For the past 12 months I have been spending time on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota. “The Rez” as those who live there call it, is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The tribe has a rich history as they are the descendants of Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Crazy Horse, Black Elk and other famous Sioux leaders. The Oglala Sioux were leaders in Battle at Little Big Horn in 1876 and the famous massacre site at Wounded Knee is located on their reservation. They belong to the Lakota band of Sioux Indians who, as late as the 1870’s controlled a vast territory stretching from the Missouri River to the Big Horn Mountains. Their land was guaranteed to be theirs by the U.S. Government through the Treaty of 1868 forever (“as long as the grass shall grow and the water shall flow”) but just a few years later gold was “discovered” in the Black Hills and everything changed.
The Lakota people referred to gold as the “yellow metal that makes the white men crazy”. Prospectors and settlers rushed into the Black Hills and the government told the Lakota people that the treaty could no longer stand. Instead, reservations were created in the least desirable places as far out of the way as possible. For the next 100 years government policy was to “remake” the Indians as white people. At Pine Ridge the Oglala Sioux were made to dress as white men and made to farm (even though much of the land is unsuitable for farming). It was illegal for them to gather or speak their language. Those “caught” practicing traditional religious ceremonies were arrested or sent to insane asylums. The children were taken (literally) and sent off to Indian boarding schools in the east to be remade. “First to worst,” is a phrase they still use at Pine Ridge to describe their journey.
Today Pine Ridge is statistically the poorest place in America. Unemployment is approximately 90% and the median income is about $4,000. The lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere is Haiti. The second lowest is Pine Ridge where males today, on average, live to be 48. Housing is a major problem. The housing shortages is estimated to be 4,000 homes and many of the homes that do exist are over crowded and sub-standard. Many people live without electricity or running water. This is right in the middle of our own country.
This summer Hancock Lumber donated materials for a new home to be built at Pine Ridge. Those involved there refer to it as the “Hancock home” and tell me it was the only home built at Pine Ridge (2.7 million acres) this year. Pine Ridge is very geographically isolated. It is a 2 hour drive to Rapid City and 7 hours to Denver. People rarely visit here. Those who live here feel forgotten. The U.S. government promised to care and provide for the Lakota people in exchange for taking their land and forcing them onto reservations. These promises have not been kept. Sitting Bull once said, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one. They promised to take our land and they took it.”
I have since been to Pine Ridge four times. I have many friends there now. The people there are smart, resourceful and fun to be with. It is an amazing testimony to their fortitude that their culture survives. I am writing a book about the history of the Lakota people and modern day life at Pine Ridge. I have also started a non-profit organization called “The 7th Power” whose mission is to encourage a return to independence for the people of Pine Ridge through support of housing, education, traditional food sources and increased awareness of their story. Among other initiatives we plan to support more housing activity in 2014. It costs approximately $140,000 to build a home at Pine Ridge. With 4,000 additional homes needed that brings the total cost of the housing need to $560,000,000. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the east coast the federal government made $900,000,000 available to repair housing and infrastructure. The housing shortage at Pine Ridge is over 100 years old and remains unaddressed.
“The 7th Power” in Lakota spirituality stands for the power of a single individual to make a difference. If you would like to join the effort or make a contribution you can email me at [email protected] or by mail at “The 7th Power – attn: Kevin Hancock – P.O. Box 299 – Casco, Maine – 04015.
Thank you and as they say at Pine Ridge, DOSKA AKE (see you later)!