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"American Realities": A South Dakota Family's Struggle



Mary Grass, her husband Shannon Grass, and children Spirit, 14, Mystic, 12, Decimus, 5, and Helios, 3, sit on the steps on the side of their house in Thunder Butte, South Dakota. (Photo by Joakim Eskildsen)

LISTEN: The story of Mary Grass

(Audio produced by Laura Bult)

By Natasha Del Toro

Last summer, I interviewed Mary Grass at her home in Thunder Butte, South Dakota, a remote community on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. A military veteran and a skilled medical technician, Mary had applied for several jobs but wasn’t having any luck finding work. She was also taking an online course to earn a bachelor’s degree in science and health administration, hoping that would improve her chances. 

Her husband Shannon was able to find a temporary job in the nearest town, Eagle Butte, which is about 40 miles away, but transportation costs were eating up most of their income. With a lack of jobs, few housing options, and distances of up to 90 miles between communities, opportunities on the reservation are limited. The Grass family was relying on government assistance, including WIC, Medicaid, and food stamps to make ends meet, though Mary said their pantry was often bare toward the end of month.

Despite their economic hardships, Mary and her husband are trying to create a better life for their children by emphasizing the importance of education and the values and culture of the Lakota people, their Native American tribe. Mary’s eldest daughter, Spirit, who speaks Lakota and dances at local powwows, hopes to get a basketball scholarship to the University of Southern California. The family would not be able to afford tuition otherwise.

I spoke to Mary again recently. After more than a year of being unemployed and struggling, things are finally starting to turn around for the family. A new hospital in Eagle Butte brought job opportunities to those living on the reservation. Mary is now working there as a lab technician, making $18.69 an hour. She also finished her bachelor’s degree. Her husband still hasn’t been able to find work, but he stays home and watches the kids. She says they no longer rely on food stamps, but they still use Medicaid and WIC for her youngest son. Her daughter, whom she says is making top grades and has “a good head on her shoulders,” is researching scholarships and wants to join the ROTC.

Check out more stories and photos on the American Realities Kickstarter page. Eskildsen's "American Realities" photography book will be published in January 2013. The launch of a multimedia companion website will coincide with the book’s release.

Natasha Del Toro is a multimedia journalist whose work has appeared in Time Magazine, the Tampa Tribune, and on PBS' Frontline. She is the current host of PBS documentary series America Reframed.

Laura Bult is a radio journalist and producer currently working on the American Realities project.


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