President Obama has pledged to improve the lives of the country’s Native Americans. But he faces an enormous challenge.
The president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge reservation describes where some of the tribal and Indian problems originate: “This is about how defeated our people feel. People across the US don’t realise we could be identified as the Third World, our living conditions. People think we’re living high off the hog on welfare and casinos. I’ve asked them — US congressional people, US secretaries of these departments who deal with us — to come out to our reservation, see first-hand how we live, why we live that way. Find out why our children are killing themselves. Learn who we are.”
Conditions at Pine Ridge are tough. More than 80% unemployment. A desperate shortage of housing — on average, more than 15 people live in each home and others get by in cars and trailers. More than one-third of homes lack running water or electricity. An infant mortality rate three times the US national average. And a dependency on alcohol and a diet so poor that half the population over the age of 40 is diabetic.
The Oglala Sioux’s per capita income is about $7,000 a year, less than one-sixth of the national average.
Young people have almost no hope of work unless they sign up to fight in Afghanistan. The few with jobs are almost all employed by the tribal authorities or the federal government — it is common to hear people quietly speak of the guilt they feel for having a job. Those who don’t survive on small welfare cheques.
It all adds up to a life expectancy on Pine Ridge of about 50 years.