It was a hot Tuesday afternoon as I sat in the back of a van that was crammed with ten other students. The air was so thick that it was barely noticeable that the AC was on full blast. We bumped along on a road that would lead us to our destination—Pine Ridge Reservation.
Throughout our week long stay on the reservation, we were at a K-12 public school. There we spent time playing games or painting with several of the kids. We also spent one of the days doing some work for a local Native woman. She was so appreciative of the few hours we took painting her deck and trim around her house. While in South Dakota, there were certain parts of the trip that really pricked at my heart. I got a taste of how their lives are truly impacted by poor lifestyles. Employment, income, and life spans are one the low side of the spectrum, meanwhile diseases, suicide, and alcoholism rank high. Life on the reservation makes any Third World Country look like a high class society.
About the size of Connecticut, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has come in second place for being the largest in the U.S. Nearly 40,000 people call this reservation home, and roughly 35 percent, or 14,000 people, are younger than age 18 (Schwartz, 2006, Demographic Info). Approximately 80-90 percent of the people are unemployed (Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, n.d., Pine Ridge Statistics). If these percentages are based on a population of about 40,000, this is between 32,000 and 36,000 people who have no job. Schwartz adds that these numbers often times will increase during winter time because weather doesn’t permit easy travels (Employment Information).
Schwartz (2006) writes that the Reservation provides little opportunities for employment, as there is little industry or technology. With few employment options on Pine Ridge, oftentimes workers must turn to major cities off the Reservation such as Rapid City. Rapid City is located about 120 miles away (Employment Information). Generally, travel time could take a minimum of two hours. Even if there was a big city that was closer, Lee (2014) notes that most families lack decent cars or any form of transportation (Glimmers of Hope on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, para. 2).
A three bedroom house isn’t that bad to live in, but could you imagine sharing that space with sixteen other people? How many people would squeeze onto one bed? I could never imagine sleeping in my twin sized bed with more than one other person. According to Schwartz (2006), a home meant for three or four is often crammed with 17 people on average; sometimes 30 people can be found in a home built for eight. This is because family members will never turn down other family members in a time of need (Housing Conditions and Homelessness).
Having a basic roof over my head is a blessing, and in the winter time I can crank the heat as high as I want without worrying about it shutting off. Growing up we had a woodstove in the house, and always had plenty of trees to cut for firewood. Schwartz (2006) writes that on the Pine Ridge Reservation many homes are heated with ovens because propane can be expensive and wood can be tricky to come by (Housing Conditions and Homelessness).
I was also fortunate enough to be able to flick on a light and flush my toilet without much worry. Around 39 percent of homes are without electricity, while 33 percent lack a basic water and sewage system. Quite often families turn to local rivers which could be contaminated (Schwartz, 2006, Housing Conditions and Homelessness). The Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply has to deliver water to hundreds of homes, which is then stored outside in fifty-gallon barrels, during the winter months the containers are brought indoors (Situation of Youth on Pine Ridge, n.d., Housing). Schwartz adds that approximately 60 percent or more of the homes are infested with black mold. Sadly despite these horrid or potentially fatal conditions, there is no government program or insurance to assist families in need (Housing Conditions and Homelessness).
Health Care and Issues
One would think that this 2.7 million acre land would have many hospitals located throughout it, but sadly there is only one hospital which resides in the city of Pine Ridge. There are also two health centers; one is located in Kyle, the other in Wanblee. Imagine it taking an hour or more to run a lady in labor to a hospital. That’s like driving from Green Bay, WI to Oshkosh, WI.
In her article, Scwartz (2006) mentions that due to the distance to the medical facilities that many residents do not live with health care. She adds that these places are highly under-staffed and under-funded (Health Care). While in South Dakota, I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the hospital. The lady who was giving a tour talked about how people may volunteer but not many people stayed because of how difficult it is. According to her, it is a fast paced and very stressful job, and that there is a low ratio of staff to a large amount of patients. She also mentioned that there is currently only one ambulance out of six that is running due to the shortage of paramedics.
Health conditions are more prevalent on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (n.d.) writes that cervical cancer is 5 times higher on the reservation. One out of every four infants is born with FAS, or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Pine Ridge Statistics). It is reported that in comparison to the national average, diabetes is 800 percent higher on the Reservation. Half of the adults over the age of 40 are diagnosed with diabetes. Men live to be about 48 while women have a life expectancy of 52. This is a huge 30 year difference compared to the life expectancy of a non-native (Schwartz, 2006, Life Expectancy and Health Conditions). Pine Ridge has the lowest life span in the U.S.; in the western hemisphere, it is the second lowest, Haiti is lower (Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, n.d., Pine Ridge Statistics). We as a nation are so set on saving our own heritage, yet we are content with letting other cultures wither away.
