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15 Mar, 2010 18:42

Native Americans living in desperate poverty

People who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota lack resources including jobs, funding and housing

 The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota is the poorest reservation in the United States. Nearly half of its nearly 30,000 residents live below the poverty level, and life expectancy is among the lowest in the Western world. Housing at Pine Ridge was the worst seen by UN Special Rapporteur for Housing Raquel Rolnik in her recent tour of the United States.

Oglala Sioux tribe president Theresa Two Bulls says about 80 percent of the people who live on the reservation are unemployed. Even those looking for work find that there are few jobs available to them. There are a few outreach organizations as well as a Subway sandwich shop.

The Prairie Wind Casino employs about 300 people from the tribe. When it opened the goal was to draw people in from surrounding counties to gamble, but so far this plan has failed.

Ivan Sorbel with the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce says that they are working on building an economy, encouraging entrepreneurs to start their own businesses.

"Services like oil changes, tire services are lacking around here. We don’t have a barber or an ice cream parlor. You can’ t buy a shake here on the reservation,” said Sorbel.

But it’s a hard feat with no money for loans and a high school dropout rate of over 50 percent. It is estimated that 80 percent of the dollars that come onto the reservation leave it within 72 hours. Much of the money is spent in bars across the state line in White Clay, Nebraska. Although many Indian reservations allow alcohol in their casinos, drinking has been banned at Pine Ridge because of the high levels of alcohol abuse.

In a recent meeting with tribal leaders, US President Barack OBama called them the first Americans and pledged they would not be forgotten. Two Bulls says based funding has not increased for years and more than half of it never makes it to the reservation.

“They allocate the dollars on the Congress level, then it goes to the regional level and they take their cut,” Two Bulls said.

By the time it gets to the tribal level, leaders of the 16 tribes in the Pine Ridge region have to fight for what’s left.

“It’s really hard that they have us fighting with each other over the dollars when the need is so great on every reservation,” said Two Bulls

Tribal leaders say their pleas are simple.

“Treat us how you would a foreign country, how you work with them, that’s what we are, we’re the foreign country in your backyard.”