When the president came to town, Geraldine Blue Bird was lucky enough to be living in a four-room shack with 28 other people.
Had she been better off, President Bill Clinton's 1999 summer "poverty tour" to the Oglala Lakota Sioux reservation might have overlooked her house among all the other cabins and trailers doing hard time in her neighborhood. But even in the poorest patch of the poorest place in the country, the Blue Bird residence stood out.
Children spilled out the doors, plywood covered the windows, and an outhouse stood near the wreck of a pop-up camper — used as an extra bedroom — in the back yard. When Clinton touched down here to point out that parts of the United States were as in need of help as developing countries, he called on Blue Bird. Soon after, she received a call from Ronald I. Dozoretz, a Washington psychiatrist and husband of a major Democratic Party fundraiser. He was buying her a four-bedroom double-wide mobile home — what color did she want?
Now, Blue Bird's double-wide, baby blue with black shutters, is the biggest house on her block. It only looks small, since she still takes in about two dozen children and young people, along with her son, daughter and four grandchildren. Pick a day and kids are sprawling and roller-skating across the living room, running around the bald front yard and climbing on the pine ramp out front that Blue Bird, who is 48 and has congestive heart failure, needs for her wheelchair. Still, she and everyone else here will tell you that her house was the best thing to come out of the first presidential visit to a reservation in more than 60 years.
Besieged by problems
Many people say it was the only good thing. Five years after that visit, all the hopes Clinton stirred have amounted to very little. The house across the street from Blue Bird's still has no windows and no running water. Same goes for the one next to it, and the one next to that one. Beyond this neighborhood of brittle hovels one bad storm away from becoming firewood, the Pine Ridge Reservation is besieged by problems decades in the making and beyond its ability to fix.
More Lakotas who had left are returning to the Plains, preferring to live among their own people rather than in relative comfort on the outside. But failings of the federal government — from mismanaging Indian money held in trust to shortchanging programs it is legally bound to fund — continually undermine efforts here at self-help.
Things are not much better on some other reservations. The Navajos in the Southwest, the Crow tribe in Montana and the Comanches in Oklahoma are also very poor, while some other tribes — even without casinos — have seen their living standards rise in recent decades. But Native American poverty rarely makes the national political agenda, except during campaign season.
This year is no exception. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) visited Gallup, N.M., promising Navajos and Hopis that as president he would honor treaties and Native American sovereignty. Earlier, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson (R) visited the Navajo reservation and promised to do a better job of combating diabetes and other diseases ravaging the tribe.
But skepticism of campaign pledges runs deep in Indian country, given the government's history of broken promises. The federal government has acknowledged that it has grossly mishandled money it began collecting in the late 1880s, when it leased reservation land to oil, mining and timber interests and held the proceeds in trust for Indians. The government owes Native Americans billions, but a class-action lawsuit filed eight years ago on behalf of nearly 500,000 Indians is still unresolved.
Meanwhile, on Pine Ridge, three and four families live in single-family houses, eight to nine out of 10 people are out of work, and more than half the population, helpless against disconnect notices, has no phone in any given month.
The Lakota can revel in a few hopeful signs. Tribal culture is undergoing a renaissance, after decades during which the federal government put Indian children into English-language-only boarding schools and banned sun dances. The Oglala Sioux Tribal College graduated 179 students this spring, its largest class since it was accredited in 1983. And the buffalo, nearly killed off during the Gold Rush and the westward expansion, are returning. In June, a seed herd of 15 yearlings was brought to the reservation in the hope that they will become multitudes.
But barely a week passes here without a fresh roadside cross going up for yet another car accident victim, or a cloud of black smoke rising from yet another trailer fire.
One afternoon, as the remains of two trailers simmered on the horizon — propane fires, most likely — Blue Bird was sitting in her kitchen, minding eight children, from 4 months to 12 years old, as they watched a "Scooby Doo" cartoon. The screen door kept banging open and shut, with kids going in and out, letting the flies inside. Fingerprints were all over the walls, footprints all over the floor. "Auntie Geraldine" was grateful the house was still in one piece.
"A lot of people get donated trailers," she said, "but the trailers are already falling apart when they get them." Blue Bird gets by on $1,480 a month in Social Security disability benefits and boxes of food the Agriculture Department hands out in poor rural communities. Her wards — children of relatives or neighbors whom she takes care of for weeks, months or years at a time — keep her creative with money, she said. "I can stretch one can of soup to four," she said.
Still, she is always worried.
