The Arrogance of Ignorance:|
Hidden Away, Out of Sight and Out of Mind
By Stephanie M. Schwartz, Freelance Writer
Member, Native American Journalists Association
October 15, 2006; Brighton, Colorado
This is an article of facts about the lives of modern-day American Indians,
a topic most mainstream American news organizations will not discuss. It is
not a plea for charity. It is not a promotion for non-profit
organizations. It is not aimed for pity. It is not even an effort to
detail cause and effect.
It is, however, an effort to dispel ignorance. a massive, pervasive,
societal ignorance filled with illusions and caricatures which,
ultimately, serve only to corrupt the intelligence and decent intent of
the average mainstream citizen. Only through knowledge and understanding
can solutions be found.
But facts must be known first. Then, it is the reader's choice what to do
with those facts.
A Special Resource Report: Regarding life, conditions, and hope
on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Reservation of SD
Hidden away, out of sight but dotting the landscape of America, are the
little known or forgotten Reservations of the Indigenous People of our land. Sadly,
the average U.S. mainstream resident knows almost nothing about the
people of the Native American reservations other than what romanticized or
caricaturized versions they see on film or as the print media stereotypes
of oil or casino-rich Indians. Most assume that whatever poverty exists
on a reservation is most certainly comparable to that which they might
experience themselves. Further, they assume it is curable by the same
means they would use.
But that is the arrogance of ignorance.
Our dominant society is accustomed to being exposed to poverty. It's nearly
invisible because it is everywhere. We drive through our cities with a
blind eye, numb to the suffering on the streets, or we shake our heads and
turn away, assuming help is on the way. After all, it's known that the
government and the big charities are helping the needy in nearly every
corner of the world.
But the question begs: What about the sovereign nations on America's own
soil, within this country, a part and yet apart from mainstream society? What
about these Reservations that few people ever see?
Oddly enough, the case could be made that more Europeans and Australians
know and understand the cultures and conditions of our Indigenous people
better Americans do. Moreover, what the Europeans and Australians know is
that there are a number of very fortunate Native American Nations whose
people are able to earn a very good living due to casino income, natural
resource income, a good job market from nearby cities, or from some other
source. They also know, however, that a staggering number of residents
on Native American reservations live in abject, incomprehensible
conditions rivaling, or even surpassing, that of many Third World
This article chronicles just one Nation, the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation,
of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Yet the name and only a
few details could easily be changed to describe a host of others. The Dineh
(Navajo), Ute Mountain Ute, Tohono O'odham, Pima, Yaqui, Apache, the
Brule Lakota (Sioux). The list is long.
But this is not an article of hopelessness. Despite nearly-insurmountable
conditions, few resources, and against unbelievable odds, Nation after
Nation of Indigenous leaders and their people are working hard to
counteract decades of oppression and forced destruction of their cultures,
to bring their citizens back to a life of self-respect and
self-sufficiency in today's world.
In the meantime, these words will serve simply to dispel a few illusions
and make public part of that which is hidden away, out of sight, out of
mind, in the richest country in the world. It seeks to dispel the
arrogance of ignorance.
The Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Indian Reservation sits in
Bennett, Jackson, and Shannon Counties and is located in the southwest
corner of South Dakota, fifty miles east of the Wyoming border.
The 11,000-square mile (approximately 2.7 million acres) Pine
Ridge Reservation is the second-largest Native American Reservation within
the United States. It is roughly the size of the State of
Connecticut. According to the Oglala Sioux tribal statistics, approximately 1.7
million acres of this land are owned by the Tribe or by tribal members.
The Reservation is divided into eight districts: Eagle Nest,
Pass Creek, Wakpamni, LaCreek, Pine Ridge, White Clay, Medicine Root,
Porcupine, and Wounded Knee.
