Saturday, 27 September 2014

Why Knitting for Charity? Why Knitting for Pine Ridge?

The onset of yet another Age UK / Innocent Big Knit campaign prompted me to start reflecting on charity knitting. Perhaps, I should mention that the topic of charitable knitting is vast: Some charity knitters specialise in particular accessories required by hospital patients, those in remission or patients with chronic conditions. Others knit for animal shelters. Some of us also produce custom-made items, clothes for birds after oil spills, for example. I also thought of those knitters, who produce clothing for premature babies and especially those of us, who cast-on for baby burial gowns.

Talking about charity knitting can thus come across as bleak, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why I've so far always refrained from writing about it. After all, this blog is intended to be my creative leisure pad. I'm also aware that knitters generally have strong opinions when it comes to discussions on charitable knitting, with some of us raising the question whether there is a place for charitable knitting in this day and age, given the abundance of mass-produced clothing. 

Badlands, Pine Ridge Reservation, Photo: Patrice Ouellet, more here.

The Single Biggest Charitable Cause on Ravelry: Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota 

Nevertheless, I was curious to see which one was the single biggest charitable cause on Ravelry, bringing together individual knitters to direct their efforts jointly towards a common  goal. I deliberately chose Ravelry, as it is perhaps the biggest knitting and crochet-related online community on the web. For all those not familiar: Ravelry is best described as a type of Facebook for knitters, crocheters, yarn dyers, spinners and weavers. In short, if you know someone suffering from a fibre-related fetish, you are sure to find them on Ravelry. With approximately four million registered users, Ravelry's membership count is quite small, when compared to other social networks. But when it comes to knitting on the web, all roads somehow lead to Ravelry. And so I went about my research.

I simply performed a search for groups, that primarily concern themselves with charity knitting. It didn't matter in my request whether groups were dedicated to one good cause or rallying around multiple issues, whether knitters had to produce certain items of clothing or whether donations for all types of garments were accepted. In other words, I performed a totally generic search without restrictions with the aim of getting a feel for the topic.

The total number of results thrown back at me came to 21 groups. Some of these groups were inactive or had an insignificant number of members, thus rendering them effectively inactive. But, for the time being, I have decided to include them all.

Out of these 21 groups, 4 groups alone (approximately 20%) are knitting solely to donate their finished objects to residents living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota (USA). The items donated are primarily for newborns, toddlers and the community's elders. The 4 Pine Ridge groups are not only the most active charity-related groups on Ravelry, they also have the largest number of members, with one group listing a member count of over 1000. When looking at the activity levels within these groups, you will find a constant stream of new comments and contributions. 

The Statistics of Pine Ridge

To my great shame, I was at best only vaguely familiar with Pine Ridge, i.e. I had heard the name and knew that there was a connection to the First Nations, but never really looked into it. This was about to change. 

In two episodes of Breaking the Set at the onset of 2014, dedicated entirely to Pine Ridge Reservation, American journalist Abby Martin (RT) referred to the story behind Pine Ridge as one of the most 'unreported and neglected issues in America today'.  Covered only by the fringe / alternative media inside the U.S., it should come as no surprise, that Pine Ridge receives even less attention outside the U.S. 

Yet, merely confronting the statistics accompanying Pine Ridge Reservation, it becomes obvious  very quickly that conditions on the reservation are akin to a humanitarian catastrophe.  Located in the state of South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation is the 8th largest Native American reservation in the U.S. and home to the Oglala Sioux, one of the seven sub-tribes of the Lakota nation. Approximately 40,000 tribe members are living on the reservation, which comprises an area of roughly 2.1 million acres. 

Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur on Housing during her visit to Pine Ridge in  2009.
Photo kindly provided by International Indian Treaty Council. More here.

Pine Ridge is located in the second most economically devastated county in the U.S.. Unemployment rates fluctuate between 85% and 90% on the reservation. Several sources describe the standard of housing as abysmal. Many residents are either homeless or live in accommodation which proves wholly inadequate, given the harsh climactic conditions, especially in winter. Over-crowding is the rule rather than an exception. Just under 40% of homes have neither access to electricity nor adequate heating. As a result, a significant number of homes are infested with black mould. The Tuberculosis rate on Pine Ridge is approximately eight times higher than the national U.S. average. The infant mortality rate is the highest on the entire North American continent and about three times higher than the national U.S. average. Cervical cancer occurs five times more frequently, when compared to the U.S. national average. Fifty per cent of the population over the age of forty suffer from diabetes. Children are often raised by their grandparents, as their own parents are unable to take on the task. This is largely due to alcoholism, depression or because a parent has committed suicide. The life expectancy for men is between 46 and 48 years.

In preparation for this piece, I was in touch with one knitter, who makes items for several of the Pine Ridge groups on Ravelry. She is concentrating her efforts primarily in one group, which tries to provide outfits for the newborns on the maternity ward at Indian Health Services once a month. Unlike me, she has first - hand experience of the conditions on Pine Ridge and described them as "heart-breaking".

The entangled dynamics surrounding this subject area as well as any discussion of both Native American past and present are deeply complex, by far exceeding the remit of this post. Photographs, on the other hand, are uniquely able to capture the essence of conditions and provide us with the ability to perform an initial ground - level analysis, however far removed we may be - both geographically and empathetically. At this stage, I therefore urge anyone to look at Aaron Huey's photographic account of life on the reservation, which is available here.

For all those, who want to take their engagement with the subject further, I can only recommend Aaron Huey's Ted lecture, which provides a brief introduction into the Reservation's history and an initial overview of both the treaties up to the landmark court case between the First Nations and the U.S. federal government, thus covering a period from 1868 until the present day. A number of other campaigners, including the late Russell Massey, frequently use the word 'genocide' in their assessment of the conditions on Pine Ridge both today and in their analysis of the past. - A genocide that receives only superficial attention via the mainstream media, even though it is clearly documented.

Why knitting for Charity? Why knitting for Pine Ridge?

The criticism often levelled at charitable knitters is that our donations don't really make an impact, that donations of mass-produced clothing keep their recipients just as warm or that a knitted item will hardly be able to address the deeper issues causing the problem in the first place. The latter undoubtedly applies to Pine Ridge. So much for the purely rational assessment.

A hand-knit donation, on the other hand, can be viewed on an entirely different level. It's an item made by one human being for another. From casting on to completing the project, great care will have gone into the creation of whatever object is going to be donated. The hand-knit is distinguished from a mass-produced garment simply by the virtue of care it has received from start to finish, i.e. from the point when the knitter chooses the yarn to casting off and beyond. Yet, the hand knit signifies still more than that. Above all, it signifies the act of caring. And those who care, such as the 4 Groups of 'Pine Ridge Knitters' on Ravelry, haven't forgotten. 


  1. Thank you for your well-written entry. I've been knitting and crocheting and sewing for the new babies at the Indian Health Service hospital OB department for a couple of years. I am horrified and embarrassed by the conditions in which Americans are living on the Pine Ridge reservation. I can do nothing except provide hand-made items for the mothers of newborns. "From those who have much, much is expected." Carla Kepler, Mercer Island, WA

  2. Thank you for writing this I had no idea there was a need for burial gowns. I have heard of this rez years ago it breaks my heart things have not improved for them


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...