Brian Nurnberger – October 24, 2013

Brian Nurnberger founded Simply Smiles in 2003 as an outgrowth of his providing help to the Casa Hogar Children’s Home, an orphanage in Oaxaca, Mexico. His efforts grew to also encompass a community that lives off the dump in Oaxaca, the nearby rural village of Santa Maria Tepexipana and the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The organization’s efforts include healthcare, food distribution, education, home building, community centers and more. Mr. Nurnberger’s philosophy is to work closely with local communities, earn their trust, gain a good understanding of what needs to be done, and focus on each child, “developing memories of happiness and joy for those in our care,” what he terms a holistic approach. Mr. Nurnberger also oversees a coffee manufacturing operation in Mexico whose sales support the efforts of Simply Smiles.

Mr. Nurnberger’s talk centered on his experiences at the reservation in South Dakota. He noted that when he first heard of conditions at the reservation, he could not believe that they could be so bad. He also found it difficult to overcome the Lakota people’s deep distrust of whites, who have brought only misery, abuse and dishonesty.  After much effort, he believes he earned that trust when he was accepted into the tribe last August, a humbled but happy man.

Mr. Nurnberger related the sad history of treaty violations, seizure of Indian land, encroachment by settlers and gold miners, slaughter of the buffalo and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 in which up to 300 men, women, children and aged were slaughtered and the Lakota Nation brought to an end. The “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” education policy of the early 20th century, in which Indian youth were seized from their families and forced into an assimilationist education program that denied them their culture and contacts with their families, only deepened the despair of the Lakota, as did the crushing of the AIM movement in the 1970’s.

Mr. Nurnberger commented that he had “never seen death … suffering … despair such as at the reservation,” which he began to visit a few years ago. Unspeakable living conditions, woefully inadequate housing, massive unemployment, temperatures that swing from -50 degrees in the winter to 100 degrees in the summer, unhealthy diets on surplus government food, pandemic alcohol and drug abuse (where Lysol is a drink of last resort), child abuse, high school dropout rates as high as 90% because no decent future can be imagined, youth suicide … rampant despair.  The needs are great, and, Mr. Nurnberger cautions, we must be humble, determined and respectful.

Simply Smiles programs cover growing healthy foods, developing skills, encouraging Lakota language and culture, providing food, career training and placement, and education, including sponsoring students to schools off the reservation. Mr. Nurnberger believes that providing decent housing is key to the success of everything else. He showed a documentary of the construction of Simply Smiles’ first house on the reservation, one built to rigorous standards, and commented that they plan to build four more in the next phase.

In the Q and A, Mr. Nurnberger noted the following:

  • Oil and gas development isn’t great in South Dakota and offers few job opportunities for the Lakota on the reservation. A distribution center for a large retailer may be promising but requires effective collaboration between business, social welfare and the tribe.
  • Education is underfunded and poor. It is difficult to attract teachers. Can use Teach for America teachers. Volunteers can help.
  • Yes, those were primarily volunteers working on that house in the documentary. Perhaps thirty volunteers and six locals worked each day. Six locals is actually good.  Distrust remains deep. The houses cost $60,000 to build and are solidly constructed to withstand tornadoes.
  • School texts are in English. He supports supplemental Lakota language training.  Most high school graduates leave and do not return. The reservation is that bad. They may end up in mini-reservations in towns like Rapid City.
  • The Simply Smiles budget is $750,000 per year, raised by three annual fundraisers and coffee sales. A sale of one bag yields three good meals.
  • An advantage of their name is that it gives them a chance to explain what they do.
  • The reservation has clean water from a central reservoir and effective sewage disposal provided by the BIA. The soil is bad for growing.
  • There is no casino on the reservation. They are too isolated to attract gamblers and the tribal elders do not allow gambling.