The topography of the Pine Ridge Reservation includes the barren
Badlands, rolling grassland hills, dryland prairie, and areas dotted with
The Pine Ridge Reservation is home to approximately 40,000
persons, 35% of which are under the age of 18. The latest Federal Census
shows the median age to be 20.6 years. Approximately half the residents
of the Reservation are registered tribal members of the Oglala Lakota
According to the most recent Federal Census, 58.7% of the
grandparents on the Reservation are responsible for raising their own
The population is slowly but steadily rising, despite the severe
conditions on the Reservation, as more and more Oglala Lakota return home
from far-away cities to live within their societal values, be with their
families, and assist with the revitalization of their culture and their
Recent reports vary but many point out that the median income on
the Pine Ridge Reservation is approximately $2,600 to $3,500 per year.
The unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is said to be approximately
83-85% and can be higher during the winter months when travel is
difficult or often impossible.
According to 2006 resources, about 97% of the population lives
below Federal poverty levels.
There is little industry, technology, or commercial
infrastructure on the Reservation to provide employment.
Rapid City, South Dakota is the nearest town of size
(population approximately 57,700) for those who can travel to find work. It
is located 120 miles from the Reservation. The nearest large city to
Pine Ridge is Denver, Colorado located some 350 miles away.
Life Expectancy and Health Conditions
Some figures state that the life expectancy on the Reservation
is 48 years old for men and 52 for women. Other reports state that the
average life expectancy on the Reservation is 45 years old. These
statistics are far from the 77.5 years of age life expectancy average
found in the United States as a whole. According to current USDA Rural
Development documents, the Lakota have the lowest life expectancy of any
group in America.
Teenage suicide rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation is 150%
higher than the U.S. national average for this age group.
The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and
is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.
More than half the Reservation's adults battle addiction and
disease. Alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and malnutrition are
The rate of diabetes on the Reservation is reported to be 800%
higher than the U.S. national average.
Recent reports indicate that almost 50% of the adults on the
Reservation over the age of 40 have diabetes.
As a result of the high rate of diabetes on the Reservation,
diabetic-related blindness, amputations, and kidney failure are common.
The tuberculosis rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation is
approximately 800% higher than the U.S. national average.
Cervical cancer is 500% higher than the U.S. national average.
It is reported that at least 60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge
Reservation are infested with Black Mold, Stachybotrys. This infestation
causes an often-fatal condition with infants, children, elderly, those
with damaged immune systems, and those with lung and pulmonary conditions
at the highest risk. Exposure to this mold can cause hemorrhaging of the
lungs and brain as well as cancer.
A Federal Commodity Food Program is active but supplies mostly
inappropriate foods (high in carbohydrate and/or sugar) for the largely
diabetic population of the Reservation.
A small non-profit Food Co-op is in operation on the Reservation
but is available only for those with funds to participate.
Many Reservation residents live without health care due to vast
travel distances involved in accessing that care. Additional factors
include under-funded, under-staffed medical facilities and outdated or
non-existent medical equipment.
Preventive healthcare programs are rare.
In most of the treaties between the U.S. Government and Indian
Nations, the U.S. government agreed to provide adequate medical care for
Indians in return for vast quantities of land. The Indian Health
Services (IHS) was set up to administer the health care for Indians under
these treaties and receives an appropriation each year to fund Indian
health care. Unfortunately, the appropriation is very small compared to
the need and there is little hope for increased funding from Congress.
The IHS is understaffed and ill-equipped and can't possibly address the
needs of Indian communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the
Pine Ridge Reservation.
School drop-out rate is over 70%.
According to a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) report, the Pine
Ridge Reservation schools are in the bottom 10% of school funding by U.S.
Department of Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Teacher turnover is 800% that of the U.S. national average
Housing Conditions and Homelessness
The small BIA/Tribal Housing Authority homes on the Pine Ridge
Reservation are overcrowded and scarce, resulting in many homeless
families who often use tents or cars for shelter. Many families live in
old cabins or dilapidated mobile homes and trailers.
According to a 2003 report from South Dakota State University,
the majority of the current Tribal Housing Authority homes were built from
1970-1979. The report brings to light that a great percentage of that
original construction by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) was "shoddy
and substandard." The report also states that 26% of the housing units on the
Reservation are mobile homes, often purchased or obtained (through donations) as used,
low-value units with negative-value equity.
