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Left Behind

Change comes slowly to poverty-stricken Lakota country


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At first glance, the village of Pine Ridge, South Dakota doesn't seem all that different from any other dusty little town on the seemingly never-ending prairies of the Great Plains.

On a Friday night, local radio station KILI plays rap music before switching to a live broadcast of the weekend's big high-school football showdown. Teen-agers wearing sports jerseys congregate at Pizza Hut and Taco John's.

Indeed, the initial disappointment likely to confront visitors who arrive here with romantic notions of life on an Indian reservation is the seeming ordinariness of the place.

But spend some time exploring the back roads of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, or the back streets of Pine Ridge village, and the picture changes.

Decrepit trailer homes, whose windows have all been broken, leaving jagged glass jutting out of the frames and curtains flapping in the wind, often turn out to be inhabited. The ubiquitous junk cars -- no home here seems to be complete without one sitting in front of it -- sometimes serve as dwellings, too. Packs of scruffy, collarless "rez dogs" run at large.

On every block, it seems that at least one house, most of them trailers or government-provided manufactured houses, has a wheelchair ramp. It's usually a sign that someone has lost a limb to diabetes, which affects half of all adults over 40 here, due to the poor dietary habits that accompany poverty.

In reality, the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Lakota Nation and about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, is neither ordinary nor romantic.

A century and a half of mistreatment and neglect by the U.S. government has left the more than 30,000 residents of Pine Ridge, descendants of famous warriors such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, living in what is, by most measures, a third world country.

The statistics are mind-numbing: While the rest of America frets over a recession that has driven unemployment rates from 4 percent up to 6 percent, Pine Ridge's unemployment rate is estimated to be between 60 and 80 percent -- and it's been that way for as long as anyone can remember. The closest the rest of the country has ever gotten was 25 percent unemployment, during the Great Depression.

Shannon County, which encompasses roughly two-thirds of the reservation, is consistently ranked among the two or three poorest counties in America. Per-capita income in 1999 was just under $6,300, and more than half of all residents live below the federal poverty line.

With the poverty come staggering rates of homelessness, alcoholism, disease, drug abuse, murders, suicide, infant mortality, teen-age pregnancy and school dropouts. Average life expectancy here is lower than in Bangladesh -- 48 for men and 52 for women.

Many homes here lack running water or heating. Some people don't even have beds.

"We come from a strong line of chiefs," says Tom Poor Bear, a local community activist. "But we've turned into beggars."

A trailer home on the Rosebud Sioux reservation.
  • A trailer home on the Rosebud Sioux reservation.

My whole family lives here'

It is at Taco John's that Loren Black Elk and his cousin, Jim Black Elk, hit me up for some money. I'm visiting the reservation with One Nation Walking Together, a Colorado Springs-based charitable organization that dispatches relief trucks to Pine Ridge and other Indian reservations, loaded with food and other necessities.

Jim, 52, and Loren, 34, are descendants of the late Nicholas Black Elk, who witnessed the last Indian wars and the destruction of the traditional Lakota way of life, and who told his life story in the best seller Black Elk Speaks. Both men live in a dilapidated, open-air homeless camp south of Pine Ridge village, the reservation's largest community and its administrative center. The lack of shelter has left them with scars on their faces and arms from severe sunburn.

Neither Jim nor Loren finished high school or is employed. Years ago, Loren left the reservation for a while and worked at factory in Lincoln, Neb. But like many others who leave to get an education or find a job, he eventually returned for a simple reason: "My whole family lives here," he says.

Loren had twins, a boy and a girl, who lived at Pine Ridge. For a while, he also took care of his father, and his brother's children.

In 1999, Loren's brother, Wilson Black Elk, was found beaten and murdered along with Ron Hard Heart, off the road that leads south from Pine Ridge village to the tiny, unincorporated town of Whiteclay, Neb. Whiteclay has long been a focal point of the frustrations felt by many at Pine Ridge, where traffic accidents and murders, a great number of them alcohol-related, are among the leading causes of death. While it's illegal to sell alcohol on the reservation, locals need only drive or walk two miles across the state line to Whiteclay to buy it. The town, with some 20 residents and four liquor stores, sells an estimated 4 million cans of beer in a year, 90 percent of it to reservation residents.

