The US president has pledged to improve the lives of the country’s one million Native Americans. But he faces an enormous challenge. Chris McGreal reports from Pine Ridge Indian reservation
Indian country begins where the prairie of Custer county gives way to the formidable rock spires marking out South Dakota’s Badlands. The road runs straight until the indistinguishable clapboard homesteads fade from view and the path climbs into a landscape sharpened by an eternity of wind and water.
The first marker that this may be a part of the United States, but is also apart from it, comes as the road descends to the plains of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Here an abandoned mobile home, daubed with the name of a Sioux rebel who led the tribe’s last armed showdown with the US authorities nearly 40 years ago, stands as a monument to defiance and despair.
The reservation’s own station struggles through on the radio: the tribe’s president, Theresa Two Bulls, is on air lamenting the death of a schoolboy, Joshua Kills Enemy, who hanged himself the day before. His funeral will be the second of the week, coming days after a 14-year-old girl took her own life in the same way. They are not the first.
Two Bulls wonders how it can be that the Oglala Sioux tribe’s children are killing themselves. “We must hug our children, we must tell them we love them. A lot of these youth don’t get a hug a day. They’re never told that they’re loved. We need to start being parents and grandparents to them,” she says.
Two days later, Two Bulls declared a “suicide state of emergency” in response to the deaths and a spate of attempts by others to kill themselves, such as Delia Big Boy, who was 15 when she put a rope around her neck. “It had a lot to do with my parents and alcohol abuse and what they say to you. The things they say make you think they don’t love you,” says the high school student, now 17.
“I hear the same thing from my friends. There’s hopelessness on the reservation. There’s no sense of belonging, of a future. There’s alcoholism. The parents drink. A lot of the children drink.”
Two Bulls sees the children’s deaths as a symptom of a wider crisis that has gripped generations of Oglala Sioux. More than 100 people, mostly adults, attempted suicide or took their own lives on Pine Ridge Reservation last year.
“This is about how defeated our people feel,” Two Bulls tells me later. “People across the US don’t realise we could be identified as the Third World, our living conditions. People think we’re living high off the hog on welfare and casinos. I’ve asked them — US congressional people, US secretaries of these departments who deal with us — to come out to our reservation, see first-hand how we live, why we live that way. Find out why our children are killing themselves. Learn who we are.”
Pine Ridge is among the US’s largest Indian reservations — although much smaller than the vast plains of the Midwest that the Sioux once roamed — and among its poorest. No one is sure how many people live on its 2,2-million acres; the tribe is estimated at about 45 000.
Conditions are tough. More than 80% unemployment. A desperate shortage of housing — on average, more than 15 people live in each home and others get by in cars and trailers. More than one-third of homes lack running water or electricity. An infant mortality rate three times the US national average. And a dependency on alcohol and a diet so poor that half the population over the age of 40 is diabetic.
The Oglala Sioux’s per capita income is about $7 000 a year, less than one-sixth of the national average. The residents of Wounded Knee, scene of the notorious 1890 massacre of Sioux women and children and of the 1973 standoff with the FBI, typically live on less than half of that.
Young people have almost no hope of work unless they sign up to fight in Afghanistan. The few with jobs are almost all employed by the tribal authorities or the federal government — it is common to hear people quietly speak of the guilt they feel for having a job. Those who don’t survive on small welfare cheques.
It all adds up to a life expectancy on Pine Ridge of about 50 years.
This is not how most Americans see the reservations. The Great Sioux Nation and the region it once ranged across are fixed in the popular imagination by the legends of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, of Custer’s last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It’s a history the Oglala Sioux constantly assert to remind themselves of past greatness.
But the modern perception among many Americans is also of tribes growing rich on casinos and Native Americans living well from treaties that require the US government to provide subsidised housing, free healthcare and welfare cheques.
Close to a million people live on the US’s 310 Native American reservations (exact figures are hard to pin down because the census is considered inaccurate on many of them). Some tribes have done well from a boom in casinos on the reservations, such as the Seminoles in Florida who made enough money from high-stakes bingo to pay close to $1-billion to buy the Hard Rock Café and hotel empire.
Other tribes have made a comfortable income from gambling, but the key for almost all of them was to be close enough to major cities to keep the slot machines busy and the card tables full.
Others pull in an income from tourism and minerals. Affirmative action programmes have opened university doors and jobs in the cities to the Navajo, Cherokee and other tribes. But the leaders of many of the country’s 564 recognised tribes speak of communities in crisis and are pressing President Barack Obama to honour promises to turn their lives around.
