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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The State of Our Union with the Pine Ridge Sioux

I’m driving east again on Route 18, a rural highway that runs south of the interstate through South Dakota. It's a good road; quiet. Like many regions of the Great Plains, this area is dotted with reservation land. To those of us who are acquainted with American Indian history, the names of the places you pass along the way ring with bitter familiarity. The town of Pine Ridge, named for the former Indian agency in which Native American affairs were administered. Rosebud, the reservation that gave its name to certain branches of the Lakota, now often collectively known as the Rosebud Sioux. Wounded Knee, site of the massacre that’s generally conceived as marking the end of American Indian resistance to white settlers and their way of life.

Traveling through this historic section of the country makes me both happy and sad. Happy that the Native Americans still have land to call their own. Sad over the lengths to which they had to go to defend it. Happy that the peoples who were here before us still retain portions of their culture and heritage, and a remnant of their sovereignty. Sad, because of the conditions in which they retain them.

I visited Wounded Knee as I was working my way west towards Rapid City. Like the fiasco at Sand Creek, the 1890 “battle” that transpired there is often termed a massacre. What other term would you use to describe the slaughter of women, children, and largely unarmed warriors?

As I pulled up to this comparatively obscure landmark, a Native woman and man immediately approached my truck. They welcomed me effusively to the site, then directed me where to go and what to see. There wasn't far to go, or much to see. The memorial of the massacre is a weather-worn and faded sign at the edge of a field…

Wounded Knee 1

Wounded Knee 2

Wounded Knee 3

A gated patch of cemetery, containing the gravesites of more modern Sioux warriors, several of whom died in service in World War II...

Wounded Knee Cemetery

Wounded Knee Gravestone

And a ragged-looking museum, selling souvenirs.

Wounded Knee Museum

I soon grasped the reason behind the effusiveness of the greeting. The man and woman held up trinkets of their own design for me to examine, perhaps to buy.

“You see, there isn't much work around here,” the woman explained.

No, I thought. I imagine there isn’t.

As you drive through this broad stretch of reservation land – the eighth largest in the nation – you notice two things. One, the settlement is quite obviously poor. The towns are lacking in storefronts, the houses are dilapidated, the cars and trucks are rusty and old; the people, even, wear the downcast look endemic to those stricken by a lifetime of poverty. You witness them walking along the highway, those who don't have cars or bicycles, in the blazing summer sun. I noticed that some of them were lugging bags of groceries in their hands or on their shoulders. I wondered how far they’d had to walk. I never even saw the store.

The second thing you notice is that these people, individuals though they are, truly do constitute a separate nation within the nation. Yes, many of their laws are similar to ours, but then, that is true of most modern nations. There are many Native Americans, of course, who do not live on the reservations, who have not chosen to remain in that kind of life. But among the faces of those who have, you plainly perceive a people. They still retain the characteristic and utterly unique appearance of Plains Indians; they still, in spite of nearly four hundred years of governmental efforts to consolidate and homogenize them, resemble a tribe.

The visitor center at the Crazy Horse Monument, a hundred miles southwest of here, contains a large and rather elaborate museum of Native American artifacts. Along with the spectacular headdresses for which the American Indians are perhaps best known, you can view beautiful beaded garments for both women and horses…

Beaded Dress

Pony War Bonnet

A sample tipi and sweat lodge...


Sweat Lodge

Even an traditional "winter count," complete with drawings, by means of which many of the native tribes tracked the history of their people.

Winter Count

These are not the objects of a poor people. These are the objects of a people with leisure and wealth.

Tucked away in a corner of this vast building I spied a book, a three-hole binder filled with pictures of the various flags of the surviving American Indian nations. Beneath most of them were written the historical territories and current population of each of the represented tribes. Some of them – particularly the eastern tribes – consisted of very few members. I suppose this is because the eastern tribes – those who did not escape to the West or into Canada – had a longer history of contact with white men, and their populations were therefore decimated earlier and to a greater extent. I would imagine, too, that among those who did survive, the genealogical records are more complex and difficult to unravel because several more generations have passed since they wandered freely over their own part of the continent.

By contrast, the Plains and other western tribes were forced off of their native lands almost in modern memory. Their history is not confined to some distant and largely unwritten past, in retellings reconstructed by white men alone. Although they ultimately lost the war to maintain their land and way of life, they succeeded in ways their eastern counterparts often did not, because it was the western Indians who truly captured the white American imagination. They had names, individual personalities, identities that conveyed that Native Americans were more than merely a mass of “red” enemies. Who will ever forget Sitting Bull or Geronimo, Chief Joseph or Captain Jack? They were leaders, warriors, rebels, even showmen; they earned both the settlers’ and the government’s respect. They were not just “Indians.” They were people.