The deaths of Wilson Black Elk and Ron Hard Heart, which remain unsolved, sparked a protest movement in which thousands of Indians marched on Whiteclay, demanding the liquor stores be shut down. The protesters also wanted investigations into several other suspicious Indian deaths on and off the reservation, which they claimed had been ignored by law enforcement.

"We were tired of our people being murdered and nothing being done about it," says Tom Poor Bear, one of the march organizers and the half-brother of both Wilson and Loren Black Elk.

Poor Bear established the homeless camp where Loren now lives, called Camp Justice, on the spot where the two bodies were found. Initially, the camp had a shack for cooking meals and tepees for the homeless to live in, and it served as an organizing place for marches on Whiteclay.

But the cooking shack burned down in April, and Poor Bear had to remove the tepees because some of the homeless would try to sell them. Today, Camp Justice looks just like any other homeless encampment, with dirty bedspreads on the bare ground, empty beer cans, and flies everywhere.

Loren's twins are now 14 and living with their aunt. Loren's left eye yields a tear as he talks passionately about his hopes for their future.

"I'd like to see them graduate high school, go to college and become something," he says. "I just tell them, 'Keep going, keep going. Become something.'"

Origins of their plight

Though everyone at Pine Ridge seems to have a different opinion about what, or who, is currently to blame for the conditions in which they live, there is little disagreement about the historical origins of their plight.

Tom Poor Bear
  • Tom Poor Bear

Emerson Elk, who sells his artwork and crafts at a roadside stand near the village of Wounded Knee, answers bluntly when asked what has caused the reservation's problems: "The white man. He never should've come."

The Lakota lost most of their land and resources and saw their traditional culture nearly destroyed, due to encroachment by white settlers beginning in the last half of the 19th century.

In 1868, the U.S. government signed a treaty at Fort Laramie, Wyo., promising the Lakota a 60-million acre reservation stretching from the Missouri River in the east to the Bighorn Mountains in the west, in an effort to end long-running hostilities between the Lakota and white settlers. But the Great Sioux Reservation would be diminished and fragmented by a series of treaty violations on the part of the U.S. government. Today, Pine Ridge is one of its nine remnants, scattered across South Dakota.

Most notoriously, Congress in 1877 confiscated the Black Hills in western South Dakota, previously undisputed Lakota territory, three years after an expedition led by Gen. George Custer had found gold there.

The gold discovery sparked further encroachment by white prospectors, leading to the last Indian wars, in which warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated Custer's troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Indian victory was short-lived; in the years that followed, reinforced federal troops forced the Lakota into submission.

On Dec. 29, 1890, the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked a group of Lakota encamped at Wounded Knee in what would become the last armed engagement of the Indian wars and one of the most infamous atrocities in American history. The troops massacred an estimated 150 to 300 men, women and children. Today, the cemetery on a hill at Wounded Knee is a top tourist destination at Pine Ridge.

During many of the following decades, the U.S. government pursued policies aimed at assimilating Indians into white society, by outlawing certain religious ceremonies and sending Indians to schools where they were banned from speaking their native languages.

Through treaties and other legal arrangements, the federal government agreed to help Indians with monetary aid, education, health care and other assistance, as compensation for taking their land. But the government has shirked its obligations by severely shortchanging Indian programs, according to a recent report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The underfunding of such programs "perpetuates a civil-rights crisis in Indian country," the commission charged.

A crippling dependency

Few people here, however, seem to think the solution is to receive more money from the government. Rather, many Lakota say government assistance programs have created a crippling dependency on Uncle Sam.

"We're more or less sitting here expecting handouts," laments Homer Whirlwind Soldier, a cowboy hat-wearing elder from the nearby Rosebud Sioux reservation, which is smaller but whose conditions mirror those of Pine Ridge. "We need to teach our kids to be self-sufficient."

