It was truly instantaneous; the moment we drove into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, something had palpably changed about our environment.
You wouldn’t expect it to be that different from the rest of South Dakota, Nebraska, or Wyoming that we had encountered earlier in the day during the road trip, but there was something uniquely sovereign to this place.
Nestled in the Great Plains of the Southwestern chunk of South Dakota, farming towns and a few regional cities surround the 1.7 million acres of the Pine Ridge Reservation, which many simply call “the Rez.”
Ah, the simple American plains life of Nebraska and South Dakota farm country: work a job, drive a truck, raise a family.
No, it seems that standard of living surrounds the Rez, but Pine Ridge’s borders appear to be impermeable to the typical American standard of living for its approximately 30,000 residents.
Step across that border, and the average life expectancy drops from the U.S. average, which the National Center for Health Statistics has pegged at 77.9 years, to the Pine Ridge averages: 48 for men, 52 for women.
Infant mortality skyrockets, jumping to the highest rate in the U.S., and the rate of teenage suicide is quadruple that of the surrounding U.S.
Your average family income, once at a reasonable median of $61,309 in South Dakota or $64,800 in Nebraska for a four-person family according to the U.S. Census, now drops to an average $3700 inside the Rez.
That’s right, $3700 per family, per year.
Unemployment hovers around 80%, and poor health takes its toll: about half of the residents of Pine Ridge over the age of 40 have diabetes. Tuberculosis is common, and poor nutrition leads to obesity and other health problems.
A short drive from any of the average American “white” towns bordering the Rez places you in a region of abject poverty, a pocket of developing-nation impoverishment, smack dab in the middle of the United States.
You’ve probably heard all this before: Indian reservations are extremely poor, rates of alcoholism are the highest in the nation, living conditions are terrible.
But what you may not have heard about is the character of the people.
The Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge, with whom we became familiar during our trip, are unlike any other people I have encountered.
Mired in the most impoverished living conditions in the United States, these people are bright, optimistic, and welcoming to outsiders.
The first night we stayed with a Lakota man who is mostly living off of his social security income, with his permanent residence listed as his van for the last three years
A gentle man of soft, metered speech with a personable warmth, he welcomed us and shared his story and hospitality. What’s more, this guy was an ace with computer programming, web-design, and quilt-work: he had my engineering student friend unwillingly saying “I, uh, don’t know.”
And, just like everyone else we met on the Rez, he harbored no ill-will towards us because we were white, showing us graciousness, hospitality, and friendship.
With such a fine reception, it made me feel like the life we live in ignorance outside of the Rez is somewhat of a farce.
Surrounded by the beauty of the Plains and the Badlands, the Lakota are a beautiful people in a picturesque landscape. Glowing meadows, alkali bluffs and bending rivers belie the picture of poverty.
Taking in the plight of the American Indian on Pine Ridge last week, I saw a strange juxtaposition of a proud, friendly, and strong Lakota society on top of an intolerable poverty, set in a picturesque landscape.
I then got to asking myself why is it when you step off of Pine Ridge there is an instant economic upturn? Why do I immediately see white picket fences, liquor stores with booming revenues, and discount stores full of Indian faces?
It was almost surreal, the combination of the beautiful setting, extremely low standard of living, and high quality of people and culture, which begs the question “why isn’t this a more compelling issue?”
Drew Haugen is a senior International Studies major. His column appears every Monday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.