Amid a deep economic crisis Obama faces a challenge meeting that commitment. But he has appointed Native Americans to some key positions, assigned billions of dollars of additional spending to health, education and policing and, recently, called the first of what he promises will be an annual White House summit with Indian tribal leaders. At this, he acknowledged that the reservations must wrestle with a history of broken treaties, neglect and discrimination.
The Sioux’s treaties with the US government in the second half of the 19th century were similar to those of other tribes in that they were frequently broken as an expanding US sought more land for railways, mining and farming. Native Americans were battered into ceding ever more territory in return for promises of financial support. Defeated and dispossessed, the Sioux signed treaties that committed Washington to providing housing, education and healthcare.
But the tribe’s leaders today view the treaties as a trap — promising much but providing just enough to create a culture of dependency and despair. “The government wanted us to feel defeated and we played right into their hands,” says Two Bulls. “We were taught to feel defeated. Our people lived on welfare and some don’t even know how to work. They’re used to staying at home all day, watching TV and drinking and taking drugs. That’s the state the government wanted us to be in.”
It is a state Adelle Brown Bull has spent her life resisting, not always successfully. The 69-year-old great-grandmother is still in the same tribal-owned house where she raised her eight children, and some of them never moved out.
Today the two-bedroomed home is stuffed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She sits at her kitchen table, the green wall behind her dotted with photographs of the generations of babies.
Among those living with Brown Bull are a daughter and her three children. Two of the granddaughters have several children of their own, one of them a baby. There’s another grandchild, nine-year-old Michael, whom Brown Bull is raising after his mother abandoned him when he was 10 months old. Anywhere between eight and 15 people sleep in the house at any one time.
None has a job. Brown Bull gets a pension of $538 a month, plus $323 for caring for Michael. The other mothers get welfare cheques of a few hundred dollars a month. “We just manage,” Brown Bull says, laughing.
The house shows the wear and tear of so many residents. The tribal housing authority has just replaced the window frames because they were letting in so much wind. But it is almost impossible to heat the house, a common problem on the reservation where residents typically nail plastic over the outside of their windows in the winter.
Brown Bull’s house was built after John F Kennedy’s pledge to include Native American reservations in the US public housing programme. That led to a boom in construction through the 1960s and 1970s, when many of Pine Ridge’s homes were put up. But in the 1980s Ronald Reagan shifted public housing policy away from new construction.
These days, Pine Ridge relies on a $10-million yearly housing grant from Congress that only pays for the most basic maintenance and the construction of about 40 new homes each year.
Last year the federal government offered to fulfil part of its treaty obligations by selling the tribe old houses from an air force base considered unfit for service personnel, at a dollar each. The Pine Ridge authorities agreed but when the houses arrived they were each charged $25 000 in removal costs — and then discovered the buildings had walls torn off and windows smashed in.
The houses sit in a yard to this day, giving the impression of having been torn up by their roots.
Two Bulls regards overcrowded, bad housing as an important part of the explanation for the loss of self-worth. Brown Bull sees it in her own family. Among the baby pictures on the wall are those of two grandchildren serving in the military. “That one’s signed on for a few more years,” says Brown Bull, pointing to a young woman in an army uniform.
‘She’s in Afghanistan now. She says she might as well stay in the military because there’s nothing for her here. No job. The only place she can live is with me. I have another grandson in the army in Afghanistan. He says the same.”
Most of this goes unnoticed by Americans. “Some of them still think we live in teepees,” says Alison Yellow Hair, a former shipyard worker. “Since we own the land they think we’re rich and we shouldn’t have to be working. We should be living high off the hog.
“I got a lot of that down there at the shipyards. You’re Indian, aren’t you? Yeah. Don’t you get a cheque every week? Jeez, if I got a cheque every week I wouldn’t be down here busting my ass for a pay cheque or trying to keep up with my health insurance payments.”
Back in Pine Ridge, Yellow Hair and her husband, Walter, do get a cheque from the tribe’s general assistance fund — $117 between them each week. They live in a small caravan behind a pile of cardboard boxes and plastic trunks stuffed with clothes and furniture that cannot fit into the home, plastic sheeting protecting it all against the snow.
Inside, there are a few cooking utensils, a tiny heater that stays off most of the time and a large pile of blankets and duvets that they wrap themselves in to keep warm after the sun goes down and the temperature sinks to -35C with the wind chill.
There’s no running water and no electricity. “The heater runs on kerosene,” says Walter. “Two gallons cost $25. We can use that in two days if we leave it on.”
Walter worked as a janitor until the tribal authorities laid off staff five years ago. He hasn’t found a job since.
The available jobs are mostly working for the tribe. One of the largest employers is the tribal-owned Prairie Wind Casino alongside the road between Pine Ridge town and the huge tourist draw of Mount Rushmore. Built to replicate the small fortunes made by other tribes, it is a sad affair, too isolated to make real money. On a cold winter night there is no one at the card tables and most of those playing the slots come from the reservation.
