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Off the Grid, South Dakota: Inside Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

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Behind the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River, which separates the northern part of the river as it continues through South Dakota, lays Lake Oahe, the fourth largest artificial reservoir in the United States. Oahe, a Sioux Indian word, means “a foundation” or “a place to stand on”.

But since its creation in 1948, Lake Oahe, despite its vast hydroelectric producing capabilities, has brought little in the way of stability or wealth to the region’s American Indian tribes. On October 11, a federal ruling, now under constitutional review, permitted the continued construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. A $3.8 billion project bitterly opposed by the Sioux people of Standing Rock Reservation, whose ancestral lands it crosses, the pipeline began commercial service in June, transporting crude oil from production areas in North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, to storage facilities in Illinois.  

Just on the opposite end from Standing Rock, in the southernmost part of South Dakota’s badlands, lies Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a place distinguished by unthinkable poverty in the heart of the world’s wealthiest nation. Home of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Pine Ridge is an expanse of dustied prairielands, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. An estimated 47,000 people live on the reservation, more than 80 percent of whom are unemployed and living far below U.S. poverty levels.

A major public health crisis is underway on Pine Ridge

Native Americans make up 8.5 percent of South Dakota’s total population, yet they account for nearly 60 percent of all federal caseloads in the state. Perhaps most startling, is the trend of suicide among millennial-aged youth 14 to 25 on Pine Ridge, at a rate four times the national average.

An anti-alcohol campaign poster in Pine Ridge

It’s hard to overstate the enormous proportions of the public health crisis now underway on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Collecting and parsing data from 2007 to this year, Re-Member, a non-profit organization based on the reservation, uncovered appalling health disparities. Diabetes and tuberculosis are eight times more prevalent on Pine Ridge than in any other U.S. region, and nearly one in every four infants is born with varying severity of foetal alcohol syndrome. Alcohol abuse— “a liquid genocide,” The Guardian newspaper wrote— afflicts 80 percent of Oglala Lakota tribe members. Come to think of it, Pine Ridge is the only Indian territory in the United States where the sale of liquor is illegal.

The spiraling health crisis on Pine Ridge has raised the specter of a “fourth world” rising in our midst, right here in the United States. Shadowing the three-worlds system, the fourth world is made up of ancient nations, most often indigenous nations, that are excluded from global industrial society. Economists describe them as poorer than even the poor in the so-called third world. But the most defining feature of fourth world communities is, precisely, that they transcend the schema of nation-states. They are contained within dominant states, including so-called first-world nations, neglected, but they cannot be ignored.

The United Nations has set living on less than $1.90 a day as the benchmark of poverty worldwide. This means that poor Oglala Lakota Indians are poorer than the poor in Bangladesh, where $1.90 (103 Taka, in the local currency) has greater relative purchasing power than the $4,000 per capita income of Pine Ridge residents. This is particularly distressing in light of the fact that Bangladesh– when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger first coined the term in 1971, was once Asia’s “basket case”. Today, just over a quarter of Bangladeshis are estimated to live in poverty, as defined by international standards.

There are 15 million acres of energy and mineral resources on Indian reservations

Persisting fourth world conditions in the world’s dominant economy beg the question of how communities like Pine Ridge ended up immured in a cycle of underdevelopment that reproduces and exacerbates poverty.

An answer may be found in the shortcomings of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The act locks reservations in a trusteeship with the federal government, granting collective ownership and land restitution rights to officially recognized tribes, but only as concessions. This means that the land Indian reservations stand on, to this day, cannot be legally fully owned and managed by the tribes presiding over them. Any such land is U.S. government property; any kind of housing provided by federal agencies must be paid back by the tribe whose members received the handouts.

Indian reservations make up more than 52 million acres of our country’s total land area, of which, the Department of Interior reports, there are “15 million acres of potential energy and mineral resources” being tapped into for their resource wealth. Revenue Watch Institute concluded in a recent study that Indian lands contain about “30 percent of the coal found west of the Mississippi, up to 50 percent of potential uranium reserves, and as much as 20 percent of known natural gas and oil reserves”.

And yet poverty prevails– and is rampant, on Pine Ridge and other Native American communities. Compounding this situation is the impact of a brain drain, a migration into larger cities of professionals and other educated tribe members. The deepening urban-rural divide is further exacerbated by federal bias that prioritizes addressing urban disparities over those in rural areas.

Nick Tilsen leads the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

On Pine Ridge, a dearth of professionals (of any kind of social work background) is aggravating a major health crisis that has gone out of control. The Indian Health Service, a federal program, says it is working on recruiting more mental health workers for Pine Ridge. But as of recently, there were just 6 health workers providing counseling and other assistance for 47,000 people. “The reservation has witnessed very little advancement into the 21st century,” says Charlene Smallwood, a lifelong resident and social justice advocate who is completing a doctoral degree in public policy and law. “Many residents are living off-the-grid, involuntarily, while others are reliant on government assistance throughout the year and can barely make ends meet.”

The Trump administration’s austerity program is about to make conditions direr for the people of Pine Ridge. Trump is introducing deep budget cuts (a 25% decrease) across all federal agencies, with the Department of the Interior poised to lose $1.4 billion in funding and about 4,000 employees. The Bureau of Indian Affairs will see its funding cut by $370 million, while the Bureau of Indian Education will suffer a $23 million budget loss– both agencies are run by the Department of the Interior. All this at a time when tribal communities are relying even more on federal grant money for myriad public services, and to support programs like SNAP (previously, food stamp), healthcare, housing and more.

Who gets to control the resource wealth of the land?

As problems continue to mount, a grassroots civil society has sprung up to fill the void left by a retreating federal government. In South Dakota and Minnesota, the heartland of the Sioux people, 35-year old Nick Tilsen has become a kind of darling of the region. His parents, much like Tilsen who led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, were activists present at the American Indian Movement siege at Wounded Knee, in 1973. Tilsen is now working on a $60 million project on environmental resiliency and community-building with his organization, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.

But are civil society groups arriving too late at the scene of one of America’s most appalling historical and persisting injustices? Who gets to control the resource wealth of the land, and who should take responsibility when dealing with a poverty-stricken racial minority inside an affluent nation– a fourth world, as it were? In this era of “America first,” whites-first Trump style, who will take responsibility for the poorest among us?

The long-neglected pain inside Pine Ridge Indian Reservation cannot continue unaddressed. It is a matter of the utmost urgency.    

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Bee Vang

Bee Vang graduated from Brown University with a degree in geopolitical epistemologies and has done extensive social justice work in China, written frequently about postwar Laos, and is an advocate for the removal of explosive remnants of war. He’s also a former contributor to The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, The Economist, First Look Media and other news outlets. He lives in New York City.
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