Last week, I joined 17 others from my church on a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Home to the Oglala Lakota people, it is the poorest county in the United States. Covering almost 3,500 sq. miles of windswept land and dusty plateaus, the landscape is breathtaking. Yet, it is hard to believe that “this land is our land”, as Woody Guthrie wrote and Pete Seeger sang.
You see, as settlers moved west during the 1800’s, the U.S. government negotiated a variety of treaties. The Lakota people agreed to confine themselves to Pine Ridge (a reservation larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined), in exchange for rationed goods and services. Among other things they were promised health care, law enforcement and shelter. Yet, take a look at some of these statistics gathered in the last few years.
- 80-90% of residents are unemployed.
- 30% of residents are homeless.
- As many as 80% of residents struggle with alcoholism.
- More than half of all adults suffer from diabetes and related illness.
- Life expectancy is the 2nd lowest in the Western hemisphere; (only Haiti has a lower rate)
- The teen suicide rate is 4 times the national average.
- There are only 9 police officers for the reservation.
Friends, right here in the United States of America, we have a third world country. Some editorial writers call it a “fourth world” country because these natives are not getting any global economic support. No foreign government is generating development. Sure, there is a casino on the reservation. As you can imagine, many people lose more money than they win.
Would you believe that there is only one grocery store on the reservation? It charges higher prices than Safeway in neighboring Rapid City. So, many people find shopping at convenient stores a viable option. After all, the lack of transportation on the “rez” complicates bargain hunting.
Shame on us! As much as I enjoyed this trip, I continue to spit and swear about the current reality in Pine Ridge. Don’t get me wrong. There were some signs of hope. I will share them in future blogs. But, for now, I’m just heartsick.
Interestingly, on our team, we had a few teenage girls who loved to sing. To pass the time away, driving to places of interest (Wounded Knee, White Clay Nebraska, Red Cloud Indian School etc.), they sang whatever they could remember.
One afternoon they announced that they had sung, “This Land is Your Land”. They were as unnerved by the experience as I. Yet, I don’t think they knew that the Woody Guthrie song was a protest song. I bet they didn’t know that the original manuscript was a call to social justice and action.
Have you ever heard the verse that goes like this?
One bright Sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the relief office, I saw my people. As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
For some reason, I can’t get that verse out of my head. If you’d like more perspective, please watch the movie, “Bury My Heart on Wounded Knee”. I found it on Amazon Prime.