The streets of Pine Ridge, the town that carries the reservation’s name, are dead at night. Aside from a Pizza Hut and a Subway sandwich bar, little is open as dusk falls.
What life there is occurs in Whiteclay, a few steps across the reservation’s border with neighbouring Nebraska, which has a few dozen registered residents but no school, church or community centre. There’s one street, the main road due south. And there is one business along the 50m that makes up the town: alcohol.
A bar and three liquor stores, all rotting, dilapidated buildings, sell more than four million cans and bottles of cheap beer and rough, powerful malt liquor each year. Almost all of it is to people from Pine Ridge, where alcohol has long been banned.
A woman stands a few steps from the door to State Line Liquor, rocking back and forth. She is badly underdressed for the biting cold and snow, yet seemingly impervious. Her face is bloated, her eyes unfocused.
A few metres away two men have passed out in the street. Other Sioux step past to load their pickup trucks with Hurricane, a powerful malt liquor glorified in gangsta rap that alcohol-dependence groups in major American cities have tried to curb because of the social devastation it causes in minority communities.
Heading back across the state border, a large round sign greets arrivals: “Alcohol is not allowed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.” Possession is an arrestable offence, as is intoxication. But the Pine Ridge police captain, Ron Duke, concedes the law has done little to deter the problem. “At one point we thought about putting up a border there, making people stop at that border to check ’em. But we have all these outlying roads and trails that people use and we’d probably be defeating our own purpose. We don’t want to be like the Mexican border where we have to put a fence up all around,” he says.
Duke is bitter at what he sees as the cynicism of the store owners. “See how rundown that place is? But the people who own those bars are millionaires. We made them millionaires, the people here,” he says. “I’ve been in law enforcement for 25 years. People I used to take to jail, their kids and now their grandkids, I’m dealing with them. I’d say a majority of the problems we’re having right now, 90% of it is because of alcohol.”
Brown Bull sees the effects in her street. “Every other house is a bootlegger. One day … I heard some boys laughing. There were three boys, 10 to 12 years old, standing right next door. They had a big old bottle going around. In the back between the houses, there’s so much broken bottles back there,” she says.
The law allows prison sentences of up to a year for keeping or selling beer. But it’s more common for those arrested to be held overnight and fined $25 court costs — a fraction of the money they make from sales.
That might be about to change. Like much of the rest of the US, the Oglala Sioux have decided that the way to deal with crime is to spend scarce resources on bigger prisons. The reservation authorities have built a new 280-cell jail to replace the old prison that crammed up to 200 inmates into 25 cells. It’s likely that many of the young will end up there.
Hundreds of youngsters have retreated into gangs modelled on the black and Latino mobs of Los Angeles and Chicago, with names such as the Nomads and Indian Mafia. The gangs are part of a surge in violent crime.
“Parents and grandparents are afraid of their own kids,” says Duke. “They’re taking their money for drugs and alcohol. They attack their own relatives for money.”
Others find release by taking their own lives. After Kills Enemy’s death, the Pine Ridge high school principal, Robert Cook, surveyed students and concluded that one in five of the 370 pupils was at risk. Nine were immediately taken to the Indian Health Service because of what Cook described as “impending suicide”.
Duke’s men are frequently the ones to cut the victims down. “At the funerals you see the glamorised attention they get. They’ve got their names written all over the windows in honour of this kid because he took his life. This is how they’re going to get attention. I’ve heard them say: ‘When I go, I hope that’s how they honour me.'”
Native American teenagers are more likely to kill themselves than any other minority group — some statistics show the rate at three times the national average. On poorer reservations, such as Pine Ridge and neighbouring Rosebud, rates are far higher.
The tribal government is attempting to entice businesses to the reservation, including a wind farm. One local entrepreneur is building an increasingly successful business shipping buffalo and cranberry health bars around the country.
But Two Bulls and other Oglala Sioux leaders know that it will take the kind of money that only the federal government can provide; their hopes are pinned on Obama, who has told them: “You will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House.”
Two Bulls believes him. “This administration is different. They’re listening. I got the sense of understanding from these people.”
Iron Cloud, the former reservation president, says he too believes Obama but intends to ensure he doesn’t forget his promise. “What I feel is kinda like a light at the end of the tunnel where the Obama administration is looking at some new beginnings for the minorities and the poor people to have some jobs and give more money to education.
“Obama understands, but then there’s Congress. If we can get enough of our tribal leaders — and I’m talking 500 tribes coming together and flooding the halls of Congress — and just say to them that it’s time to take a good look at Indian tribes. We were the first Americans — and I know it’d have an impact.” —