Brown toasted hills with sparse vegetation looked like scenes out of a Western movie. I could picture an Indian riding a painted pony over the rise in the Wild West of yesteryear. Instead, today, rusted cars line the dusty alleyways where trailers and dilapidated clapboard houses replace the stallions and tipis of the past.
The land is golden, not from crops or minerals riches, but from sun baked grass. In clusters resembling tribes of long ago, only the hardiest of trees survive in ravines along dried riverbeds that trickle occasionally with life sustaining water.
The Pine Ridge Reservation, Lakota grounds in South Dakota, is the poorest Indian Reservation in the U.S. Ninety percent of the population lives below the poverty level on average annual incomes of less than $4000. The 36,000 Lakota left, survive on misery and memories of the Great People they once wear when they existed in harmony with a brutal land, before being driven off their land and away from their natural life.
The Lakota, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, once covered a territory that extended from the Big Horn Mountains in the west, to eastern Wisconsin. In the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851, the Great Sioux Nation was reduced to the western half of South Dakota. Though it remains the second largest reservation in the U.S. it covers an area only about the size of Connecticut.
Once able to live off the land by hunting, the barren landscape offers little in the way of livelihood in today’s society. Unemployment fluctuates between 85-90 %. Jobs are scarce and poorly paid.
Few Indians can make it is as ranchers, so they work for other people on the land they once owned. Thirty-nine percent of the population lives in homes without electricity and 60% of their houses are infested with black mold.
With limited job options in such a desolate area, destitution has become a way of life. The Lakota lack financial stability to afford good nutrition and health care. Infant mortality is three times the national average. Life expectancy for male and females is twenty years less than the national average. Half of the adult population suffers from diabetes. Stripped of their pride and ability to provide for their families, it is no surprise that despair sets in. The suicide rate among teenagers is 1.5 times higher than national average.
In the 1800’s, the White Man brought alcohol to Indians in exchange for beads and crops. It was a poor trade for the Lakota. Now alcoholism runs rampant. In White Clay NE, population under 35 people just one mile from the dry Pine Ridge Reservation, four million cans of beer (10,958 beer cans a day) are sold annually.
I marveled at anyone’s ability to survive as we drove across the savage lands to visit the Red Cloud Indian School on the Lakota Reservation. When I stepped outside the air-conditioned car, the wind slapped my face as if to jump-start my breathing, my lungs sucked dry by the heat.
In the Heritage Cultural Museum, filled with artifacts, paintings and beadwork of the Lakota, Red Cloud high school students recaptured the Wounded Knee Massacre in a moving display of black and white photographs. Beside each picture, the story was told in three different perspectives. The white card represented the White Man’s viewpoint; red card, the Indians interpretation and the blue portrayed the students’ opinion. In what has become the symbol of a horrible genocide of their people and way of life, on December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry rounded up Lakota women and children like animals and gunned them down.
“It chills us to the bone,” one student researcher wrote,” to think we weren’t even considered human, as brothers, as sisters, as life.”
Outside the school, a gravel path lead to an Indian burial ground where the tomb of Red Cloud, (1822 –1910) lies. Buried on a grassy knoll overlooking rolling, baked hills Lakota land the great Oglala chief’s spirit surveys what little remains of his nation, once the White Man arrived. His soul does not rest in peace.