What’s happening this summer actually began on a cold winter night several years ago. Sitting in her warm home, Sarah Hamilton, owner of Trail Center Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, received an email from Bob Deschampe, then Cook County commissioner and now tribal chair of the Grand Portage Ojibwe, with a link to a HuffPost story about a firewood shortage on the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in western South Dakota, where many homes are heated with wood.
Hamilton decided to do what she could to help bring firewood to Pine Ridge. She contacted One Spirit, a charitable organization working with the Lakota that was mentioned in the news story, and began raising money to help them obtain firewood and distribute it across the reservation. In doing so, she became friends with Jeri Baker, the executive director of One Spirit.
A frequent conversation topic with the two women was economic development on the reservation. With unemployment hovering at 80 percent on Pine Ridge and a constant shortage of seasonal employees on the North Shore, Hamilton thought she could help.
“The chronic shortage of seasonal employees on the North Shore is not new,” she said. “Many employers hire J1 foreign workers, which can be a hassle, an expense and difficult because of Covid. Why not hire American kids instead?”
Hamilton hired two young men from Pine Ridge to work at Trail Center. As word of the employment opportunity on the Gunflint Trail got around on reservation, she began hearing from other young people who were looking for work and an adventure away from home. She and Baker began developing an employment program. Hamilton found other Cook County employers who were willing to hire the Lakotas. She and Baker worked out the logistics of transportation so the young people are driven to the Rapid City airport and picked up by someone at the Duluth airport when they arrive. Baker’s grandson, Quentin Badie, built a website for One Spirit where employers could advertise jobs with specific information about duties, wages and housing.
While some young people on Pine Ridge wanted to head north for work, their parents and grandparents needed assurance the jobs were on the up and up. One Spirit brought several of them to the North Shore to see the place and meet Hamilton. All were impressed with the employment opportunities and graciousness of the community.
Hamilton had two young people from Pine Ridge working at Trail Center the first two years. While they required some support to deal with homesickness and adapting to a culture very different from their own, she discovered they were eager to learn and willing to work.
“It’s a big step to go away from home,” Hamilton said. “They are so family-oriented that it’s actually very hard on them. One young man went home, because it was just too hard for him.”
Hamilton and Baker had high hopes of bringing 20 or more workers to the North Shore this year, but just six arrived. They discovered this was a blessing in disguise, because they’ve been able to work out some of the kinks in the program.
“What we’ve learned this year will help us be more organized in the future,” Hamilton said. “We’ll start offering the jobs earlier and move the young people here in groups, so employers know when they are coming.”
She’s also going to limit the job opportunities to a closer radius to Trail Center, essentially the Gunflint Trail and Grand Marais. This makes it easier for her to provide support to the young people when they need it. They also remain in close contact with family members and others on Pine Ridge.
Hamilton will also get support she needs from individuals and various community entities. Badie, Baker’s grandson, has been working summers at Trail Center and provides companionship and support to the young people. The county government, chamber of commerce and Economic Development Authority have agreed to help with the program.
“The YMCA and the Grand Marais Public Library are on board and we are utilizing both,” she said. “One young man is going to take classes at the Grand Marais Art Colony.”
Hamilton is excited the young people are learning skills they can bring home to Pine Ridge. She thinks it is unlikely any will decide to move to the North Shore on a permanent basis, due to the strength of the Lakota culture. She is determined to provide them with opportunities that will give them good memories along with new working skills to take forward in life. One young man wants to learn how to cook professionally, while another is an artist and may want to become a tattoo artist. What they need to make their dreams become reality is mentoring.
Hamilton contacted Minneapolis restaurateur Sean Sherman, aka the Sioux Chef, and asked if he would be willing to take on the two young men over the winter and provide mentoring for them. Sherman, who is from Pine Ridge, readily agreed to do so and offered to help them with housing and getting settled in the city.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hamilton said. “There couldn’t be a better next step for these two young men.”
While taking on the Pine Ridge employment program has presented plenty of challenges for the already busy Hamilton, such moments are her reward. She’s also been touched by the people of Pine Ridge that she has met and worked with.
“They are beautiful, soft-spoken, loving people,” she said. “I’ve had grandpas and grandmas call me just to make sure the kids are ok and safe.”
Baker said Hamilton’s involvement has allowed One Spirit to expand upon the opportunities it already provides on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Begun in 2005 to meet basic needs on the reservation such as food and heat, the nonprofit works in partnership with the Lakota. They provide and distribute food and firewood. The organization built the first meat-processing facility on reservation to process locally produced bison, wild game and cattle. They also built a youth center in an area of the reservation that is statistically considered the most impoverished community in the U.S. The employment program builds upon One Spirit’s previous work.
“One of the absolutely important things we can do is provide employment training,” Baker said. “The young people have an opportunity to experience life away from the reservation, do something for themselves and bring skills back to use on the reservation for their people. They learn to trust others and know what it is like to be treated with respect by people who are not Native Americans.”
She is impressed not only with Hamilton, but also the people she’s met while visiting the North Shore.
“I must say thank you to Sarah and everyone who was open to doing this,” Baker said. “It’s quite a thing the way the whole community has greeted these young people with warmth. There is a tremendous potential for this program to have a great impact on the reservation.”