Perhaps this is why the vast majority of reservation land is out here, in the West. Not only because there were fewer whites to want the land, but because the Indians of the West fought harder to keep it. They had to. By the time the war against the Indian reached the plains, Native Americans knew with dreadful certainty that this was their last stand; their last chance to retain their native ways, their peoplehood. They had little choice but to fight.

Most of the eastern tribes could have had no such foresight. This is perhaps why, for example, there are currently only about eight hundred Mashantucket Pequots, some of the first native New Englanders. The tribe did not even receive federal recognition until the 1980s. I actually knew that even before I saw the book of flags because this was how Foxwoods Resort Casino in central Connecticut – one of the first and still one of the biggest of its kind – came to be built. As independent sovereign states, recognized tribes are permitted to operate gambling enterprises on their own land in states that otherwise prohibit gaming. This development has been a terrific boon for native peoples, and has also provided an additional incentive for nearly extinguished tribes to reestablish themselves in the last twenty years. Indeed, in many parts of the East, casinos are often the sole visible reminder that Native Americans still live among us. Yet small as these tribes are, they are nonetheless difficult to forget when so many of our cities and states – like Milwaukee and Chicago, Massachusetts and Connecticut – bear derivatives of their names.

But here in South Dakota, where a substantial portion of the land is given over to reservations, and where Native Americans comprise nearly nine percent of the population (, the tribes are much larger, and very much in the public eye, as they are in a handful of other places in our shared nation. As many as a hundred and seventy thousand Sioux, more than three hundred thirty thousand of the southwestern Navajo, including those of mixed tribal designations ( still reside in what is now the United States of America. Overall the remaining American Indians number nearly three million people, and comprise roughly one percent of our population – the smallest by far of our defined minority groups.

Yet they’ve survived. They have naturally lost much of their native culture, a process that began even before they were restricted to reservations. What remained of their historic modes of existence has also largely vanished, a change that commenced with the settlers’ invasion of the Plains and that has, of course, continued throughout the decades of what we term progress. Even without white interference in Indian affairs, it is difficult to imagine, in the twenty-first century, that the Plains Indians would be making cell phone calls while hunting buffalo, and watching satellite TV in tipis.

Yet it is equally difficult to imagine that, at one of the most saddening, sobering sites in American Indian history, the survivors are reduced to selling trinkets. You can't blame them for doing it. Man's first need is always to feed his belly. Honoring the history of your people loses much of its importance when your children are going hungry.

And there is something surprising, even baffling, about the degraded state of the Sioux in this area. Because when you’re traveling through the rest of South Dakota, you cannot help but become aware of just how much work is available there. Institutions as huge as Capital One advertise for help on the radio, the radio stations advertise for help on the radio; over and over you hear businesses pleading for workers to fill positions for which experience is helpful, but not required. And once you’re in the cities, the need for labor becomes even more apparent. The fast food restaurant chains, instead of advertising their specials, virtually all seem to post “Help Wanted” on their outdoor marquees. One Walmart I saw was hiring clerks at $10.50 an hour. Not a grand sum, for certain, but considerably higher than the Federal minimum wage of $7.25, and higher, even, than the California minimum wage of $9.00 per hour. That's a living wage in a place where you can rent a one-bedroom apartment for less than $500 per month.

Curious to see if my impressions were correct, I looked up the unemployment rate in South Dakota, and sure enough, it’s between 3.1% and 3.7%, depending on the locale – a rate so low that you can barely call it unemployment, particularly when you compare it to the current average Federal rate of 6.1% (
South Dakota seems to be one of the few places in the country where there’s plenty of employment to be had, yet for the Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation, “There isn’t much work around here.”

The woman wasn’t exaggerating. I decided to look up the statistics on Pine Ridge, and they were even more horrifying than I had suspected, with an estimated 80-90% rate of unemployment and the second lowest life expectancy in the Western hemisphere (

The statistics for the Navajo, the massive tribal group that occupies a section of Southwestern desert hundreds of miles from here, are nearly as staggering, with 42% unemployment and 43% of the population living below the poverty line (

Yes, the Native Americans have survived. But here in the West, at least, they have not thrived. Somewhere there is a disconnect between their countries and ours, between American life and Native American life. Somehow in losing their land and their livelihood, one might have expected that they would at least have gained the benefits that the modern-day United States has to offer. Yet on many of the reservations, this does not seem to be the case.

It is true; the Native Americans are their own people, members of a world they can call their own. Unfortunately, for many of them, it is a Third World, enclosed tightly - and perhaps irrevocably - within our First.
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