Will that result in accountability for the promises made about Pine Ridge?
Americans may be forgiven for thinking we have enough problems without United Nations inspectors traveling to a South Dakota Indian reservation to examine dismal housing conditions among the poorest of our poor. But we may not be forgiven for letting our housing problems fester even after they receive international notoriety.
Today, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing will do something only one sitting U.S. president ever has done: Visit the sprawling and impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik (a rapporteur is someone assigned to make an investigation and report back to an organization) is visiting as part of a tour of some of America's worst housing, from New York and Los Angeles to post-Katrina New Orleans to the slums of Chicago to Pine Ridge.
Pine Ridge, an 11,000-square-mile reservation of almost 20,000 people, stands tantalizingly within sight of the rich Black Hills. Torturously may be a more apt word: The Black Hills, according to a 1980 Supreme Court ruling, were stolen from the Lakota Sioux tribes now confined to the arid plains beside their old homeland.
Plenty of sordid history needs to be remembered in any discussion of the U.S. government and its treatment of Indians in general and of the Sioux in particular. But recent changes in international law and U.N. priorities have combined to put the old painful story in a new, awkward focus that may finally force Washington to live up to some of the promises made when the government signed treaties with the tribes, and when it would say anything (or shoot anyone) to appropriate tribal lands.
First, in 2000, the U.N. declared that the right to adequate housing is a human right. Then, in 2007, after 20 years of debate and negotiation, it approved a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples protecting the rights of tribal peoples around the world and stating that treaties between any nation and its native peoples may be considered matters of "international concern" and responsibility.
(Only four countries voted against adoption of the U.N. declaration. One of them, quite disgracefully, was the United States.)
One of the promises made to the Lakota after the end of Red Cloud's War was a promise to give each family a "comfortable house" (another was to give them the Black Hills "as long as the grass grows" or, it turned out, until someone found gold there). Today, on Pine Ridge, which is located in a county that consistently ranks as the first- or second-poorest in the United States, there aren't many comfortable houses.
Instead, as in most hard-core pockets of poverty, there are shabby, overcrowded, pest-ridden, dilapidated homes, many of which lack adequate plumbing or other modern conveniences. The shortcomings range from partial kitchens to dirt floors to no telephones. The U.N.'s Rolnik will see it all today, starting her Pine Ridge tour in Wanbli ("eagle" in the Lakota tongue) and visiting several other impoverished settlements, such as Kyle and Porcupine. I am familiar with the Pine Ridge Reservation, having written extensively about it and having stayed as a guest in a small shack without plumbing or running water, and having helped a church group put fresh paint on the isolated trailer homes of tribal elders who kept tires on the roofs to help hold them on.
Bill Clinton is the only president to have visited Pine Ridge, which includes the hamlet of Wounded Knee, where the 7th Cavalry ended the Indian wars by massacring hundreds of Sioux in 1890. Clinton made many promises during his 1999 stop, many of them about improving jobs and housing. A decade later, nothing has changed, except for the worse: Unemployment is estimated at as high as 75 or 80 percent, and 60 percent of the housing stock is considered substandard.
According to a tribal housing report submitted to the U.N. rapporteur, reservation housing is "in a deplorable state," with most of the government-built homes "severely overcrowded." As many as 20 or 25 people may live in a three-bedroom home with missing windows, broken walls, mold and other health-menacing problems. On top of everything else, the reservation homelessness rate is estimated at an astounding 30 percent. If you believe the U.N. should concentrate on problems in Third World countries, calm down: Pine Ridge fits right in.
"We hope the rapporteur's visit will expose the atrocious conditions on the reservation that the U.S. government allows to happen," says Bill Means, a Pine Ridge native who serves on the board of the International Indian Treaty Council. "The reason for asking the U.N. to help is that we can't get that type of attention in Washington, especially with the new administration.
"We are looking for policy change. Real change. Not just more promises."
Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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