|The Sioux today: what is life like for the kids of Pine Ridge? (USA).
Ever since the Indian Wars of the 19th century, life has been difficult for the Sioux (SOO) nation. Past U.S. government policies robbed the Sioux of their lands and suppressed (put down) their culture. Today, the seven Sioux reservations in South Dakota rank among the poorest areas in the U.S.
Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota is home to fewer than 20,000 people. The reservation is roughly 2 million acres--about the size of Connecticut. But ancestors of Pine Ridge's inhabitants once hunted buffalo in an area that stretched from Montana to Wisconsin.
"When we were put on the reservation, the only way of life we knew was taken away," says Shawn Smith, 14.
Kids younger than 18 make up about half of Pine Ridge's population. Teens like Shawn take great pride in their heritage and the wide-open beauty of Pine Ridge. But they are also frustrated by the reservation's problems. Unemployment hovers around 80 percent, compared with about 6 percent for the entire U.S. The median household income is about $21,000--$14,000 lower than for South Dakota as a whole. Housing is in short supply, and one third of reservation homes lack electricity.
Such poverty has had severe consequences:
* The high school dropout rate is more than 50 percent, compared with 3.5 percent for South Dakota overall;
* Alcoholism and drug abuse affect almost every family;
* The poor diet of most Sioux means soaring rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes;
* The average life expectancy on Pine Ridge is about 56 years for men and 60 for women--nearly 20 years lower than the national average.
With things so bad, one might assume that the Sioux are fleeing reservation life. In fact, just the opposite is true. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Native Americans on Pine Ridge grew by 28 percent.
Some of the increase is the result of higher birthrates, but much of it is part of a larger trend in Plains states like South Dakota. As farming becomes more difficult, descendants of white settlers are leaving. Meanwhile, the descendants of Indians are returning to their tribal home.
But reconnecting to the past can be difficult. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, reservation kids were forced to attend Indian boarding schools. These schools separated young people from their families and punished them if they spoke their native language.
Amelia Blackbear, the principal of Little Wound Middle School in the small town of Kyle, South Dakota, says that attitudes about Sioux culture finally changed in the 1960s. However, the shame that the boarding schools created lingers.
"My mom and dad wouldn't teach me the language because they were raised in the boarding school," Black-bear told JS.
That reluctance has been devastating to the culture since a huge part of the Sioux religion, customs, and identity centers around the language.
The Sioux call themselves Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota, depending upon the dialect their families speak. (Sioux comes from a Chippawa word meaning "enemy," which became popular among white settlers.) Most people on Pine Ridge are Oglala Lakota, one of seven bands that make up the Lakota people.
Today, most Pine Ridge kids still cannot speak Lakota, but they are reclaiming their heritage. At least one daily class in school is devoted to the Lakota language and traditions. And, once a month, dance clubs from all of the reservation's schools come together for a powwow, a social gathering in the Native American tradition.
Delmarina One Feather, an eighth-grader at Red Cloud Indian School, says that powwows are about much more than ancient dances and fancy costumes.
"We learn how to get along with people and learn about our Lakota ways and culture," she says.
Feelings of Isolation
The U.S. government pays for almost everything on Pine Ridge, from the tribal government to food stamps to school supplies. Federally funded public schools like Little Wound are always short of money. This year, the 111 students began to raise funds to create a school library.
"I thought that maybe we should do this for all the rest of the kids who are going to be here," Shawn, an eighth-grader, told JS.
After school, Pine Ridge teens often struggle to find things to do. The closest metropolitan area, Rapid City, is a two-hour drive. There are no malls, movie theaters, or other distractions nearby.
The isolation makes it difficult for adults, let alone teens, to find jobs. Many kids just hang out with their friends on the school basketball courts and listen to rap music.
Not surprisingly, lots of Pine Ridge teens hunger to see what life is like elsewhere. After high school, Shawn plans to join the Marines and then go to college.
"I'm just trying to get off the reservation and into the world," he says.
Even so, Shawn feels a deep commitment to Pine Ridge. "I also want to go to schools and talk about the reservation and why we live so bad," he says. "I want to show them my way of life."
All photos are by Mike Riemen, a student at Little Wound Middle School.
Your Turn: THINK ABOUT IT
Is the U.S. government doing enough to help Indians who were forced from their land a century ago? What more could be done?
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