Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is full of contrasts from the stunning beauty of the landscape to the tragic poverty of its people. Here the vast open sky and prairie of the west is abruptly broken by junked cars that litter the landscape.
PINE RIDGE, S.D. — This sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a Connecticut-sized zone of prairie and poverty, where the have-nots are defined less by the money they lack than by suffocating hopelessness.
In the national number line of inequality, people here represent the "other 1 percent," the bottom of the national heap.
Pine Ridge is a poster child of U.S. poverty and of the failures of the reservation system for American Indians in the West. The latest Census Bureau data show that Shannon County here had the lowest per capita income in the entire United States in 2010.
Not far behind in that Census Bureau list of poorest counties are several found largely inside other Sioux reservations in South Dakota: Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek.
Poverty in the United States, including in the reservations, is so entrenched because it is often part of a toxic brew of alcohol or drug dependencies, dysfunctional families and educational failures. It self-replicates generation after generation.
"What's a man or woman to do?" asked Ben, a young man here who said he started drinking at age 12. "I felt helpless. I felt worthless, and I wanted a drink to get rid of my pain. But then you get more pain."
Ben says he financed his alcohol and drug habits by turning to crime and violence. He's now on probation, and didn't want his family name used for fear of getting in more trouble.
"I did a lot of things to get money to drink," he added regretfully. These included beating people up as a debt collector for beer stores just outside the reservation and driving girls to those stores where they exchanged sex for alcohol, he said.
Ben, now in his 30s, says that he quit alcohol several years ago. But he is overweight and in poor health, surviving on disability payments and seeing no chance of getting a job.
Unemployment on Pine Ridge is estimated at around 70 percent, and virtually the only jobs are those working for the government or for the Oglala Sioux tribe itself.
There are, of course, some reservations around the country that have struck it rich with gambling or other ventures. But here in the prairies, those riches are only rumors.
Half the population over 40 on Pine Ridge has diabetes, and tuberculosis runs at eight times the national rate. As many as two-thirds of adults may be alcoholics, one-quarter of children are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and the life expectancy is somewhere around the high 40s — shorter than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Less than 10 percent of children graduate from high school.
One reason businesses don't invest in reservations is that even though unemployment is so high, companies find it difficult to recruit dependable workers, according to Robert Brave Heart, who runs the Red Cloud Indian School.
"People here still have to develop good work habits, even getting to work on time," Brave Heart said. "And people here have constant family crises that cause them to miss work."
Brave Heart, the son of a medicine man, is a success story and is turning out more of them at his school. These young people are going off to college to acquire skills that may help them turn the reservation around in the future.
How might present and future leaders lift up Indian reservations such as Pine Ridge out of poverty? A starting point is to understand what holds them back.
One factor is the alcohol and drug abuse and broken families. That's why I blasted Anheuser-Busch in my last column for helping siphon alcohol into the reservation against tribal rules.
A second is that reservations are often structured in ways that discourage private investment. Tribal lands often aren't deeded to individuals but are common property, and tribal law means that outside investors can't rely on uniform commercial codes and may have no reliable recourse if they are cheated.
Third, the arid lands here just can't support many people. Rural areas throughout the great plains states, including those with overwhelmingly white populations, are losing inhabitants and are also among the poorest in the country.
Even though the reservation system is largely failing in the West, there are bright spots. One is the growing number of American Indians getting a good education. Another is that initiatives to emphasize traditional Sioux culture and spirituality seem to have boosted community pride and helped wean some families from alcohol and drugs.
My hunch is that these Indian reservations will have to shed people: They can't generate enough jobs, and a community with perpetual joblessness will always be stunted. But many American Indian communities throughout the United States have already demonstrated enormous resilience over the last two centuries — and that's a basis for hope.