Even though there is a large homeless population on the
Reservation, most families never turn away a relative no matter how
distant the blood relation. Consequently, many homes often have large
numbers of people living in them.
In a recent case study, the Tribal Council estimated a need
for at least 4,000 new homes in order to combat the homeless situation.
There is an estimated average of 17 people living in each family
home (a home which may only have two to three rooms). Some larger homes,
built for 6 to 8 people, have up to 30 people living in them.
Over-all, 59% of the Reservation homes are substandard.
Over 33% of the Reservation homes lack basic water and sewage
systems as well as electricity.
Many residents must carry (often contaminated) water from the
local rivers daily for their personal needs.
Some Reservation families are forced to sleep on dirt floors.
Without basic insulation or central heating in their homes, many
residents on the Pine Ridge Reservation use their ovens to heat their homes.
Many Reservation homes lack adequate insulation. Even more homes
lack central heating.
Periodically, Reservation residents are found dead from
is reported that at least 60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge
Reservation need to be burned to the ground and replaced with new housing
due to infestation of the potentially-fatal Black Mold, Stachybotrys. There is
no insurance or government program to assist families in replacing their homes.
39% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation have no electricity.
The most common form of heating fuel is propane. Wood-burning is
the second most common form of heating a home although wood supplies are
often expensive or difficult to obtain.
Many Reservation homes lack basic furniture and appliances such
as beds, refrigerators, and stoves.
60% of Reservation families have no land-line telephone. The
Tribe has recently issued basic cell phones to the residents. However,
these cell phones (commonly called commodity phones) do not operate off
the Reservation at all and are often inoperable in the rural areas on the
Reservation or during storms or wind.
Computers and internet connections are very rare.
Federal and tribal heat assistance programs (such as LLEAP) are
limited by their funding. In the winter of 2005-2006, the average one-time
only payment to a family was said to be approximately $250-$300 to cover
the entire winter. For many, that amount did not even fill their propane
heating tanks one time.
Life on the Reservation
Most Reservation families live in rural and often isolated areas.
The largest town on the Reservation is the village of Pine
Ridge which has a population of approximately 5,720 people and is the
administrative center for the Reservation.
There are few improved (paved) roads on the Reservation and most
of the rural homes are inaccessible during times of rain or snow.
Weather is extreme on the Reservation. Severe winds are always a
factor. Traditionally, summer temperatures reach well over 110*F and
winters bring bitter cold with temperatures that can reach -50*F below
zero or worse. Flooding, tornados, or wildfires are always a risk.
The Pine Ridge Reservation still has no banks, discount
stores, or movie theaters. It has only one grocery store of any moderate
size and it is located in the village of Pine Ridge on the Reservation. A motel
just opened in 2006 near the Oglala Lakota College at Kyle,
South Dakota. There are said to be about 8 Bed and Breakfast or campsite
locations found across the Reservation but that number varies from time to
time since most are part of a private home.
Several of the banks and lending institutions nearest to the
Reservation have been targeted for investigation of fraudulent or predatory
lending practices, with the citizens of the Pine Ridge Reservation as their
There are no public libraries except one at the Oglala Lakota College.
There is one radio station on the Pine Ridge Reservation. KILI
90.1FM is located near the town of Porcupine on the Reservation.
There is no public transportation available on the Reservation.
Only a minority of Reservation residents own an operable
Predominant form of travel for all ages on the Reservation is
walking or hitchhiking.
There is one very small airport on the Reservation servicing
both the Pine Ridge Reservation and Shannon County. It's longest, paved
runway extends 4,969 feet. There are no commercial flights available.
The majority of flights using the airport are Federal, State, or County
The nearest commercial airport and/or commercial bus line is
located in Rapid City, South Dakota (approximately 120 miles away).
Alcoholism affects eight out of ten families on the Reservation.
The death rate from alcohol-related problems on the
Reservation is 300% higher than the remaining US population.
