President Bill Clinton came to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota at the tail end of his administration. He witnessed the extreme poverty and absorbed the feelings of hopelessness, and then moved on.
Clinton’s emissary from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Andrew Cuomo, now Attorney General of New York State, followed Clinton to Pine Ridge, had his photographer take pictures of the Third World conditions in housing, had the pictures blown up, framed them, hung them on his office walls, and then moved on.
Shannon County, the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is still among the top ten poorest counties in America. Since it was proclaimed as the poorest county in America in the U. S. Census of 1980, 27 years ago, nothing has changed.
I now believe that by behaving as victims of poverty, the Lakota people are shortchanging themselves. We must rid ourselves of this “victim mentality” and enter a new paradigm of “prospective prosperity.”
As victims of poverty the Lakota people have become the beneficiaries of handouts. This benevolence includes used clothing, used furniture and a whole lot of religious enthusiasm offered by those who believe that our road to prosperity must pass beneath the arch of a church. Plenty Indians have become infected by “that old time religion” but it hasn’t done much to feed or house them. Nor has it done much to bring jobs and prosperity.
I emailed www.hillaryclinton.com
and asked her to follow her husband’s trail to Pine Ridge, but to come here with thoughts of economic development leading to prosperity on her mind. We don’t need more handouts. We need a hand up. Whether she wins or loses, the problems that exist on this reservation will still be here waiting to be solved.
It seems that the mindset of South Dakota’s Congressional delegation keeps us compartmentalized as victims. While they work for and introduce bills to move the white population of the state towards prosperity, they eke out bills designed to keep the people of the Great Sioux Nation in poverty.
If we had some genuine, forward looking leaders amongst our people, they would also erase this picture of poverty stricken victims and instill in the people a pride that will lead to a goal of prosperity. They can do this by creating a commission to represent all nine tribes of the Sioux Nation and send this delegation to visit every wealthy tribe in America looking for funds and ideas.
They would send this delegation to visit with all of the major corporations in America and make an effort to entice them to construct industry on reservation lands. There are plenty of unemployed skilled and unskilled laborers available and the corporations would also receive countless tax-free benefits. If American jobs are now outsourced to India, why not outsource a few of them to the American Indians?
For those who would do good you can replace the truckloads of used clothing and furniture with truckloads of lumber, plywood, hammers, nails, concrete, trucks, backhoes, Caterpillars, road graders, and other building materials and equipment, so that our carpenters, plumbers and electricians can start to build homes for the thousands of people that are now nearly homeless. By so doing you have just created jobs and a future.
Maybe a wealthy casino tribe can buy busses that can traverse this reservation that is 100 miles long and 50 miles wide so that the people without automobiles can make it to town to buy groceries, visit the hospital or report to their jobs without having to pay a friend or relative an arm and a leg to get them there.
HUD can help move us toward prosperity by demolishing the “cluster houses” it built over the years to save money and begin to build houses on the land the people abandoned in order to move into the cluster communities. The cluster homes contributed to violence, gangs, drugs and crime that did not exist when the people lived in homes on their own allotment lands.
Internally we have a lot of problems to solve, problems of alcoholism, drug abuse and a very high incident of high school dropouts. Contributing to these problems are the lack of jobs, adequate housing, poor healthcare and a mindset that causes us to believe we are victims.
If Congress would allocate the money it spends in one day in Iraq to improve the lives of its own citizens living on the poorest reservations in America, then and only then, can it hold itself up as an example for the rest of the world. There is an old saying that a nation shall be judged on how it treats its indigenous people and to date, America has a failing record.
Bill Clinton came, saw and moved on. Whether the next president is Hillary or whoever, maybe they will come to Pine Ridge, see the problems, solve them, and not move on. Or at least give the people the means to solve the problems themselves.
Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. His latest book “Children Left Behind, the Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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