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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

“BUT IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE . . .”

I’ve been working with a couple of very fine groups on the social network, LinkedIn, that are concerned with getting set up to get aid, education, technology and so on to that poor, battered, beleaguered country. This is what we do, and what we excel at, isn’t it? We go places, we help people, we give help, foster hope, and eventually, hopefully, we manage to get the folks that we’re helping to learn enough to help themselves. This is a very worthy cause, and I’m not exaggerating its importance, nor am I downplaying either its’ urgency or its necessity.

Haiti’s population is one of the poorest in the world, with nothing. We need to help them, don’t we? So, we are – and that brings me to the object of this particular column.

Having said that about Haiti, it’s pretty interesting, isn’t it, that we’re all so concerned with Haiti that we’ve completely lost sight of the grinding poverty, hopelessness and despair that’s endemic within some communities in our own country? Wouldn’t you, John and Jane Q. Public, want to help another population that is in much worse shape that Haiti? A community with an over 80% - that’s OVER EIGHTY PERCENT – jobless rate? Where alcoholism is rampant, the infant mortality rate is higher than in the very worst of the urban ghettos?

So, we come to the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Let me tell you what’s been happening there, the last two weeks. While the rest of the country is squalling about Snowmageddon and the concomitant inconveniences, these folks have been really living in the middle of it. Tribal officials prepared Wednesday to go door to door to assess needs on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, where some residents were still without electricity and running water nearly two weeks after an ice storm. Emergency shelters were still open, but seeing fewer people and serving more as distribution centers for food or bottled water. Utility crews continued working through snow and below-freezing temperatures to rebuild above-ground power lines. Federal officials were traveling across the reservation in north central South Dakota and elsewhere to assess damage for possible federal assistance.

And Joe Brings Plenty, in his first term as elected chairman of the impoverished, 8,000-member Lakota Sioux Nation, asked why it took an emergency to get the attention of a government he and many other Indians say has broken its treaty obligations to care for Indians who gave up their land to make way for white settlers. One out of every two people lives in poverty in Ziebach County, home to a reservation larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The jobless rate among tribal members, according to a 2003 Department of Interior report, was 88 percent. Here, as on many of the state’s other nine Sioux Indian reservations, jobs are few and life is short. Alcoholism, suicide, crime and a sense of abandonment plague the tribe.

Gee, a “sense of abandonment”? JUST a “sense”?

“There are a lot of issues in tribal lands that go unheard of because there’s not an interest from the state, there’s not an interest from the federal government until something like this happens where people pay attention to such a disaster,” Brings Plenty said. “Then they have to come in and sit down and visit with us.”

"We can’t put up homes. We can’t put up additional businesses,” Brings Plenty added. “Our water system needs to be upgraded and this has been a concern for my tribal government for almost two decades.” The tribe is the only one of the state’s Sioux tribes that does not offer casino gambling, which can be a major employer on reservations. Job creation is difficult in areas like Cheyenne River that are located far from urban centers and offer little in recreation or amenities that attract families, said Clarence Skye, executive director of United Sioux Tribes, a nonprofit organization working on behalf of Sioux tribes in the Dakotas and Nebraska.

The Chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has declared a state of emergency in central South Dakota, an Indian reservation approximately the size of Connecticut with nearly 15,000 Tribal members. The Tribe is still awaiting a Presidential disaster declaration. Days of ice storms and strong winds have downed over 3,000 utility poles across the reservation. Thousands of already impoverished tribal residents have been without electricity or heat for five days, with wind chill factors well below zero. Experts estimate it may be as long as a month before all areas have electricity restored.

However, much more assistance is still needed. No one facility can host a shelter large enough for all the Tribal residents; additional generators are needed to set up additional shelters. The Tribe's one and only grocery store has lost all its perishables, additional food is needed. And dialysis patients have had to be evacuated to Rapid City. As electricity is restored and immediate safety and survival needs are met, the Chairman worries perhaps the most about the long term effects of having lost their water system in this crisis. The water intake and distribution system has already been at capacity for decades. In addition to the severe health and safety issues the Tribe now faces, it remains one of the biggest impediments to economic development on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. "For years we have had a complete ban on any new housing or business building because we don't have the water infrastructure to support it. This crisis has exacerbated an already impossible situation. The reservations were never set aside for economic development, they were set aside to put Indians away,” Tribal Chairman Brings Plenty said.

Gosh, folks, last time I checked, installations like this – AND the rest of the reservations as well, come to think of it – were called by their proper name: concentration camps. It’s our shame that none of us that don’t live in a place like that find it very easy to ignore what makes us uncomfortable. After all, there’s really nothing that’s photogenic in a bunch of starving, freezing American citizens, is there?

“It CAN’T happen here – it’s not possible!” It’s already happened here, gangers – and what are we collectively doing about it?

NOTHING. And that is our shame. As it damned well should be.

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