Natives in America: The Struggle of the Lakota Sioux

Lakota Sioux Flag

I’ve recently watched an interview with Twilight: New Moon Native American actor Chaske Spencer, in which he talks about the hardships the Lakota Sioux people have been facing in the US, and his own experience living in reservations.

Before watching that interview, in which he talks frankly about delinquency, drugs, alcohol and prejudice being a constant in the lives of the Native Americans, I had no idea how bad their life conditions were. I’ve done a little research on the main points he raises in the interview, and I’d like to share them with you.

Oppression & Poverty

According to the interactive world map on the Indigenous Peoples Issues & Resources site (image above), there are Indigenous Peoples all over North America, who often live below poverty level, with serious social, health, educational and developmental problems.

What is the origin of such problems? Chaske Spencer draws attention to an important point, when he says that “When you take a conquered people, and you take their religion right away, and tell them to be ashamed of themselves, then it starts a pattern... And the cycle of that, I believe is... you have a generation of people that are very ashamed of their culture.. and you have a lot of... self-esteem issues, and... that's when alcohol takes place, drug addiction and abuse…”

Recently it was reported that a student at a South Dakota school won’t be allowed to dress in his Lakota traditional dress for graduation because: "We are a district school, an open-enrollment school. We're not a Native American school," [Superintendent Lawrence Jaske] said. "You have to respect the people from this area. They pay the taxes. We don't get money from Pine Ridge. So the tradition here is cap and gown. That's in the handbook. That's what we'll follow." And that when 95% of the school population is made of Native Americans.

And what kind of “scandalous” clothes that would so disrespect non-Native American tax payers are those? The clothes consist of: “ribbon shirt with beaded cuffs and armbands, his beaded moccasins and his medallion, his eagle fan, his feather and his beaded medicine bag.”

So, in order to keep a school tradition of caps and gowns, a student has to set aside his wish of celebrating his achievement as a member of his people, and at the same time honor them. O-K... Luckily others don’t agree with that, and he still may wear his traditional clothes at the graduation, as he should.

Then there’s the poverty issue, which is maybe even worse than the lack of respect for their culture. In the interview, Chaske Spencer mentions visiting the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, both of the Lakota Sioux people.

Most of the Pine Ridge reservation area is located within two counties listed as some of the poorest regions of the US, the Shannon (2nd poorest) and the Jackson (23rd poorest) in South Dakota. As for the Rosebud reservation, it is located in the Todd County, which is the 5th poorest in the US. [1]

This is what Pine Ridge and Rosebud look like:

On Google Maps there’s no date for when those pictures were taken, and they only show the view from the highways. In the videos at the bottom of the post, there are detailed images of the people’s awful housing conditions.

Chaske Spencer commented on the government help the Lakota Sioux, and the Native peoples in general, have been receiving, and the long-term ineffective results it has: "...It's funny that we depend on the government, but the government set it up [the water system at the Sioux reservation], so we have to depend on them... it's a vicious cycle, it's almost like a drug, you know. The drug dealer gives you something, gives you a taste and you want more and more, and you try to get off but you can't."

On January, 2010, the Cheyenne River region faced one of the worst winters ever, in which over 3,000 power lines were damaged due to ice storms.

And as the 10,000 inhabitants depend on the electricity transmitted across hundreds of empty miles to run pumps, ignition modules and heaters, they were left without it, and are still living in precarious conditions.

The local water system is totally outdated and would require US$ 65 million to be restored, which is something very difficult to raise from the federal government. [2] [3]

Another comment from Chaske Spencer’s interview shocked me, but after some googling, I’ve found out it is even worse than that. He says: "Someone gave me a text telling me about how the suicide rate for Native teens on the Pine Ridge reservation is up to 85%. I couldn't believe that..."

