Tuesday, January 12, 2010

High unemployment and high suicides

One of the most remote and depressing Indian reservations is in South Dakota. Pine Ridge reservation is not one of those who has benefited from a fancy casino. Instead, Pine Ridge suffers from an 80 percent unemployment rate, and a high suicide rate.

From the UK's Guardian, reporter Chris McGreal visited the reservation.

Pine Ridge is among the US's largest Indian reservations – much smaller than the vast plains of the midwest that the Sioux once roamed but still bigger than England's largest county – and also among its poorest. No one is sure how many people live on its 2.2m acres, but the tribe estimates about 45,000.

Conditions on the reservation 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 lacking running water or electricity. An infant mortality rate at 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 around $7,000 (£4,400) a year, less than one-sixth of the national average and on a par with Bulgaria. The residents of Wounded Knee, scene of the notorious 1890 massacre of Sioux women and children and of the 1973 standoff with the FBI, are typically living on less than half of that. 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 not uncommon to hear people quietly speak of the guilt they feel for having a job. Those who don't survive on pitifully small welfare cheques. It all adds up to a life expectancy on Pine Ridge of about only 50 years.

But the tribe's leaders today view the treaties as a trap – promising much but providing just enough to create a culture of dependency and despair. "The government wanted us to feel defeated and we played right in to their hands," says (Tribe President Theresa) Two Bulls. "We were taught to feel defeated. Look how they brought welfare and our people lived on welfare and some of our people don't even know how to work. They're used to just staying at home all day, watching TV and drinking and taking drugs. That's the state the government wanted us to be in and we're in it."

It is a state Adelle Brown Bull has spent her life resisting, not always with success. The 69-year-old great-grandmother is still in the same tribal-owned house she raised her eight children in, and some of them never moved out. Today the two-bedroomed home is stuffed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She sits at her kitchen table, the green wall behind her dotted with photographs of the generations of babies. Some of the pictures are so old they are in black and white.

Among those living with Brown Bull are a daughter and her three children who are all in their 20s. Two of the granddaughters have several children of their own, one of them a baby. There's another grandchild, nine-year-old Michael, who Brown Bull is raising after his mother in effect abandoned him when he was 10 months old. The numbers fluctuate but there is anywhere between eight and 15 people sleeping in the house at any one time.

None of the occupants has a job. Brown Bull gets a pension of $538 (£337) a month, plus $323 (£202) for caring for Michael. The other mothers in the house get welfare cheques of a few hundred dollars a month. "We just manage," Brown Bull says, laughing.

No comments: