Conditions on the reservation are tough. More than 80% unemployment. A desperate shortage of housing – on average, more than 15 people live in each home and others get by in cars and trailers. More than one-third of homes lacking running water or electricity. An infant mortality rate at three times the US national average. And a dependency on alcohol and a diet so poor that half the population over the age of 40 is diabetic.
The Oglala Sioux's per capita income is around $7,000 (£4,400) a year, less than one-sixth of the national average and on a par with Bulgaria. The residents of Wounded Knee, scene of the notorious 1890 massacre of Sioux women and children and of the 1973 standoff with the FBI, are typically living on less than half of that. Young people have almost no hope of work unless they sign up to fight in Afghanistan. The few with jobs are almost all employed by the tribal authorities or the federal government. It is not uncommon to hear people quietly speak of the guilt they feel for having a job. Those who don't survive on pitifully small welfare cheques. It all adds up to a life expectancy on Pine Ridge of about only 50 years [Chris McGreal, "Obama's Indian Problem," The Guardian, 2010.01.11].
These conditions likely have something to do with the fact that over 100 people tried to commit suicide on Pine Ridge last year. That's a community of 45,000. Native Americans make up 8% of South Dakota's population. They make up 15% of our suicide deaths.
If you read about South Dakota in the British press, you'd think Native American issues would be a top priority in our political discourse, right?
Wrong. As of this morning, here's what our declared candidates for statewide office say about Native American issues on their campaign websites*:
- Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D—the incumbent): quite a bit! Law enforcement, sovereignty, health care, education, trust fund, veterans... someone's paying attention.
- Blake Curd (R): nothing.
- Chris Nelson (R): nothing.
- B.T. Manning (I): nothing (but he won't tell us his position on any issue)
- Scott Munsterman (R): discusses Native Americans in his PDF book (see pp. 4–6; he speaks of picking up where Governor Mickelson, another Brookings fellow, left off; see also education, pp. 50, 63–65; health care, p. 79). See also his PDF policy briefs under two statewide goals on strengthening our social fabric and improving health care;
- Dennis Daugaard: nothing.
- David Knudson: nothing (well, he did mention casinos in a blog post last February)
- Ken Knuppe: nothing.
- Gordon Howie: nothing... but he does sing about the "King of the Cowboys"
- Scott Heidepriem: nothing.
- Ron Volesky, enrolled member of the Standing Rock Tribe: no website. (Come on, Ron: you own this issue!)
*Yes, this is just a quick online evaluation, not a thorough review of every public statement made by the candidates—I'll do that when I get a blogging raise. ;-)