Tim Giago: Help the poorest county in America

The United States Census of 1980 moved in a different direction when it began to post a census within a census on different social conditions in the United States.

For instance, the Census of 1980 named the 10 poorest counties in America. The Pine Ridge Reservation, situated in the heart of Shannon County, South Dakota, was declared the “Poorest County in America.” It was one occasion when a people had no reason at all to stand up and shout, “Hey, we’re number one!”

To address the extreme poverty on many Indian reservations let’s, for the moment, set aside the financial boomtowns of the casino rich Indian nations. We should keep in mind that while some Indian nations have become extremely wealthy, many others, particularly those in the Northern Plains and in some portions of the Southwest, have remained the poorest of the poor in an otherwise booming Indian economy.

While most of the Pueblo Nations of New Mexico are having great success with their casinos, there are others like the Jemez Pueblo that do not have the luxury of being located on or near a major city or highway. And there are others that have decided not to open a casino, at least for the time being. While most Arizona Indian nations are booming, there are others such as the Navajo that are just now starting to make a move toward opening a casino and there is the Hopi Nation, made up of extremely traditional and religious people that are not considering building a casino at all.

In the Northern Plains tribes such as the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the object of the 1980 Census naming them the “poorest county in America,” the Sicangu of the Rosebud Reservation, the Crow Creek Sioux tribe and the tribes of North Dakota and Montana, are situated so far from a metropolitan population that although they do have functional casinos, are still struggling to survive.

We have to ask ourselves why, after 27 years since the 1980 Census, the Pine Ridge Reservation is still among the top ten poorest counties in America, and why three of the top ten poorest counties are located in South Dakota? What does that say about our elected Congressional delegation?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know the reasons there is such poverty and what can be done to alleviate it. The lack of jobs, housing and healthcare are three of the main culprits. And how does one go about addressing these ills? First off, you bring economic development to provide jobs and second, you demand that Housing and Urban Development get off of its big fat ass and provide livable housing, and third, you refurbish the Indian Health Care hospitals with adequate funding, improved facilities and more and better doctors. Doesn’t this sound like something that can be accomplished in America?

Life expectancy on Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Crow Creek and on some of the other Indian reservations of the Northern Plains and in some areas of the Southwest is in the 50s. Infant mortality is three times as high as in the rest of America. Diabetes is epidemic in Indian country no thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture for the high starch and sugar- loaded commodities distributed on these reservations for so many years.

I visited Andrew Cuomo in Washington, DC when he as the Secretary of HUD. Cuomo had visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2000 and lining the walls of his HUD office and hallways were enlarged photographs of Lakota people huddled in decrepit houses as many as four families to a two-bedroom house. Why were the pictures hanging on his walls when the very conditions they depicted are still prevalent on the Pine Ridge Reservation seven years later? While I sat in his office sipping coffee, Cuomo had his eye glued to the television set watching the latest count of “hanging chads” in Florida’s election. He listened to me with half an ear.

I was in Cuomo’s office to help bring jobs to the Pine Ridge Reservation. I told him I was willing to move my newspaper and printing plant to the reservation, along with 35 jobs, if he would see fit to have HUD build a facility to house it and contribute enough money to enable me to move the entire operation. Of course, nothing happened because Florida and the U. S. Supreme Court saw to it that Andrew Cuomo lost his job at HUD. Would it have made a difference if he had not?

The problems on the above reservations still exist and it is high time that our elected representatives move, in collusion with the private sector, to bring an economy to these very poor Indian reservations. It is time they fought for legislation to bring houses and better healthcare to the poorest of the poor in America.

I wrote last week about the Cultural Heritage Center at Cheyenne, Oklahoma to commemorate those slaughtered at the Washita and I asked that South Dakota’s delegation come up with the funds to build a cultural center at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. I got an email from former Senator Tom Daschle asking, “what can I do?” and a phone call from the assistant for Senator Tim Johnson telling me that Senator Johnson was behind the idea 100 percent. I have yet to hear from Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) or from Senator John Thune (R-SD).

The extreme need for jobs, housing and healthcare are still requisite on the Indian reservations of the Northern Plains and Southwest, but finding the funds to construct a Cultural Heritage Center on the site of one of the worst massacres in American history would go a long way in showing what our elected representatives, in cooperation with the leadership of the Lakota people, can do to make a move in the right direction.

After that perhaps they can devote some time to helping alleviate the conditions that made Pine Ridge “the poorest county in America.”

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago’s weekly column. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 – 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, “Children Left Behind”.

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