I want to introduce one issue facing our country that is closest to my heart: the tragedy and richness of native american culture.
When asked to imagine a place where the average yearly income is less than $4,000, the unemployment rate is at least 80 percent, and the average life expectancy is around 50 years old, most people imagine a place far away from their own pleasant suburbs of the USA. Some may picture Afghanistan or Sudan, torn apart by war, famine, and disease. The reality is, however, one does not even need to cross an ocean to find this place. At Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in Western South Dakota, around 49 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, yet the area rarely makes headlines. Two of the top ten poorest counties in America are located in the reservation.
Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Souix Tribe of the Great Plaines. It was originally part of the Great Souix Reservation, a result of the Fort Laramie Treaty. This treaty, signed in 1868, divided the area that is now Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana, granting the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Native Americans, and the remaining land to the settlers. When increased number of white settlers moved to the area, the Great Souix Reservation was broken up into smaller reservations, including Pine Ridge, established in 1889. The reservation was jolted in 1890 during the transportation of a group of Souix people from Pine Ridge to Nebraska, which resulted in the Wounded Knee Massacre. The Lakota Tribe was ordered to be arrested for its members not turning themselves in to live on a reservation as the government had commanded. While camping at wounded knee creek, the Seventh Cavalry of the United States Army discovered the group and asked them to turn in their weapons. More than 300 men, women, and children died at Wounded Knee Creek, in the southeastern corner of Pine Ridge, after a misunderstanding on the part of one tribesman caused a chaotic discharge of the Cavalry's weapons.
The current condition of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is one by which most Americans would be shocked. Vast improvements are needed in the areas of healthcare, employment, and housing. The wellness status of residents at Pine Ridge is far below the country's average. More than half of all adults living on the reservation are afflicted with disease or addiction. The two most common are diabetes, which has a rate eight times that of the national average, and alcoholism, which effects eighty percent of families in the area. Other preventable and curable sicknesses are prevalent, including tuberculosis, which also has a rate eight times the country's average. Perhaps more shockingly, many residents suffer from malnutrition and diseases stemming from water contamination from pesticides, mining, open dumps, and buried hazardous materials in the area.
Many citizens on the reservation struggle to find steady employment as there is no industrial or commercial infrastructure on the reservation. Farming provides a few seasonal jobs, most of which inadequate salaries for the farmers. Pine Ridge's agricultural production in 2002 generated nearly $33 million, but less than one third of this profit went to tribe members. Lack of employment opportunities lead to an increase in criminal behavior, especially among young people, who are often overcome with feelings of hopelessness.
Housing conditions at Pine Ridge is unfathomable to most Americans because of how extremely substandard most homes are. Almost 40 percent of homes on the reservation have no electricity, and one third of all homes have no running water or sewage systems. Due to the lack of livable housing and employment, many families must live with multiple generations in one home, resulting in an average of 17 people per family home built for four to five people. Little funding is provided for the countless homes in need of repair. The homeless population is massive, but due to cultural practices and beliefs, most families will not turn away a relative in need of a place to stay. Those unable to squeeze into a home of a relative sleep in barns or cars. Of these overcrowded homes, 60 percent are likely infested with Black Mold, which can damage immune systems and cause lung hemorrhaging in babies and cause cancer in adults.
Of all the citizens living at Pine Ridge Reservation, women and young people show the most dismal statistics regarding health. Cervical cancer in women in the area is five times the national average. Abortion is completely outlawed, even in cases of rape and incest, and the health risk of the mother is not an exception to the rule. The infant mortality rate is three times the country's average, mostly due to lack of technology in the health field. Teenage life on the reservation is far from that of a typical suburban teen. Seven in ten kids will drop out of school before ever graduation. Because of such low opportunity in education, the area ranks in the bottom ten percent of amount of school funding given by the Department of Education. The teen suicide rate is one of the highest in the country at 1.5 times the national average. Suicide makes up just a small part of the prevalent violence at Pine Ridge.
After violent protests in the 1970s surrounding the American Indian Movement's overtaking of the historic site, the murder rate on the reservation skyrocketed. In 1974, Detroit was named the murder capital of the world, with just over 20 murders per 100,000 people. Just two years later, the murder rate at Pine Ridge was 170 per 100,000 people.
Most Americans turn a blind eye to the tragic results of conflicts instigated long ago by the first European settlers in the United States. Multiple Native American tribes currently live in similar conditions to those at Pine Ridge. Run-down areas like this, however, can be turned around.
Research into harnessing useful wind and solar energy could not only provide jobs on the reservation, but allow citizens an affordable way to upgrade their homes efficiently. With funding, a community college could be established to train citizens for jobs in technological and science fields to be used on the reservation. Development of the historical site of Wounded Knee could provide income from tourists. This income can then be turned around to better hospitals or houses in the community. These ideas would be a major step in correcting the mistakes of the past and making Pine Ridge a productive, flourishing community.