May 042004
Authors: Meg Burd

It is shocking to discover that we live a mere hours away from

the poorest county in America. The Pine Ridge reservation in South

Dakota, home to roughly 41,000 Lakota, has been on the list of

poverty-stricken areas according to U.S. Census data for many


With eight out of 10 people unemployed and the per capita income

at $4,000 (according to Stew Magnuson of the Christian Science

Monitor) issues such as lack of ability to utilize land, housing

and employment struggles, and health problems are important issues

that must be addressed.

Perhaps one of the most important issues facing the Lakota

people who live on the reservation is the issue of land

utilization. “Over the past 150 years,” says the Web site of

Village Earth, a non-profit organization based right here at CSU,

“the land base of the Oglala Lakota people has been slowly eroded

away, from a territory that spanned large parts of Wyoming, Montana

and the Dakota Territories to the 2 million acres that remain


With those past 150 years seeing disturbing actions by the

American government and military, such as the Wounded Knee massacre

in 1890 that found 300 Lakota (many women and children) killed by

U.S. soldiers and strings of broken treaties, the federal

government is still posing problems for the reservation in the form

land control and utilization.

“The federal government owns or controls most of the land (the

Pine Ridge residents) live on now,” says John J. Miller of the

National Review. “This means that Indians have a hard time securing

bank loans, because they can’t do something other Americans take

for granted: put up land as collateral.” Likewise, old arrangements

made via the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to “lease out their land to

non-tribal members for $.50 to $3.50 an acre to grow crops or graze

cattle,” says Village Earth.

This lack of ability to properly utilize land or use it as

collateral results in myriad problems. First, lacking the ability

to borrow against land has resulted in few people being able to

invest in homes. “Housing is a big issue,” says Heather Schwartz, a

CSU anthropology graduate student who is working on projects

related to development on the reservation.

According to Schwartz, many people live in dilapidated, cluster

housing that was, during the 1960s, shoddily built and improperly

insulated. In these small, poorly constructed and leaky houses,

extended families often live in packed conditions, such as in the

case of Geraldine Blue Bird, a cluster housing resident former

President Clinton visited during his 1999 tour of poverty stricken

areas. “With all my kids and grandkids… in this house, there are

11,” Blue Bird said of her small home.

Accompanying these serious housing problems are health problems.

“Half the population over 40 years old is diabetic,” Schwartz says,

a horrific statistic that results in men living 18 years less than

the average and women facing 22 years shaved off their lifespan.

“There’s no healthy food to buy,” Schwartz says, “even if you can

afford fruits and vegetables, there’s no place to buy it. The only

food you can buy on the reservation comes from convenience


As Miller points out, this lack of stores is likewise a problem,

resulting in “an estimated 90 percent of the reservation’s income

winding up being spent off the reservation.”

While the problems Pine Ridge is facing are indeed numerous and

troubling, efforts being made by community organizations and groups

such as Village Earth are indeed making important inroads. David

Bartecchi; a researcher, anthropology instructor and Village Earth

representative, stressed that, by working to build a dialogue that

identified important issues for the Pine Ridge residents, they have

been able to work with Lakota families on numerous development


“So far, this has included materials for fences, low-cost wind

turbines to generate electricity, technical help in organic

agriculture and to develop a sustainable and clean water supply.”

Likewise, projects such as the Adopt-A-Buffalo program allow

families to fulfill their desire to raise buffalo and efforts by

volunteers have helped in such things as eco-friendly sustainable


As nearby neighbors of this poverty-stricken area, we should be

aware and be willing to assist, as Bartecchi suggests, “by helping

to build to connections to the resources needed to make their plan

a success.”

Meg is a graduate student at CSU. This is her last weekly column

for the year. Read her column next week in the finals’ edition

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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