She was due to drive to Rapid City, 118 miles away, the next day to have a tumor removed from her back, and she was feeling her mortality. Even after she had gastric bypass surgery and lost nearly 200 pounds in three years, her body, burdened with diabetes and hypertension as well as heart problems, was always betraying her. If she were to die the next day, she wondered, what would become of all these children?
"We all try to help one another here — that's our way," she said. "But life is so hard."
People in Pine Ridge pour their energies into trying to make things better. The reservation needs help with everything: infrastructure, housing, health care, education, economic development. Yet federal money that is supposed to go to the Indians, under treaties or laws, keeps getting cut.
The most glaring example, the Indian Health Service, was created by treaties drawn more than a century ago that promised quality health care (along with quality education and decent housing) for every Native American in exchange for the federal government's taking vast swaths of Indian land.
But the health service, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, is funded at less than $2,000 per Indian each year, half of what federal prisoners receive. This year, Congress rejected legislation to increase its budget. The administration redirected Indian Health Service funding to homeland security and the Iraq war.
In Pine Ridge, people are not joking when they say someone practically has to be dying to receive emergency room care; Indian Health Service hospitals operate under a "life or limb" policy. For lesser ailments, people write off a day of their lives in a clinic waiting room. Often, they just give up and go home.
Deferred health problems take their toll. Life expectancy on the reservation is 47 to 56 years, the nation's lowest. Infant mortality is twice the rate of the rest of the country. Diabetes afflicts about half the population, and people here talk about their blood sugar levels the way other Americans mention their cholesterol counts.
Alcoholism is rampant — some figures place it at 80 percent of the population — yet on a reservation about the size of Connecticut, there is no alcohol treatment center. The roadside crosses are too often the result of alcohol-fueled car accidents, which are nearly three times as common here as in the general population.
The Pine Ridge Economic Empowerment Zone, which was the best hope for an economic shot in the arm after Clinton's visit, came with a promised grant of $2 million a year for 10 years as seed money for businesses. But this year, when the zone began to see long-term plans get off the ground, the Bush administration cut its grant to $1.5 million. It allocated no money for the zone in its proposed budget for next year.
Some people blame politics for the funding slights. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Tim Johnson (D), his freshman colleague, have proposed bills to increase funding for Indian programs, only to see them defeated in the Republican-controlled Congress. In 2002, Johnson beat Republican John Thune by 524 votes based on late returns from Pine Ridge. Now Daschle, facing Thune in a nail-biter race, is counting on the Democratic voting bloc on South Dakota's nine reservations to win.
Indian programs have been cut or underfunded over many administrations, Democratic and Republican. Last year, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a report criticizing the federal government for underspending on Native American programs over generations. Between 1975 and 2000, the study found, funding for Indian programs declined when adjusted for inflation.
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, a source of complaints ever since federal law established the tribal council system to help make tribes self-determining, is never stable, since the whole 16-member governing body faces election every two years. It is also on the verge of bankruptcy.
Yet the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation, the tribe that defeated Gen. George A. Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 only to suffer the seizure of its gold-rich Black Hills and a massacre by the Army at Wounded Knee in 1890, is growing. Its population — 14,000 to 20,000 — is boosted by a baby boom and by adults who are returning, joining those who never left in their ongoing struggles.
On the borderline
There is not much to do in Pine Ridge beyond the hard business of surviving. The reservation has no movie theater, no department store, no public library and no public transportation. The closest thing to excitement is Big Bat's, the combination gas station, convenience store and deli at "the four-way" — the four-way intersection — in the village of Pine Ridge, which is also home to the tribal government offices, courts and hospital.
When Webster Poor Bear returned six years ago after decades away, he was not looking for a multiplex. After years of rambling, shaking off the demons of the Vietnam War and raising four children and stepchildren, he wanted peace. He needed the Lakotas' spiritual ways — sun dances, sweat lodges, the wisdom of medicine men. He gladly moved back to his family's land in Wanblee, one of the most remote towns on the reservation.
But White Clay, Neb., a border town not two miles from the village of Pine Ridge, turned Poor Bear, now 53, into an activist, as he had been in his youth.
Of all the problems facing the reservation, White Clay (population 22) is the one people mention first. White Clay consists of two blocks of old, scarred one-story buildings on dirt sidewalks. Half are boarded up. Of the few that are open, three are package stores that sell beer and malt liquor through slit-like windows. Since alcohol is banned on the reservation, White Clay reaps a fortune from the Lakotas' drinking. The package stores, tribal leaders and Nebraska liquor authorities say, sell about 11,000 cans of beer a day to Indians.
