There is a paradigm shift in Indian country today that is probably as pronounced as the one that occurred in 1492. When the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act became law in 1988, just 20 years ago, the shift moved into full motion.
If there is anyone out there that still believes that the federal government is the answer to all of our problems they should have visited any Indian reservation in the United States 20 years ago and they would have changed their minds very quickly. The poverty in every facet of Indian life could have been blamed directly upon the supposed benevolence of the government.
In the space of just 20 years the Indian nations have moved from some of the poorest in America to some of the wealthiest. But the paradigm shift has not been all inclusive. There are still those Indian nations that are fairly isolated that still remain at the bottom rung of economic development and stability. The extremes between wealth and poverty in Indian country are astonishing.
For the first time in the history of many Indian tribes there is money to be had that is independent of federal control. There is money that the tribes can use at their own discretion, but how the tribes use that unforeseen wealth could determine the future of Indian country for all time.
Members of Congress should not forget that their obligations to Indian country are not diminished. In some respects the richer tribes will move forward at their own pace and in their own time. There is no such bargain for the poor tribes. They are still dependent upon the federal government for much of their sustenance.
If a reporter from the New York Times would stand outside of the Sioux Nation Shopping Center and ask any man or woman exiting the store what is most needed to alleviate the poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation they would be told by all – homes and jobs - but not necessarily in that order.
Homes should not have been a problem to a government that spends trillions on weapons and war every year. Housing and Urban Development sent its director, Anthony Cuomo, to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the final year of the Bill Clinton Administration. He returned to Washington with a collection of photos depicting the worst housing conditions as could be found in America. He had the pictures hung in the hallways of HUD, but unfortunately, the pictures did not stir enough concern to turn them into the action needed to solve the problem.
Jobs? Congress has the power to make a dramatic difference. It could offer financial incentives to any major corporation willing to build factories on the reservation. As a matter of fact, some of the government buildings constructed in major cities could be built on the poor Indian reservations thereby providing jobs and opportunities. There are thousands of unemployed Lakota men and women just dying to find a good job. Congress could also construct a trade and vocational school in Martin, South Dakota, a community located directly between the two poorest Indian reservations in America, Pine Ridge and Rosebud, to provide job skills training. Now how hard would that be to do?
Homes and jobs - - - jobs and homes. It really doesn’t matter which comes first. It only matters that these are the two most basic needs on the poorest Indian reservations in America and it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out the solutions. I just named a couple.
I would ask Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and John Thune (R-SD) to join South Dakota’s lone Congressional Representative, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), and sit down together with two words in mind for their constituents on the Indian reservations of their state - - - jobs and homes. The two words that could also start a paradigm shift on the poorest Indian reservations in America are probably the most simple to achieve, jobs and homes.
The U. S Government has tried experiment after experiment to bring about change in Indian country. Gaming started the ball rolling in a direction that was heretofore totally unexpected not only by the government, but by the Indian nations themselves. Most of the experiments, from relocation to assimilation, have failed.
And like I said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or another kind of genius to implement the changes that would provide jobs and homes. Requisition the money to build houses and build a vocational school at Martin to provide job training opportunities. Now how hard is that?
The wealthy tribes are moving toward total independence, but it is those that will never gain great wealth through the golden egg of gaming that still need attention. And if the solutions outlined here are too complex for the United States Government, perhaps the wealthy Indian nations will step forward and solve the problems of jobs and homes without the hindrance of the federal government.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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