x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Native American tribes have little to be thankful for

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in the face of a grim economy, those honoured in the past with the festivities are among the poorest in the nation.

Pine Ridge in South Dakota is the poorest of the Indian reservations in the US, with an unemployment rate of about 80 per cent and nearly half of its residents living below the federal poverty line.
Pine Ridge in South Dakota is the poorest of the Indian reservations in the US, with an unemployment rate of about 80 per cent and nearly half of its residents living below the federal poverty line.

PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, SOUTH DAKOTA // Lisa Eternity has been trying to raise money to buy equipment for speech- and hearing-impaired children.

The 34-year old mother of five - who wouldn't give her real name because, she said, her ex-husband didn't know where she was and she wanted to keep it that way - was making only slow progress. Needing US$1,152 (Dh4,231), it had taken her six weeks to get to within $20 of her goal.

"No one has any money here," she said, gesturing at the other customers in Big Bat's, a coffee shop in a petrol station that serves as one of the three eateries in the town of Pine Ridge, the administrative centre of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

"I've almost given up."

As well she might. With an unemployment rate of about 80 per cent, and 49 per cent surviving under the federal poverty line, or on less than $10,830 a year per person, the Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest places in America.

This is partly a consequence of a history that Americans celebrate today at Thanksgiving. As families across the country sit down for the traditional roast turkey meal, they are marking their salvation from starvation, when Native Americans in 1621 taught early European pilgrims to fish, cultivate the land and survive in the new world.

Americans have been thankful ever since. Native Americans, however, may be excused some ambivalence. As European immigration snowballed, old world weapons and diseases quickly pushed aside native tribes. Unable to resist the tide of colonisation, the tribes sought survival by negotiating with the new American state.

Eventually, the nearly 600 native tribes were confined by treaty to reservations that, in theory, should have secured a measure of independence, as well as federal financial assistance. In practice, however, the treaties were repeatedly violated.

The Pine Ridge reservation, home to the Lakota Sioux, was first envisioned as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. Under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that cemented peace between the US and the Sioux, all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River and parts of Nebraska were set aside for the "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of the Sioux.

But when George Armstrong Custer found gold here a few years later, the US forced through the sale of the Black Hills in the west. By 1889, the Great Sioux Reservation was divided into six, and nine million acres were relinquished to the federal government, including the more fertile land on the Missouri River. The traditional hunter-gatherer tribes of the Sioux were reduced to trying to eke out a living cultivating the rugged plains of western South Dakota.

Pine Ridge is today the eighth largest Native American reservation in the US. It is also the poorest. Many of the families living here have no electricity, telephone, running water, sewage system or, indeed, houses of their own. Most of the trailers that make up majority of the dwellings hold more than one family. Of some 27,000 residents, about half are seeking new housing that none can afford.

Social problems proliferate. Alcohol is not allowed on the reservation, but alcoholism and drug abuse ravages the community to such an extent that those who have avoided or overcome such addictions, such as Larry Bear Killer, 45, "clean 18 years", proudly proclaim so within five minutes of meeting a stranger. Adolescent suicide rates, meanwhile, are four times the national average, a result say most, of absent or drunk parents and despair over the future.

"It's been passed down the generations," said Mr Bear Killer, who works with the local housing association. "Our ancestors lost their language, their identity and their self-worth. As a result, they withdrew from their children."

Addressing such problems in a time of unprecedented disparities between rich and poor in the US is not easy. Under its treaty obligations, the US provides funding for education and health programmes on reservations, and many here survive on social security. But, said Theresa Two Bulls, the Lakota tribal president, the reservation has never received all of its funding.

Barack Obama, the US president, has vowed to help. Last January, the White House convened what it promised would be an annual gathering of tribal leaders for consultations. That marked a positive change of atmosphere, said Ms Two Bulls, but one that has yet to translate into significant progress.

"What really upsets me is that we are looking at a 10 per cent reduction in the national budget, and the first thing they cut is the Indian programmes."

There is no shortage of local efforts to improve the situation. Ms Two Bulls emphasised the need to reform the tribal judicial system to attract investors and improve infrastructure. A short drive from her office, the focus at the Red Cloud Indian School, since it was allowed by a Supreme Court ruling in 1978, is on teaching Lakota language, culture and history.

"Look away from the numbers," urged Tina Merdanian, the director of Institutional Relations. "This is not a land of poverty. This is where our ancestors sacrificed to make a better future."

Like Larry Bear Killer, Ms Merdanian saw the re-establishment of a strong tribal identity as the necessary first step for the reservation to drag itself out of poverty.

But Lisa Eternity was not convinced. She sends her children to a school outside the reservation and hopes they will eventually build their lives elsewhere.

"Here they will either drink or gamble. There is nothing else to do."

All will, however, celebrate Thanksgiving today.

"It's about family," explained Ms Merdanian, even though, as she put it, the holiday also marks how "we fed [the Pilgrims] and they massacred us".

"Forgiveness," she added, "is an important part of our culture.

okarmi@thenational.ae