The Oglala Lakota Nation has prohibited the sale and
possession of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation since the early
1970's. However, the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska (which sits 400 yards
off the Reservation border in a contested "buffer" zone) has
approximately 14 residents and four liquor stores which sell over 4.1
million cans of beer each year resulting in a $3 million annual trade. Unlike
other Nebraska communities, White clay exists only to sell liquor
and make money. It has no schools, no churches, no civic organizations,
no parks, no benches, no public bathrooms, no fire service and no law
enforcement. Tribal officials have repeatedly pleaded with the State of
Nebraska to close these liquor stores or enforce the State laws
regulating liquor stores but have been consistently refused.
Water and Aquifer Contamination
Many wells and much of the water and land on the Reservation is
contaminated with pesticides and other poisons from farming, mining, open
dumps, and commercial and governmental mining operations outside the
Reservation. A further source of contamination is buried ordnance and
hazardous materials from closed U.S. military bombing ranges on the
Scientific studies show that the High Plains/Oglala Aquifer
which begins underneath the Pine Ridge Reservation is predicted to run dry
in less than 30 years due to commercial interest use and dryland farming
in numerous states south of the Reservation. This critical North
American underground water resource is not renewable at anything near the
present consumption rate. The recent years of drought have simply
accelerated the problem.
Scientific studies show that much of the High Plains/Oglala
Aquifer has been contaminated with farming pesticides and commercial,
factory, mining, and industrial contaminants in the States of South
Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma,
Sovereignty and Tribal Government
By Treaty, the Tribal nations are considered to have sovereign
governmental status. They have a special government to government
relationship with the United States. Interactions with the U.S.
Government and the Department of Interior (and its Bureau of Indian
Affairs) are supposed to be through Treaty negotiations and most Federal
programs (such as Indian Health Services) were purchased by the Tribal
nations (usually with land) and guaranteed by Treaty. This is
specifically true for the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation of the Pine Ridge
The Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribal government operates under a
constitution consistent with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and
approved by the Tribal membership and Tribal Council of the Oglala Lakota
(Sioux) Tribe. The Tribe is governed by an elected body consisting of a 5
member Executive Committee and an 18 member Tribal Council, all of whom
serve a four year term.
Currently, there are various efforts underway to implement
innovative techniques and solutions to Reservation problems. These
projects include community volunteer groups, alternative education
programs, wind or water energy initiatives, substance abuse programs,
cultural and language programs, employment opportunities, cottage
industries, promotion of artists and musicians, small co-op businesses,
etc. However, funding for these programs is highly limited.
are several very small projects now working to help with
the housing shortage. Some of these involve using donated mobile homes,
community-built sod housing, other community-built housing (such as
Habitat for Humanity), exploring possible use of unused FEMA mobile
homes, and other alternate solutions. Unfortunately, funding is highly
The Tribal Council Housing Authority is working as hard as it
can to build new homes and repair existing structures but it is limited by
the small, limited amount of funding available.
There are a few reputable small non-profit organizations
attempting to sincerely assist the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in
their efforts to resolve and mitigate existing problems. However, funding
for these programs is currently highly limited.
There is one small independent (non-IHS) clinic on the
Reservation at the community of Porcupine. It was founded and is
controlled by the Lakota community. It just recently obtained its first
dialysis machine and runs an aggressive program to combat diabetes. However,
funding is very limited and is obtained locally and through grants.
The Oglala Lakota are a determined, intelligent, and proud
People who are working hard to over-come their Reservation problems. Against
all odds, with minimal resources, they are slowly working to
re-claim their self-sufficiency, their culture, and their life.
These statistics concerning the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota (Sioux)
Reservation were compiled from recent Political, Educational, Government,
Non-Profit, and Tribal Publications. An earlier version was published by
the same author in 2002 entitled, "Hidden Away, in the Land of Plenty."
Contact the author if you wish a list of the resources and publications
used for this report. The Writings of Stephanie M. Schwartz; eMail Stephanie M. Schwartz.