That's a tall order. While some tribes have supported themselves with revenues from oil, gas or minerals, the Lakota have no such resources. And while a handful of tribes around the country have struck it rich with casinos, they are usually smaller tribes located near large cities. The Oglala Sioux Tribe opened a casino in 1994, but it's located in the middle of an empty prairie. The nearest metropolis -- Rapid City, S.D., with a population of just 50,000 -- is almost 100 miles away. Though the casino turns a profit and employs 200 people, it has had seemingly little impact on life at Pine Ridge.

Pine Ridge has no major industry, either. Most jobs are in the tribal government, in schools and with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the agency that coordinates federal programs on the reservation.

Homer Whirlwind Soldier
  • Homer Whirlwind Soldier

The reservation does have vast expanses of farmland and rangeland. The prairie is interrupted in many places by hay fields and sunflower farms, and cattle fences line the roads. But whites run nearly all of the ranches and farms. Some came here when the reservation was opened up for homesteaders in 1910, while others lease their land from its Lakota owners.

Many Lakota receive lease royalties through the BIA, which holds their land in trust, but for most it's only around $50 per month. Other income sources for the unemployed include welfare and veterans' benefits. For a typical family, the total income from such sources may total $600 per month, or $7,200 per year.

We're all warriors'

Although many Lakota decry their own dependency on "handouts," it's not as if they haven't paid their dues to society. Indians of all tribes enlist in the military in great numbers and have fought in all of America's wars. At the main intersection in Pine Ridge village, a sign honors more than 140 Oglala Sioux who are currently stationed in Iraq.

The reasons why so many Lakota join are simple: The military offers a job, money for college, and a way to get off the reservation.

Besides, "We're all warriors," says Whirlwind Soldier, who earned three Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars in combat during the Korean War. "Most Lakota people, if there's a war going on, they volunteer."

And although it's impossible to ignore the grinding poverty that afflicts Pine Ridge, Rosebud and other Lakota reservations, it would be unfair to paint the reservations solely as places of misery. The poverty is made less brutal by a culture in which people take care of each other. Most homeless, for example, don't lack shelter because their relatives take them in -- even if that often means two dozen people living in one double-wide trailer.

Darlene Kelly, 66, left Pine Ridge for many years with her husband, and lived and worked in San Francisco, Chicago and Denver. But they eventually returned, finding they preferred life on the reservation despite its challenges.

"I didn't like the city," Kelly says. "That wasn't my life."

At Pine Ridge, she says, "people care about each other, and we try to help each other as much as we can."

Kelly, who wears bifocals and a plain wedding band, is among many people on the reservations who have built good lives for themselves and their families, despite the odds. After returning to Pine Ridge, she worked for 20 years as a dorm mother at a local BIA boarding school. Now retired, she still helps out at the school.

But many Lakota, she says, simply don't know how to get or keep a job because their parents never worked. Others may have a hard time simply making it to work. People on Pine Ridge live in small communities scattered all across the massive reservation. Many can't afford cars. There is no public transportation.

Kelly and her husband tried to set an example for their own children by working hard. Today, all five of their children work. Two sons served in the Army, one of them as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. Her daughter served in the Navy during Desert Storm.

She worries, however, about young people on the reservation.

Darlene Kelly
  • Darlene Kelly

"The younger generation that's coming up now doesn't have the parental guidance," Kelly says. "We're getting a lot of our boys into gangs."

Change is slow

The pace of change is so slow on the reservations that most old-timers, like Kelly, say they haven't seen much of it in their lifetimes. Some say things have only gotten worse.

But positive changes do happen. When Whirlwind Soldier was growing up, the priests at his Jesuit boarding school on Rosebud would beat him for speaking Lakota, and he ended up dropping out. Today, reservation schools teach Indian culture and history, and both Pine Ridge and Rosebud have their own colleges.

Last year, a brand-new youth recreation center opened in Pine Ridge village. And two and a half years ago, a chamber of commerce began operating on the reservation.

Funded largely with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the chamber helps would-be business owners find sources for startup funds, offers technical advice, and helps out with marketing. It now has more than 120 small-business members.

"Our goal is to grow a local economy," says Mark St. Pierre, the chamber's director. "If we can create a business community here, we could have a strong future."

