Living Colonized in Anówara Today

I often get asked by people, of all backgrounds, what it is like to be an Indian in the United States and Canada these days. My own experience with being an Indian in occupied North America is that we are often the forgotten minority. When people think of us they think of us in a stylized and romanticised historical light. They think of the Lakota racing through the plains on horse back hunting buffalo. They think of Tipis and Long Houses, Peace Pipes and Drums, savage warriors and beautiful princesses, but it almost never enters their mind what it is like to be an Indian today. Even most socialist groups, including those calling themselves revolutionary, who have all kinds of great things to say about the liberation of our Mexicano, African and Puerto Rican brothers and sisters seem to forget about us and our plight except when certain settler feast days roll around – July 4th, Canada Day, Thanksgiving, Columbus Day. The other day I was talking to my mother about this – her family was involved in the original Red Power movement and she is a vet of the anti-Viet Nam and women’s rights movement – about why most people, including many of those who call themselves revolutionary and socialist, seem to forget that we exist. She feels that is because white America can simply not fathom what it is like to be an Indian. She feels that it is possible for them to rationalize and to understand black and Latino poverty and oppression, but that they cannot understand our situation, almost as if out of embarassment. I may agree with her sentiments partially – I do think there is an important experiential component to knowledge – but I think it is more than that. I think that the settler-colonial system that we live under as an internal colony intentionally keeps us and out situation out of common knowledge with the sole intention of finishing the extermination that was begun in 1492.

Today the truth is that many, if not most, reservations and reserves are as poor as, or below, the level of the third world/global south countries. Looking at it from my own experience, my own nation’s reservation is gripped by abject poverty and utter desperation and isolation. Alcohol and drug use are killing more of us than Custer and Sherman could have ever have hoped to with guns and bombs, and there is little hope for the future when faced with the full force of the white supremacist, Christian, patriarchal capital-imperialist machine that is the United States Federal government.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the typical North American settler knows almost nothing about the situation currently being faced by most Indians on reservations, and if they think they know anything about Indians in general, it is what they have gotten by being exposed to the romanticization and/or caricaturization of Indians they have seen in films as primitive, pagan oddities, or in the print media as the stereotypes of oil and/or casino-rich Indians.

With that in mind, it is my intention here is chronicle very briefly the suffering of just one such nation with the goal of dispelling these myths. I will be looking at the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I chose them over other equally or more impoverished peoples because they are well known and because the stats are more easy to come by. With that said however, it should be noted that if one were to only change the names and locales, this article could just as easily be used to describe countless other nations from Alaska to Mexico, including (but by know means limited to): the Diné-Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Tohono O’odham (Papago), Pima, Yaqui, Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek of Oklahoma, Apache, other Lakota such as the Brule’, and my own people, the Menominee. The list is tragic and far from being short.

The Stats

Employment Information

  • The unemployment rate in the community is between 83 and 85%, with higher fluctuations during the winter months when conditions make travel difficult.
  • As of the year 2006, 97% of the population lives below the federal poverty level
  • It is made even more difficult to find employement by the fact that the nearest city (Rapid City) is 120 miles from the reservation, while the nearest large city (Denver) is 350 miles.
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. For a global comparison, one can look at life expectancy in Azania (51.6), Haiti (61.4), India (64.1) Jamaica (72.1), Peru (73.5), Libya (74.5) and Mexico (75.3).
  • Teenage suicide rates are roughly 150% higher than they are for the rest of the country
  • 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 pervasive.
  • 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.
Health Care
  • 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 or non-existent.
  • 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.
  • The school drop-out rate is a staggering 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 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, because of the above listed reasons, Reservation residents are found dead from hypothermia.
  • As reported above, at least 60% are infected with the potentially-fatal Black Mold, Stachybotrys and as such theses homes need to be burned to the ground and replaced with new housing due to the infestation. 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.
Reservation Life
  • Most families live in isolated rural areas.
  • 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 or worse. Flooding, tornadoes, or wildfires are always a risk.
  • The Pine Ridge Reservation still has no banks, discount stores, or movie theatres. It has only one grocery store of any moderate size and it is located in the village of Pine Ridge on the Reservation.
  • 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 victims.
  • There are no public libraries except one at the Oglala Lakota College.
  • There is no public transportation available on the Reservation.
  • Only a minority of Reservation residents own an operable automobile.
  • Predominant form of travel for all ages on the Reservation is walking or hitch-hiking.
  • Alcoholism affects 8 out of 10 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 4,100,000 cans of beer each year resulting in a $3,000,000 annual trade. Unlike other Nebraska communities, Whiteclay 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 Reservation.
  • 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, and Texas.

Posted on July 4, 2009, in Indigenous Struggles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I strongly value hearing your perspective. Did you grow up on a reservation/Indian Nation yourself? If so, was there ever a time when you, or people you grew up with, were somewhat blinded/indifferent to the sources of oppression?
    Are there current movements of American Indians to design for positive systemic change? What changes do you think would serve best to create a more hopeful and just future?
    Do you think that experiences on various reservations in the U.S. share more similarities or more differences?
    How do you think that stereotypes/romanticized views of American Indians could be altered in a helpful way?

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