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MADD reservation moms gather in Pine Ridge to fight drunk driving, remember loved ones lost
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Val Pretends Eagle of Wanblee joined the Pine Ridge MADD rally

Each breath was deep and slow and a little erratic or Val Pretends Eagle .

The pain is still so fresh, the loss so profound, it can change the process of human respiration.

And just that morning, as she and her family drove the 70 miles or so from their home in Wanblee to attend a rally against drunk driving in Pine Ridge village, they had to pass that horrible place on the highway where it happened.

There early last November on BIA 27 just south of Sharps Corner,  a drunk driver killed Pretends Eagle’s sister, Jaylene, along with her husband, Wayne, and their 1-year-old son, Wayne, Jr. And Jaylene Pretends Eagle was seven months pregnant.

The magnitude of the loss is still settling in on the family. And the accident site on the main travel route between Wanblee and Pine Ridge is a regular reminder of the tragedy.

“It’s hard, really hard, driving past that death site,” Val Pretends Eagle said, as she stood along U.S. Highway 18 in Pine Ridge during a rally by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. “It’s all just so fresh for me. It still hurts so much.”

It’s a hurt that will lessen over time but never leave. And it’s pain shared by family after family across an expansive reservation criss-crossed with lonesome, sometimes-rough highways, limited policing and far too many impaired drivers.

Forty one years after she lost her 13-year-old daughter, Valentina, to a drunk driver in Rapid City, Wilma Thin Elk is fighting to protect other families from suffering such a loss.

And she knows it’s an uphill fight.

“Today my mission is to bring laws to the reservations, more police, to get the DUIs convicted and off the roads,” Thin Elk said. “Too many drunk drivers are just running free. We need to get them off the roads. We’re losing too many loved ones.”

Wilma Thin Elk was the focus of the rally for a time as she stood near U.S. Highway 18 and sang a Lakota honoring song for her daughter, calling out powerfully with her love and pain into the chilly north wind. Others stood with heads bowed and hands clasped as Thin Elk sank and Eileen Janis, a former tribal council member who works on anti-suicide programs, moved from person to person with burning sage.

Thin Elk brought a framed picture of Valentina, and stood for a time with it cradled in her arms as others stopped cars and trucks coming up to the intersection in the middle of town and tied red MADD ribbons on their aerials and wipers.

One of those working the vehicles was Yvonne "Tiny" DeCory, a powerfully energetic activist known for her work to protect tribal youth suicide and other life threats. She sang and danced from vehicle to vehicle with the red ribbons as rock music blared from speakers nearby.

And she called out to those in each vehicle: “We have to stop this drunk driving, and make everyone safe. We have to save lives. This has to end. You be safe out there now.”

A multi-tasker, DeCory tied on ribbons and she spoke about the need for the rally in Pine Ridge, and others to follow elsewhere on the reservation.

“We’re here to bring awareness,” she said. “The drunk drivers are killing our people. It’s in every community. So many families. It’s just time to start putting pressure on those who choose to harm our people.”

Alcohol-related crashes have taken lives, shattered families and left loved ones to carry on with an ache and a hope that they won’t be struck by another tragedy. But often, they are.

Many reservation families have suffered multiple losses from drunk drivers. That’s true everywhere, but it’s an especially horrid truth in parts of Indian Country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, death rates from motor vehicle accidents for Native Americans are more than twice those of black and non-Hispanic whites. The death rate for Native American babies — less than 1 year old — from motor vehicle crashes is eight times that of non-Hispanic whites.

Past research by the CDC has revealed a overall alcohol-related death rate — including traffic crashes, liver disease and homicides and suicides — of Native Americans that is more than three times the alcohol-related death for the nation overall.

And even among Native Americans, the Northern Plains tribes had the highest alcohol-related death rate in the CDC study, which is likely attributable to remoteness and extreme poverty.

Key components of a CDC’s program to reduce the tribal death rate from motor-vehicle crashes are increased seat belt use, increased child safety seat use and reduce alcohol-impaired driving.

Think Elk wants to see action at the tribal level that includes tougher rules and laws, more public safety, police and court resources and tougher sentencing. She also hopes for more and better treatment options, education and prevention work, including sobriety checks that are regularly held by law enforcement off of the reservation.

The Oglala Tribe has struggled to keep its police force full. Officers often are stretched thin covering wide swaths of the reservation with little support and long waits for backup. Thin Elk and others at the rally said the tribe might need help in ramping up law enforcement and prevention.

Tribal sovereignty and jurisdictional issues can complicate such work. But the South Dakota Highway Patrol often works with tribal law enforcement on life-and-death issues out on the road.

Spokesman Tony Mangan offered this comment from the Highway Patrol:

“Highway Patrol troopers do not have arrest authority for tribal members on tribal land. However, troopers routinely respond to all types of calls for law-enforcement assistance by tribal authorities. This includes but is not limited to accident investigation, motor-carrier operations, fugitive apprehension, search and rescue missions, safety presentations and vehicle pursuits, to hame a few.”

If requested by tribal authorities, troopers can help with sobriety checks, too, Mangan said.

The MADD rally and march in Pine Ridge was coordinated with South Dakota MADD Leader Connie Hobbs of Rapid City. And future rallies are being planned for other reservation communities. That planning began following the march and rally, the honoring songs and a meal in the community hall in Pine Ridge.

“We won’t give up on this,” Wilma Thin Elk said.

Val Pretends Eagle won’t give up this fight, either. Like members of many families, she has more than one tragic alcohol-related accident to grieve. Eight years ago her uncle, Jason Wilcox, died when struck by a drunk driver on the highway near Wanblee.

So just four miles east of the community, there is another “death site” the family must pass on regular travel routes in otherwise regular routines.

“It’s so hard to drive past those spots,” Pretends Eagle said. “It just brings it all back.”

And it puts a catch in the breath of Pretends Eagle and others who must live on without loved ones lost to drunk drivers.