MEDWAY, Massachusetts — Native Americans are among the poorest citizens in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the Pine Ridge Reservation and Rosebud Native American Reservation are located in the two poorest counties in the United States. However, these two reservations are home to some of the most resilient people in the nation. Native Americans remain a foundational cornerstone in American history as well as present-day America.
Poverty Among Native Americans
When it comes to extreme poverty on Native American reservations, the American government plays a heavy role. The Indian Removal Act forced Native Americans west in 1830. It divided tribes onto reservations out West, which contained very poor land and mandated rationed resources from the government. As a result, many Native Americans plunged into poverty almost instantly.
Today, 50% of residents on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota live below the poverty line of $22,314 needed to support a family of four. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, also in South Dakota, the situation is even direr as “97% of the population lives far below the U.S. federal poverty line.” The median income on the Pine Ridge Reservation averages between $2,600 and $3,500 annually. Why are Native Americans living in such extreme poverty?
Reservations all throughout the U.S. are consistently labeled as impoverished and characterized by a number of contributing socioeconomic issues. However, the Pine Ridge Reservation and Rosebud Native American Reservation are under the direst circumstances. For example, there are no major industries on the Pine Ridge Reservation to provide reliable jobs. In fact, the unemployment rate on the reservation is at 90%. Education is another major issue as Pine Ridge Reservation has a school dropout rate of 70%. Furthermore, “the life expectancy is just 48 years old for men and 52 for women.” This is partly due to violence, suicide and alcohol-related accidents.
Government Policies Perpetuating Poverty Among Native Americans
There are many government policies that have perpetuated poverty on Native American reservations. These policies were still in place as of 2016.
- Land Ownership: Native Americans do not own their land. Instead, the government does. On top of the inability to claim land on the reservations, Native Americans do not usually even own their homes. Due to this, they cannot mortgage their wealth for bank loans like the majority of Americans. This makes it almost impossible for many to start their own businesses. Even among the tribes that have natural resources, many still remain trapped in poverty because the resources amount to “dead capital.” The government really owns the money garnered in these tribes, not the tribe.
- Economic Development: The government controls almost all parts of economic development on reservations. Every development project on reservations has to receive government approval. This is a process that’s extremely slow and complicated, oftentimes taking multiple years. Companies have to go through a minimum of “four federal agencies and 49 steps to acquire a permit for energy development.”
- Legal Restrictions: Reservations have complex legal restrictions that limit economic growth. “Fractionated land ownership” through federal inheritance laws “required many Indian lands to be passed in equal shares to multiple heirs. After several generations, these lands have become so fractionated that there are often hundreds of owners per parcel. Managing these fractionated lands is nearly impossible, and much of the land remains idle.”
- Native American Assets: The U.S. government repeatedly compromised the value of Native American assets. In the past, Native Americans had no control over their resources. Since the Bureau of Indian Affairs set mandates, it undervalued Native American resources on numerous occasions. A federal commission looking into the deals in 1977 found that these assessments were some of the poorest agreements ever made in American history.
One Spirit is a nonprofit organization based in South Dakota. It provides firewood and food to hundreds of people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In order to respond to health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and malnutrition, One Spirit developed a food program to mitigate these health issues while remaining true to the Lakota’s sense of community. The organization is mainly run by American Indians of numerous tribes that work together to help the Oglala Lakota.
Before the development of One Spirit’s firewood program, many families worried about surviving the winter. Residents would burn anything in the past to stay warm, including clothing and shoes. One Spirit’s food program is unique in that “it mainly provides fresh produce and locally raised meat.” This aligns with the nonprofit’s focus to reduce health issues on the reservation.
The food program additionally hopes to teach the Lakota about their culture’s traditional diet through the “Bring Back the Buffalo” campaign. “The campaign aims to increase the number of buffalo on” Pine Ridge Reservation, provide meat-processing plant jobs and food for families in need.
Global Volunteers, an international nonprofit organization, sends volunteers annually to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota during the summer. The volunteer teams work with residents to “chop and store firewood for distribution during the frigid winter months, help repair homes and conduct “sports and art camps” for children.” The volunteers make a major impact by assisting the reservation’s residents by helping greatly reduce repair and resource costs while reinforcing to the residents how much they matter.
Global Volunteers also focuses on food insecurity on the Rosebud Reservation. Most of the food comes in from outside of the reservation, and the majority of school-age children only get one healthy meal a day. Upon first arriving, volunteers hand out food to the residents to help combat Rosebud Reservation being a “food desert.” Through its work, Global Volunteers is making major strides toward improving the quality of life on the reservation.
The American Rescue Plan Act
The American Rescue Plan Act provided more than $31 billion in federal funding for Native communities in March of 2021. It marked the largest one-time investment in Native American programs in the history of the nation. The new funding gave American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians new avenues to combat COVID’s impact on their communities.
Reducing poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation and Rosebud Native American Reservation is not a small endeavor. However, the success of poverty alleviation programs on these reservations are examples of the hope and future success that is possible on all reservations throughout the nation.
– Curtis McGonigle