DESPERATION IN PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION
By Melanie McBee
February 21, 2007
I am a 27 yr. old Ogalala Lakota woman, originally from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I was fortunate enough to have been adopted by a stable, Christian family who had my best interests at heart. Most children from Pine Ridge are not so blessed. Pine Ridge is situated in the southwest corner of South Dakota, and is the eighth largest reservation in the United States. The unemployment rate is 85% and 97% of the population are living below the federal poverty level. The infant mortality rate is five times the United States national average, and has among the shortest life expectancies of any group in the western hemisphere.
Alcoholism, addiction, violence, and suicide predominate in this once tranquil place. Although my family educated me on the statistics, I was hardly prepared when in 1997-98, I went to live there. I was mortified by the alcoholism. These people...MY PEOPLE were committing a slow suicide by the huge amounts of alcohol they were consuming. This was no longer just another statistic to me; it became my reality, the place I woke up to every day. Many of these families are living without necessities like running water, electricity, sewer, heat--even food, diapers, and formula. Despite these things--they somehow always seem to find the money to drink, or to buy a can of hair spray to huff, or a can of paint to sniff.
My people are stealing from each other to drink, committing burglaries to drink, and begging for money from others to be able to buy just one can of beer. I have a brother who was also under foster care off of the reservation, and at 7 yrs. old the tribe came and took him back, so he was then forced to live on the reservation with his Indian family. When I chose to live there, I became very close with him. He told me that he wished that I would leave, because it would be better than to subject myself to the lifestyle on the reservation. He expressed deep seated regret that he was carelessly pulled from a financially, spiritually, and emotionally stable home and returned to the reservation. He did everything in his power to make me miserable when I lived there, so that I would just leave. He was robbed of the wonderful opportunities he could have had. Why - Racism. My nation would rather force the children to continue to live with instability, alcoholism, and violence, than to have them adopted by the “whites.”
Being a sovereign nation, nothing can be done through state social services--and the government doesn't want anything to do with us, unless, of course, it is to make themselves look good. The tribe will cast an alcoholic into treatment, based on another alcoholic’s word--but they will not remove an obviously neglected child from their cockroach infested home. I firsthand, have witnessed my blood, my family, the future generation of children--being abused physically, and emotionally. These children are not being given even a fighting chance of a beginning in life.
This past summer, the same brother I mentioned telephoned me in a drunken stupor, and told me that if I didn't come and get him, he was going to commit suicide. I had two other close family members commit suicide, of course I decided I needed to go and help him. At 2:00 am, my husband and I loaded up our two small children, and what we would need into our van, and we left from Minnesota to Martin, South Dakota to pick up my brother. Upon arrival, the first thing we observed was the housing, which horrified my husband, and reminded me of the desolation of my people.
My baby nieces were crying because they were hungry, their diapers had not been changed in what had to have been a day, they were dirty, and running around with no shoes on, despite the glass on the ground--they had no clothes on, and had a look of utter misery, and bewilderment on their little precious faces. YET their mothers were in the back yard drinking at ten in the morning. NO CHILD should have to live this way--I just wanted to take these children, and bring them home, but I couldn't---what's worse, these children will grow up believing that the things that they witness, and endure are normal. I was powerless to do anything for these children--I wanted to embrace them, and take them home with me.
Upon finding my brother, we also found a house full of my drunken relatives. My granddaughter (in Native custom) whom was a little older than my own baby of 6 months, was crawling around with no clothes, shoes, and a horribly soiled diaper--with cockroaches, dirt, cigarette ashes, and beer cans on the floor--narrowly avoiding being stepped on. The baby's mother who is my niece is 16, and drunk right along with everyone else. For them, this lifestyle is completely commonplace.
I know of children 5years old, molesting 3 month old babies--fathers molesting children, mothers molesting children--every form of incest there is, has, and will continue to take place there-- I have watched family members die of alcohol poisoning, or cirrhosis--I've watched them have to have limbs removed because of their irresponsibility in taking care of their diabetic needs--because they would rather concentrate on where their next beer is coming from, or who can get meth, or a gun.
When I first went there at 16 to visit, everyone was so excited to meet me, and then they started telling me that I didn't belong there, because I wasn't really a true Native, because I was raised with white people. Then they told me that I didn't belong with my white family, that I belonged there with them. I was called an "apple" red on the outside, and white on the inside, to them I was, and still am--a wannabe Native. The racism, even against their own, is unbelievable.
Men, beating their women are a normal occurrence here, as are beatings and stabbings amongst family. A majority of these things can be directly linked to alcohol--yet there's an liquor store in downtown Martin and gas stations that sell liquor. There is Whiteclay, Nebraska selling liquor just off reservation boundaries. Natives, knowing full well the alcoholism rate, are selling alcohol to their own. I have seen people call the tribal police on someone for liquor violation, just to sneak alcohol into their own house.
There are dirty tribal police that have raped women that they were supposed to be taking to the tribal jail, or offer to not take them to jail for sexual favors. These things constitute every day life on the reservation, and although these things happen in other places, I believe that the plight of my people should take precedence over the third world countries the government is claiming to help.