There is a Native American Plains proverb, “Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”
In my September 20 Musings (“LIVING IN TWO WORLDS”), I wrote that I couldn’t understand why high schools in South Dakota are allowed to play sports this fall, but the Reservation schools, which receive federal funding, are closed.
I was reprimanded by one reader that reservations had been hit terribly hard by the pandemic and that there were more important things than sports. She then cited several news articles and a study from Harvard.
Covid-19 has indeed impacted the Reservations, but the reader made the mistake that many well-meaning people do: she lumped all Native Americans and all Reservations together.
The Navaho, the Cherokee and the Sioux are different nations. They speak different languages, they have different customs, they live in different areas of the country—it would be like saying the Danes, Poles and Hungarians are all the same.
Tribes do share one piece of history, of course: the U.S. Government has, in numerous treaties, promised them land that would never be taken away. Then, it was taken away with a new treaty. From 1778 to 1871, more than 500 treaties were entered into with different tribes.
In 1871 Congress ended formal treaty-making with Indians. In making that decision, U.S. Rep. Aaron Sargent from California argued: “Eighty or a hundred years ago, perhaps when there were great confederated nations upon our borders. . . we might treaty with them.” But now, Sargent said, “the whole thing is changed.” Indian tribes, he concluded, were “simply . . . not independent nations with whom we are to treat as our equals.” The United States should continue to make treaties with foreign nations, Sargent admitted, “[b]ut I deny that there can be such nations on our own soil.”
The tribes were placed on Reservations, and some saw children taken away and sent to boarding schools. Inside the Reservation, land was divided and allocated, with some of it going to white homesteaders—and other land was sold by natives, who did not understand how the earth could be owned.
I recently spent a week in Martin, South Dakota, which is sandwiched between the Rosebud Reservation (where I grew up) and the Pine Ridge Reservation.
A 2015 study, “The Lakota Sioux Tribe: A Look at the Statistics,” noted that 97 percent of the population lived below the U.S. federal poverty line with median household income ranging from $2,600 to $3,500 a year (probably a monthly credit-card bill for many in Pacific Palisades).
The population on the Pine Ridge Reservation is 18,834, and alcoholism affects eight out of 10 families. The average life expectancy on the Reservation is 47 years for men and 52 years for women. The teenage suicide rate is 150 percent higher than the U.S. national average. The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent, and about 300 percent higher than the U.S. national average.
Nearly 50 percent of the adults on the Reservation over the age of 40 have diabetes. The high-fat, high- sugar commodities passed out to people by the government do not help nutrition and the lack of fresh fruit or vegetables has resulted in diets that contribute to obesity.
The tuberculosis rate on the Reservation is approximately 800 percent higher than the national average, with cervical cancer not far behind at 500 percent higher than average. As a child, there were regular TB tests given in the classroom, and you just hoped the area on the arm didn’t swell (which meant you might have it).
As far as “virtual” learning for students during Covid-19, an estimated average of 17 people live in each family home, and that home might only have two to three rooms. Over 33 percent of the homes have no electricity or basic water and sewage systems.
Jobs are almost nonexistent unless one works for the school or the government.
The Rosebud Reservation has slightly better mortality numbers with the average life expectancy at 56, as opposed to 80 in the rest of the state, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.
The health facilities provided on Reservations is through a federal program, Indian Health Service (IHS). The Rosebud facility has an estimated 12,276 listed users that rely on services due to limited or no health insurance. According to the HIS “The medical priority of care is determined as levels, I, II, III, IV, and V. The funding and volume of need by the population have required that most Area can only provide PRC authorization the highest priority medical services – Level I. These medical services are generally only emergency care service, i.e., those necessary to prevent the immediate threat to life, limb, or senses.”
According to the 2015 IHS Expenditures Per Capita and Other Federal Health Care Expenditures Per Capita, “In 2015, per capita spending for medical care at the IHS was only $3,316 compared with $8,760 for the national average.”
In 2016, the Rosebud tribe sued the federal government for its closure of the only emergency room on its reservation, operated by Indian Health Services. The ER was closed because of conditions so poor that Medicaid would not reimburse for its services.
Since there was no ER, people had to travel 50 miles to reach another hospital. Tribal members who carry health insurance can utilize the Winner Regional Hospital; otherwise the only option is the Rosebud Hospital. After seven months the ER finally reopened.
The New York Times wrote in 2007 (“Indian Reservation Reeling in Wave of Youth Suicides and Attempts”) and it’s a story that hasn’t changed 13 years later. American Indian and Alaska Native youth 15 to 24 years old are committing suicide at a rate more than three times the national average for their age group of 13 per 100,000 people, according to the surgeon general.
“Tribal leaders at Rosebud took a survey of Todd County students . . . .They said that they had no refuge, that their parents were not present, and that they saw too much tragedy, alcoholism and hopelessness,” said the Times story.
In a Forbes article (“Why Are Indian Reservations So Poor? A Look at the Bottom 1%”), the author writes about the Crow Reservation: “To explain the poverty of the reservations, people usually point to alcoholism, corruption or school-dropout rates, not to mention the long distances to jobs and the dusty undeveloped land that doesn’t seem good for growing much. But those are just symptoms. Prosperity is built on property rights, and reservations often have neither. They’re a demonstration of what happens when property rights are weak or non-existent.”
“The vast majority of land on reservations is held communally. That means residents can’t get clear title to the land where their home sits.
“This leads to what economists call the tragedy of the commons: If everyone owns the land, no one does. So, the result is substandard housing and the barren, rundown look that comes from a lack of investment, overuse and environmental degradation. It’s a look that’s common worldwide, wherever secure property rights are lacking—much of Africa and South America, inner city housing projects and rent-controlled apartment buildings in the U.S., Indian reservations.”
How do you fix the poverty, the inadequate housing, schools and medical facilities on the Reservation? How do you address broken dreams and hopelessness?
I don’t know.
I do know that if the high school students on the Reservations are watching all the other high school kids playing, keeping them home to keep them “safe,” is doing no good.
That strategy might make sense to someone in California, who lives in a big house and has access to excellent medical care, a computer, good WiFi and two parents in an intact home.
On Reservations, Covid is only one part of a multi-pronged problem.
While I was in Martin, I went for coffee at a little shop next door to my mom’s house. The woman sitting there wore a “Justice for Aiden James” T-shirt. (#JusticeForAidenJames)
I asked her who Aiden James was and she said, “My son.”
Her name was Selena Thunder Hawk and she had organized a Child Abuse Awareness Prevention Walk on September 18 for her four-year-old son, who was beaten by his father and his stepmother so badly, his brain was bleeding and 90 percent of his body was covered with burns and bruises. He was missing hair from the back of his head and had scars on his arms, back and legs that looked like cigarette burns, along with being malnourished. The mom learned about her son’s condition when she was notified by the state that he had been put in temporary custody on May 27.
The father and stepmother still had not been charged.
Stephen Hawking said, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”