Courtesy U.S. Department of Education/Paul Wood, photographer
In computer science class at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Justin Mesteth tests out his Lego robotics car. Justin is now at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Pine Ridge’s Justin Mesteth Is Achieving What Many Students Only Dream Of

Tanya H. Lee

Justin Mesteth has reached a milestone in his long journey from a 6-year-old being raised by his dad on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that he hopes culminates in him returning home as a civil engineer building the roads and houses so desperately needed there.

A Gates Millennium Scholar and graduate of the Red Cloud High School, Justin, 18, Oglala Lakota, has just started at the prestigious and highly competitive Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

He has also been chosen by the U.S. Department of Education to serve as a beacon for other American Indian and Alaska Native students who face almost overwhelming obstacles in pursuing their educational goals. “America has great stories to tell about the importance of education to families and communities,” said Education Department Press Secretary Dorie Nolt. “Justin’s story is about perseverance, identity, culture, family and the way educators and schools change lives. Using digital media, we are able to reach multiple audiences on 21st-century platforms. We wanted to share Justin’s story because it’s a part of something many students strive for, but may not know how to get. Students living in rural and tribal communities face additional challenges, and solutions can be found by the example of Pine Ridge.”

The 2.8-million-acre Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to perhaps 28,000 people (population estimates vary from 15,000 to 40,000). It is located in Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, where the per-capita income of $6,286 makes it the second poorest county in the U.S.

It is a place where families struggle with a 49 percent poverty rate, a 90 percent unemployment rate, an infant mortality rate three times the national average, the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, insufficient medical care for the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease plaguing the population and rampant substance abuse.

For kids, hope is hard to come by in such a tough environment. During the 2014-2015 school year, more than 100 youth on the reservation attempted suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A state of emergency was declared last year after 14 young people committed suicide between August 2014 and April 2015, the Lakota People’s Law Project reports.

RELATED: Spate of Youth Suicides Shake Pine Ridge Reservation

Education is also in short supply. Chronic absenteeism among public school students is rife. Only 14 percent of adults on Pine Ridge have a bachelor’s degree, half the national average.

Justin is one of the exceptions; the hopes of a family and the future of a tribe depend on students like him.

The Education Department’s four-part series, which includes text, photographs and videos, debuted August 29. It features not only Justin’s perspective but the comments of some of the people who make up the “village” that was critical to his success—his father, Gabe Mesteth; his adviser Nakina Mills; and Philomine Lakota, preserver and teacher of the Lakota language.

Gabe Mesteth took over his son’s upbringing when Justin was 6, after his mother, who struggled with alcohol, abandoned the family. A trained electrician and a student at a local college and then at South Dakota State University in Brookings, Gabe had high hopes—and high expectations—for his son. “Go off and get an education and come back and help your people,” he said from the time Justin was very young.

But Gabe, a vice chair of the tribe, also honored Lakota traditions and taught his son how to hunt deer, butcher a buffalo for its meat, and harvest natural food from the land. Justin accompanied him when he cut firewood for elders and learned the values of caring for others and the community.

Red Cloud Indian School is a K-12 Catholic educational complex on the reservation. The high school sends almost 100 percent of its graduates on to college, the military, or career training programs. Justin entered Red Cloud High School when he was in the ninth grade, having excelled in elementary school. In his junior year, Justin’s life became unbelievably difficult. Gabe entered a hospital 90 miles from the reservation for a wound that would not heal. A diabetic, he ended up having to have a foot amputated. Justin lived with his aunt and cousins part of the time, but mostly he was on his own. In the same three-week time period, his grandfather, who along with his father had taught him traditional Lakota ways, and his grandmother, who had lived with Justin and his father, died suddenly.

Justin said of his grandmother, “She showed me what it was like to feel a mother’s love. Every single morning after I woke up she’d be sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, telling me good morning. After she died, she wasn’t sitting there and that’s when it really hit me, that I’m not going to be able to share any more memories or get advice from my grandmother.”

When Gabe came home from the hospital, Justin, only 17, became his full-time caregiver. “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 had a series of mini strokes and had to go to a nursing home. Justin’s schoolwork suffered, but his teachers and advisers at Red Cloud guided him through the crisis. “Life is all about perseverance, bouncing back after enduring painful and difficult experiences,” said Justin.

Nakina Mills, director of student advancement and alumni relations at Red Cloud Indian School, was particularly dedicated to Justin’s education. She drove him to visit his father in the nursing home, helped him with college applications, went to his home and took him to school when he missed the bus and offered endless encouragement. He has formally adopted Mills as his “hunka mother.” No one could be more proud of Justin than she is. “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 said.

Mills is fully prepared to see Justin and other students through college and beyond. “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,” reads Part II of the series.

Philomine Lakota, 68, has been instrumental in teaching Justin and the other students at Red Cloud his language to help support him as he moves into a foreign world. She developed the language curriculum at Red Cloud High School, where students are required to study Lakota for three years.

Philomine says that in 1982 she felt a spiritual calling to bring back the language and Lakota traditional rites of passage for young people and then spent 10 years researching and relearning what she had been forced to forget during her boarding school years.

Philomine, who teaches students all across the reservation, says, “[People] look at the gloom and doom of Pine Ridge, but there’s a strong Lakota cultural renaissance going on here.”

Justin wrote in his college essay, “If we think differently, and use the richness of our culture as support, we’ll be able to build a better way of life.”

Before he left for Wesleyan, Justin said, “I’m not really nervous about going 1,700 miles away from my home. Pine Ridge is always going to be here. It’s going to be the same. It’s been the same since I was a little kid.”

Now that’s he is at Wesleyan, Justin tells ICTMN it’s really confusing to come from the structured environment of his high school to an environment where he is expected to be independent. “I need to learn time-management,” he laughs.

On a serious note, he says he has met with his adviser who pointed him in the right direction in terms of what classes he needs to take to get into the civil engineering program, so he needs to add introduction to chemistry and calculus to his schedule. He also says he needs to attend to requirements like turning in his health form and some financial forms.

“I’m kind of struggling,” he says, “but I’ll get it all figured out.”

Justin says his dad is doing well now and has started rehab. “I’m proud of him,” he says.

Clearly, the feeling is mutual. “I challenged him to do better than I did in high school and he actually did way better than me,” Gabe says.

The U.S. Department of Education features on Justin are broken up into four parts, and can be viewed here.

RELATED: Red Cloud Indian School: The Gates Scholar Factory

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