Though the Lakota don't have much of an entrepreneurial tradition, that's beginning to change. "There are businesses starting here all the time," St. Pierre says. "People are seeing small businesses as a way out of poverty."

While relatively remote and lacking in many basic natural resources, Pine Ridge does have assets it could capitalize on. Lakota artists and craftspeople are famous for their beadwork, quill work and quilting. But their galleries are scattered and remote, and they lag behind in using modern marketing resources such as the Internet.

The art, and the rich culture and history of the Lakota, should be able to attract many tourists to the reservation, just a short drive south of Interstate 90, which already brings millions of visitors to the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and to Badlands National Park. St. Pierre also believes the reservation, teeming with wildlife, could attract birders and other wildlife-watchers.

But right now, Pine Ridge doesn't even have a motel. A few bed-and-breakfasts have popped up in recent years, however, along with campgrounds.

Yet another resource that could prove lucrative is the abundant wind. South Dakota has been dubbed the "Saudi Arabia of wind power," and Rosebud installed its first wind turbine earlier this year.

And by setting up basic local businesses like clothing stores and barber shops -- neither of which currently exists at Pine Ridge -- more of the locals' money can stay on the reservation, instead of going to border towns beyond the reservation.

But it won't be easy. Getting startup money for a business is a significant hurdle in a place rated as high-risk for lending. Those wanting to lease land for a business must go through a bureaucratic approval process involving the tribal government and the BIA, which can take up to two years. And getting utilities hooked up is also a major expense. With the exception of Pine Ridge village, "None of the communities [on the reservation] even have basic infrastructure," St. Pierre notes.

Loren Black Elk
  • Loren Black Elk

Living in two worlds

The notion that the Lakota need, essentially, to become better capitalists, might seem to be at odds with their communal traditions. But it's reality, argues Poor Bear. "We're in a society where money is involved, and we have to deal with it."

Whirlwind Soldier agrees.

"Today, to succeed is to make money," he says. He believes it can be done while still holding on to traditional values. "One of the things we have to learn is to live in two worlds."

In addition to embracing entrepreneurship, some also say it's necessary to change the tribes' relationship with the federal government, in particular the system under which the BIA manages tribal resources. In Colorado, the Southern Ute tribe went from poverty to prosperity by asserting greater control of its own oil and gas resources.

More than anything, like Loren Black Elk, most Lakota seem to pin their hopes on their children getting a good education.

"We can't fight with weapons anymore," says Paul, a Pine Ridge tour guide, who gave only his middle name. "So we have to ask our children to get an education and fight for us in the future."

One nation walking together

Elaine Glynn began helping the Lakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation 14 years ago. She had been laid off from IBM and was working part time when she read an article about Walking Shield, a California nonprofit that provides relief to Indian reservations.

Glynn, who had grown up poor on a farm, decided to join the group's efforts to help "the poorest of the poor." While she knew there was poverty in Colorado Springs, people in places like Pine Ridge didn't even have the most basic safety nets that exist for poor people in the cities -- such as food banks, homeless shelters or heating assistance.

She began sending food, supplies, quilts and clothing to the reservation. Soon, she and her husband were collecting and hauling beds and furniture, as well.

The operation eventually outgrew the Glynns' house and their ability to haul the supplies themselves. Today, it has evolved into a full-fledged nonprofit group, One Nation Walking Together, which has its own warehouse and contracts with a trucking company to dispatch some 50 truckloads of relief supplies each year to various Indian reservations.

To encourage responsibility and engagement on the receiving end, One Nation requires that people on the reservations raise money locally to help pay for the trucking costs.

"We don't believe in giving something for nothing," Glynn says.

One Nation is in constant need of financial contributions, project sponsors (such as companies, churches or organizations), and volunteers. Donations of hygiene products, school supplies, functioning appliances, good furniture, food, and new or gently used children's and baby clothing are also welcomed.

On Oct. 24, the organization will hold its annual fund-raiser, an art auction, at the Shriner's Club in Old Colorado City, at Pikes Peak Avenue and 33rd Street.

For more information or to help, call One Nation Walking Together at 329-0251, or visit


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