Actually the teenage suicide rate on Pine Ridge is 150% higher than the US national average. The unemployment rate is 85%, and 97% of the population lives under poverty level. Some other stunning numbers are:

  • “The infant mortality rate is the highest on that continent and is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.
  • More than half the Reservation's adults battle addiction and disease. Alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and malnutrition are pervasive.
  • The rate of diabetes on the Reservation is reported to be 800% higher than the U.S. national average. Recent reports indicate that almost 50% of the adults on the Reservation over the age of 40 have diabetes.
  • As a result of the high rate of diabetes on the Reservation, diabetic-related blindness, amputations, and kidney failure are common.
  • The tuberculosis rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation is approximately 800% higher than the U.S. national average.
  • A Federal Commodity Food Program is active but supplies mostly inappropriate foods (high in carbohydrate and/or sugar) for the largely diabetic population of the Reservation.” (check this site for detailed information on the Lakota Sioux life conditions)

Chaske Spencer gives more details about his personal experience growing up in reservations:

"I would go to parties when I was 13, 12, and there were stabbings, there were shootings, and I thought that was the normal thing... until I went to a different school, and went to a party there and I found out that that's not how life is."

Melanie McBee, an Oglala Lakota who lives in Pine Ridge, gives a poignant account:

Alcoholism, addiction, violence, and suicide predominate in this once tranquil place… These people...MY PEOPLE were committing a slow suicide by the huge amounts of alcohol they were consuming… 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. [4]

Her account complements the information of the NY Times article, published in December, 2009, describing the growth of gangs in Pine Ridge, which mirrors those of big cities in all its worse aspects. [5]

Perhaps the saddest thing about those lost boys mimicking the ‘gangstas’ who are their idols, is the utter loss of identity it shows. The Native Americans have a rich culture, with powerful and respectful personalities, from who they should draw strength, if only they hadn’t been brought so low. The same goes for the African Americans and Latin Americans they copy.

Then again, lack of identity is an epidemic nowadays. Who do all of us, the young, have to look upon? Where do we draw our strength from? Who are our idols and what are they doing?

Those we have to mirror on are as lost as we are, even those who are older than us. We listen to their songs, which talk about despair, hardships and looking endlessly for a way out, and that’s the sort of comfort we have. There has to be more than this for all of us.

Taking action to help the Lakota Sioux

In the last few months since the January blizzards incident, the Cheyenne River region were given some help by the government and charities to repair the damage caused by the weather, and tackle some of their most serious social problems.

The One Spirit non-profit has been one of them, and it sponsors several local programs, from food distribution to fuel assistance and bed donations in the region. They are constantly in need of support, so visit their site to know more about their work and for ways to help. [6]

Chaske Spencer’s project takes on a more political approach, drawing awareness to the urgent need to give a voice to Native Americans.

According to the mission statement on the site, its purpose is to “create awareness of the current issues and conditions; create alternatives that promote dignity, justice, unity, and accountability and take action that supports the creation of these alternatives.”

Chaske talked about his reasons for starting the project: "The one thing that really made me want to do this with the Global Shift/Shift Power to the People, was that I had so many experiences with...my own people, Natives... they're the underdogs, people who don't have a voice... Giving a voice to someone who needs help...

I've been in a place where I needed help, and luckily someone else was there to help me... and being blessed with Twilight, you can be all about limo[usine] rides and meeting famous people, but that doesn't do anything for me... it's not what the bigger picture is, what can you do with the medium, what can you do to help people… And I do it for reasons… it feels good to give back, but also I'm on a service of some sort, not just this useless actor sitting around..."

To take part in his project, you can use this form to petition the government for improvements on the Lakota Sioux living conditions. For non-US citizens, the site also has the option of sending a digital letter to the White House.

Finally, Chaske describes his own way of helping, which is a great advice to anyone who wants to start doing something to improve his city and his country: "How I try to help change and make a difference is just talk to people, see if you can make synergies and get help, and take one step at a time… You can start a circular ripple effect."

Below are the videos of Chaske Spencer’s interview, and others with more information on how the Lakota Sioux have been living.

If there’s anything in your district, city and country that you think should be improved, look for ways to draw attention to it. Don’t allow it to go on, expecting others to take action for you.

Even the work of a small group of people in a short period of time can effect some change, but the joint effort of many over a long period of time, doing whatever they can, little by little, will certainly change the face of the world, just as it has already been done.

MIPtalk.com interviews Chaske Spencer from Brad Rowe on Vimeo.

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