Poor Bear had relatives who loitered in White Clay, including a brother, Wilson Black Elk Jr., and a cousin, Ronald Hard Heart. On June 8, 1999, one month before Clinton's visit, the two men were found beaten and mutilated in a gulch on reservation land 100 yards north of White Clay.
Many marches, meetings and lobbying efforts later, the killings remain unsolved; Mark Vukelich, the FBI agent in charge of South Dakota, said his office is still "very actively investigating all leads." Day and night, at least a few dozen Lakotas are downing 40-ounce Budweisers in White Clay's alleys until they pass out.
"It's difficult to be here," Poor Bear said on a recent visit. It had been more than 30 years since he took a bullet in his knuckle during the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee between the American Indian Movement and the FBI. Drinking men and women were surrounding him, greeting him with awe and surprise. He knew some from the old AIM days. He returned their courtesies.
Even people who want White Clay package stores shut down, such as Poor Bear, concede that the problems traced to its alcohol sales will only move elsewhere until alcoholism is addressed. But still he was angry.
Nebraska officials say they cannot close lawfully operating businesses, he said, but do not mention that it is illegal to allow people to drink outside the stores. He pointed to four men drinking beer in front of one store. "That's illegal," he said. "If the stores were fined as they should be, they'd eventually lose their licenses."
Recent months have brought a little good news. There were four package stores in White Clay until April, when the owner of one lost his liquor license for selling used cars without a license, a felony. And in June, the Nebraska Democratic Party, at its state convention, voted to support a resolution banning alcohol sales in White Clay.
"I wouldn't hold my breath," Poor Bear said, "but we just might make some progress here."
The last giveaway
In Pine Ridge, people like to say progress is best measured in inches.
Troy and Pat Perkins are not sure how to measure their efforts. When they moved to the reservation four years ago, Troy Perkins, a member of one of the largest extended families on the reservation, was bringing his wife and two daughters (now 8 and 12) to live there for the first time. His mother had retired as a mail carrier and wanted to travel, but she was worried that vandals or squatters would overrun her house. The Perkinses, eager for their girls to learn more about their father's culture, agreed to leave Rapid City, S.D., and house-sit.
The needs on the reservation hit them hard, especially among the elders. One, Louis Braveheart, in his eighties, was living in a peeling tin can of a trailer with no heat or electricity. Sometimes they would bump into him on the side of the road as he walked more than 15 miles each way for groceries.
Pat Perkins, with help, began an adopt-an-elder program. Braveheart's neighbors built him a cabin, and the Perkinses found him a wood stove and a sponsor to pay his utilities.
Through the Internet, the adopt-an-elder program found 400 sponsors from all over the country, and beyond. The Perkinses also began holding giveaways, a Lakota tradition in which families give their possessions to neighbors, usually in honor of a loved one who has died. But the Perkinses held giveaways whenever they had enough donations to make them worthwhile.
They averaged one every three weeks. The Pine Ridge radio station, KILI, would announce the giveaways, and people would flock to the Perkins house in Wounded Knee. Eventually, Helping Hands of Wounded Knee became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a full-time preoccupation.
But the Perkinses recently called it quits.
"It's just become too hard to help people," Pat Perkins said, sitting in her back yard during what she called the last giveaway. Perkins, 44, said she had pins in her back from a fall 20 years ago, while she was in the Army, and fibromyalgia. She often felt too sick to handle Helping Hands. Requests for help always exceeded donations. She was also tired of deflecting gossip.
Rumor had it that the Perkinses were keeping the goods they collected. With Troy Perkins working full time as a security guard in the old Pine Ridge hospital, a job hard to come by, and Pat collecting a disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs, they worked the giveaway programs as volunteers. But people doubted it.
Later, as she drove to a friend's house, Perkins acknowledged that she thought the reservation's problems are too deep to solve in less than a generation, with less than major help. She and some friends on the rez want to start a public library, but obtaining land is complicated because of the bureaucracy involved in leasing land held in trust.
The Perkinses wonder whether they will stick it out in Pine Ridge as their daughters approach high school, when two out of three Pine Ridge students drop out.
"In my humble opinion," she said, slowing her car to check if her black Lab mix was among a pack of dogs foraging along the road, "the tribe should hire professional consultants who come up with a Marshall Plan for fixing every aspect of life here."