Growing up I never experienced the pain of a classmate committing suicide. While I was visiting South Dakota, I learned of the most recent one which happened just days before I arrived. It is reported that suicide is the second cause of death among American Indians; the rate is 1.5 times higher among adolescents (Situation of Youth on Pine Ridge, n.d., Health/Mental health). Landry (2015) explains that there have been 5 deaths from Christmas day to February 19 (para. 2). While I was on the reservation I learned of a group of five boys who attempted to take their life by consuming pills, thankfully none were successful. Authorities have reported that there were 162 suicides in 2014 (Stasiowski, 2015, para. 17).
Despite this overwhelming fog of depression, there have been recent outreaches towards young children. In a recent article from the Rapid City Journal, Stasiowski (2015) mentions that an education technician and coach, Nellie Long, and a few students volunteered in a 3-day effort of finding ways to help prevent suicide (Picture description). Landry (2015) writes factors that could tribute to suicidal thoughts are bullying, poverty, or even poor home lives (para. 6). She adds that there are organizations like Sweet Grass that are also reaching out towards adolescents (para. 8).
The number one addiction on the Reservation is alcohol (Situation of Youth, n.d., Addictions). Schwartz (2006) adds that eight out of ten families are affected by alcoholism. It doesn’t help that there is a city right across the border that sells the majority of liquor to the reservation. Whiteclay, Nebraska is a small town with a population of 14; standing along the road are five buildings, one says grocery store, and the other ones have “bar” somewhere in the name (Alcoholism). It is also noted by Situation of Youth that cigarettes, chewing tobacco, marijuana, and methamphetamine are very problematic among the reservation (Addictions).
The schools on the reservation are actually in the bottom 10 percent of school funding, according to the BIA or Bureau of Indian Affairs (Schwartz, 2006, Education Issues). In the article “Pine Ridge: A broken system failing American’s most forgotten children,” Lee mentions that this is due to the lack of local tax money. “There are virtually no private land owners on the reservations, so no taxpayers to tax” (2014, para. 8). This poor funding shows up in dropout and graduation rates. American Indians or Alaskan Natives had a dropout rate of 7 percent and about 67 percent of students are likely to graduate. These percentages are low in comparison to their white counterparts whom have a dropout and graduation percentage of two and eighty-six respectively (Lee, 2014, graph).
While staying on the Pine Ridge Reservation I learned many things, both good and bad. I heard many sad stories about the Massacre at Wounded Knee and personal stories about how alcohol or drugs have affected families. I also experienced the love that this community had for each other and for others as well. They were willing to share a part of themselves with us. Their culture is not “savagery” like many Americans are lead to believe. Their culture is their culture—beautiful. Trymaine lee writes, “The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has become emblematic of rural poverty, neglect and the plight of struggling American Indians. But across the reservation, there are glimmers of hope and resistance against the monumental challenges the Lakota people face” (2014, para. 5). Despite issues that are derived from poverty they still hold on to the little threads of life.
Laundry, A. (2015, February 19). Spate of Youth Suicides Shake Pine Ridge Reservation.Retrieved April 6, 2015, from http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/02/19/spate-youth-suicides-shake-pine-ridge-reservation-159222
Lee, T. (2014, June 2). Glimmers of hope on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/pine-ridge-wounded-knee-hope
Lee, T. (2014, May 29). Pine Ridge: A broken system failing America’s most forgotten children.Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/failing-americas-most-forgotten-children
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.re-member.org/pine-ridge-reservation.aspx
Schwartz, S. (2006, October 15). The Arrogance of Ignorance: Hidden away, out of sight and out of mind. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://www.nativevillage.org/Messages from the People/the arrogance of ignorance.htm
Situation of Youth on Pine Ridge Reservation.(n.d.).Retrieved April 1, 2015, from http://www.medicinewhl.org/situatione.htm
South Dakota Map and Map of South Dakota-MapPoint State Map Gallery-MP2K Magazine.(n.d.).Retrieved April 4, 2015, from http://www.mp2kmag.com/gallery/states/South Dakota-Map-92.html
Stasiowski, J. (2015, March 5). With energy and hope, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation attacks youth suicide epidemic. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from http://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/with-energy-and-hope-pine-ridge-indian-reservation-attacks-youth/article_4a73830b-9c99-5560-8e98-11c516b4f253.html