A snapshot from 2017's Toy Drive delivery.
While toy deliveries during the pandemic will be socially-distanced, here Larry Dunn, center, helps two girls pick out their Christmas gifts during toy deliveries in 2017.

“The Lakota say Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ, meaning we are all related,” Larry Dunn observed. “We. Are. All. Related.”

Dunn finds that to be even truer now, trying to coordinate donations for the Toy Drive for Pine Ridge during the pandemic. November and December are typically the season for Toy Drive fundraising concert events. The need for some Christmas joy on the reservation is even greater this year, with cases of Covid-19 hitting South Dakota harder than many states.

“The reservation has locked down their borders a few times during the pandemic in hope of keeping everyone safe,” Larry Dunn said. “As with most of their basic services, the healthcare on the reservation is definitely lacking so they’re doing what they can to stay safe.”

Since 2003, Dunn has been organizing events to bring some cheer to the Pine Ridge reservation during the holiday season. He became involved in the life of the reservation as he pursued Lakota spiritual traditions. Dunn is also known in the music community as Lash LaRue, the longtime front man of local rockabilly trio The Mercurys. The Toy Drive was established to use his musical skills and that of his friends to bring toys to the reservation.

“None of this happens without community involvement. It’s really the essence of what the Lakota people have taught me. We’re all in this life together and we all need to watch out for each other. I think it’s more important these days during a pandemic and with all the crazy political strife going on in the world today to keep that in mind.”

The Toy Drive has grown to a 501(c)(3) that gets strong support from the community, including regular involvement from local musicians. Liquid Courage Tattoo, The Blues Society of Omaha and KIWR, 89.7, The River and Rick Galusha’s “P.S. Blues” radio show all have supported the Toy Drive efforts for years.

The Toy Drive has remained a grassroots endeavor, and this year is no different. In fact, it’s that direct support from the community that is going to make gift-giving possible this season as drop-off sites replace the in-person events.

Dunn will have a trailer outside for socially-distanced drop offs, 5-8 p.m., at the Blues Society of Omaha’s Thursday, Dec. 3 at Stocks ‘n’ Bonds, 8528 Park Drive. WRITER’S UPDATE: Since we went to press, the evening’s entertainment has been updated to a local all-star jam with jammers welcome.

Until Dec. 7, donations of new, unwrapped toys can also be dropped off at Liquid Courage Tattoo, 809 S. 75th St, Beardmore Subaru at 410 Ft. Crook Rd. N in Bellevue and at the Edward Jones office at 607 Pinnacle Drive, Suite B, in Papillion. Toys will be collected on Dec. 7 to be packed for the trip to Pine Ridge. Toys are appreciated for all ages including teens. It’s a sad fact that teen suicide rates are higher on the reservation than in the rest of the U.S., so anything that helps a young person feel remembered and gives them some hope is appreciated.

If you are reading this after Dec. 7, you can still make donations via PayPal at toydriveforpineridge.org. When you donate on the website, there is a “message” section where you can specify if you want your donation to go to toys or the propane fund.

“Without having our usual events, it’s tough to know what to expect donation-wise. We still have the same amount of schools that we deliver toys to and roughly the same number of kids, but I’m stressed over the amount of toys we may or may not get this year.” Dunn said, noting that toys will be dropped off at the schools, which will distribute the gifts instead of having the usual Christmas parties.

“It’s been quite a few years since we’ve had to buy any toys, but this year may be different,” Dunn noted. “And any toys we need to buy takes away from the amount we have available to spend on propane.”

The emergency propane fund that the Toy Drive coordinates is used to help elders during the bitter cold winters. The reservation is one of the poorest counties in the United States, with high unemployment rates and frigid winters much worse than those we have in eastern Nebraska. Many homes on the reservation don’t have electricity and use propane for heating. Sometimes people on the reservation are so poor that they have to choose between food and buying propane for heat. The Toy Drive emergency propane fund helps these families survive.

“An elder on the reservation that I’ve been acquainted with for quite a few years, very stoic — it takes quite a bit sometimes to break through the generational trauma and really connect with some of the elders,” Dunn shared. “Last year when I saw him in the summer, he came over to thank me for propane that we had bought him. He had a tear in his eye, actually hugged me. And he said ‘you saved my family.’”

Sunday, Dec. 13, 9 a.m. to noon, Rick Galusha’s “P.S. Blues” radio show and the Toy Drive are teaming up with Live from Mars House. A virtual simulcast will take place on 89.7, The River, and on Live From Mars House platforms on Twitch and on Facebook at facebook.com/livefrommarshouse.

You can find more information about life on the reservation, the history of the Toy Drive and make online donations at toydriveforpineridge.org.

Hot Notes

It’s going to take our collective efforts and energy to find some joys in December and January. Do what you can for whoever you can. Check your favorite venues for the possibilities of socially-distanced live events but most likely live-streaming is going to be the thing that gets us and artists through. The above-mentioned Live from Mars House regularly feature local artists.

My Austin hero-pal Jon Dee Graham has resumed livestreaming his Wednesday night shows that have happened at the Continental Club for decades. Look for live-from-home sets Wednesdays at 7 p.m. that have moved to Zoom, find details at facebook.com/jon.d.graham.

Minneapolis-based Davina & The Vagabonds are planning a socially-distanced live show to record a holiday CD. You can get tickets to the live stream scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 5, 8 p.m., or pre-purchase the CD by checking out facebook.com/davinaandthevagabonds.

If you’re looking for a brand new, blues-based gift for yourself or a friend, check out A Gulf Coast Christmas on Mike Zito’s Gulf Coast Records label. Performing a mix of new and classic Christmas tunes are Zito, Albert Castiglia, Kat Riggins, The Proven Ones, Mark May, John ‘Blues’ Boyd, Lisa & Kid Andersen, Diana Rein, Kevin Burt, LeRoux, Jimmy Carpenter, Billy Price, Sayer and Joyce, Thomas Atlas, Odds Lane and Tony Campanella. Check out gulfcoastrecords.net to order the holiday CD and check out other label gift packs.

A snapshot from 2017's Toy Drive delivery.
While toy deliveries during the pandemic will be socially-distanced, here Larry Dunn, center, helps two girls pick out their Christmas gifts during toy deliveries in 2017.


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