen suicide and schoolteacher turnover rates are nearly 800 percent higher than the national average. Not to mention the lack of basic health care, shelter and utilities.
And it's only half-day's drive away from Omaha. To describe it as bleak seems pretty apropos, though perhaps not weighty enough.
But even in the harshest of realities, there's reason for hope. The Porcupine District of Pine Ridge has a saint. Maybe you would call him Saint Nick — some people know him as Larry Dunn and most call him Lash LaRue. The frontman for Omaha country-rock band The Mercuries, Dunn has been organizing the Lash LaRue Toy Drive for nine years now. Call it his personal "wopila" to the people on the reservation, a giving of thanks and giving back of sorts. This year's toy drive is Friday, Dec. 2 at the Waiting Room Lounge.
About 15 years ago, Dunn was looking for something spiritually fulfilling, but wasn’t quite sure what it was. After being invited to a sweat lodge ceremony he knew he had found what he was looking for. Eventually he became a Sun Dancer in the Lakota tribe, a highly regarded position.
“I heard people talking about trying to do something to help the kids up there [in Pine Ridge] — they got nothing for Christmas. And so that’s how this came about," he says. "I heard about it and it is just kind of a no brainer — when you’re a musician, you do a benefit.”
It started at the old Mick's Music and Bar (now The Sydney) in Omaha's Benson neighborhood. Four solo acts helped raise $500.
"We got a pickup truck full of toys and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world," Dunn says. "And now, I think it was three years ago we started taking a 24-foot MAC truck full of stuff — it has just grown. This is kind of my ongoing wopila to the people up there. There aren’t a whole lot of guys like me that can go up there and become a Sun Dancer and be welcomed as part of the family – this is my way of giving back.”
But it isn’t just toys that Dunn is able to offer to the community.
“It all starts with the toys, but a few years back it had gotten big enough that we couldn’t just take the money we raised and buy toys with it. There were other ways to help. A lot of money goes toward buying propane to help heat the homes, especially for the elders," he says. "There is also a medical clinic there and sometimes they just can’t open in the winter because they can’t pay their utility bills. One of the things I am most proud of is that we can help to keep that clinic going. Toys aren’t life and death, but this stuff is. I like that. The toy drive is the still the focus, but it also allows us to do all this other stuff as well.”
What keeps him going back, year after year?
“The look on the kid’s faces. If I don’t go back, I don’t know if someone else is going to. It’s a charity thing, but the stuff you get back from it is pretty cool. The feeling is great," Dunn says. "There was one year a little boy came up just crying his eyes out, and after a while I figured out all he wanted was a ball. I rummaged around and found him a soccer ball and he spent the whole rest of the day with one arm around the soccer ball and the other arm around my leg, just grinning ear to ear. And that is the stuff that keeps you coming back.
"Just a soccer ball. I have a hundred stories like that.”
The 9th-annual Lash Larue Pine Ridge toy drive is Friday, Dec. 2 at the Waiting Room. Playing are the Mercurys, the Filter Kings and the Blacktop Ramblers. Admission is $10 or a new unwrapped children’s toy. The Blues Society will also be sponsoring a show on Dec. 4 at the 21st Saloon with Michael Burks, the Brad Cordle Blues Band and 112 North Duck. Find more information at lashlaruetoydrive.com. Unwrapped toys can also be dropped off at Liquid Courage Tattoo.
Brendan G-W is a Hear Nebraska contributor and bassist for The So-So Sailors. Contact him at email@example.com.