Silent challenges of Indian reservations

When I first drove through Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota ten years I ago, I never even realized I was passing through an Indian reservation. A few weeks ago when I returned to stay and volunteer on the reservation, I still knew hardly anything about Indian reservations. But when I left after ten days of volunteering with a local Lakota family, I felt like I was leaving a different country. During my stay I helped my hosts with gardening work and at the same time I learned a lot about the challenges faced by Native Americans – especially those living on Indian reservations – and the experience was an eye-opener.

Problems faced by Native Americans include extreme poverty, unemployment, crime and alcoholism. These problems are getting very little attention from the media or the government. Reservations are filled with people living on social security and food handouts, and these people are stuck in a cycle of poverty and dependency with little opportunities or motivation to change their lifestyles. Government programs are doing very little to change the situation, and long term solutions have to come from the communities themselves. This is what my hosts at Standing Rock are trying to do by bringing back traditional, sustainable lifestyles.

Gardening I did during a HelpX work exchange at Standing Rock Indian Reservation
During my volunteer work exchange at Standing Rock Indian Reservation I helped my hosts with gardening using permaculture techniques such as cardboard that reduces weeds. At the same time I learned a lot about life on Indian reservations.

Cycle of poverty and dependency

Standing Rock reservation is the 6th largest Indian reservation in the United States and it is one of the poorest places in the whole country. Around one-fourth of Native Americans in the US live below the poverty line, but the figure is much higher on reservations. Alcoholism and drug use are very common, and according to my hosts, as much as 90% of Standing Rock’s residents suffer from alcoholism.

According to my hosts, the unemployment rate at Standing Rock reservation is as much as 85-90%. Unemployment is so high because people don’t want to bring businesses and investments to reservations. This is partly due to the isolated location of many reservations, and partly due to racism. The lack of jobs forces people to leave reservations to find work. The ones who are left behind lack the motivation to find work, and this mentality is easily passed on to their children.

Poverty and unemployment are major issues on Indian Reservations.
Poverty and unemployment are major issues on Indian reservations.

Another issue is a shortage of housing on reservations. Low-income housing is provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but there are not enough houses for everyone. Waiting lists are long and those with a criminal record are not entitled to low-income housing. As a result, people live in overcrowded houses with many large families under one roof. According to my hosts, one three-bedroom house can be the home of four or five families – although only one family lives there officially.

Low-income housing on Standing Rock Indian Reservation
This low-income housing estate is located right next to the community garden and orchard that my hosts are running.

Low quality of life on reservations

Life expectancy is considerably lower for Native Americans than for the average American. According to my hosts, life expectancy at Standing Rock is as low as 45 years for men and 47 for women. Alcoholism and drug use are major contributors to the low life expectancy. Lack of awareness and a switch from traditional to Western diets have also increased the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

Alcoholism and drug use also increase crime and violence, which in turn have lead to an increased police presence at Standing Rock. Racism leads to outsider violence but there is also violence between Native Americans – not least domestic violence which is just better hidden. According to my hosts the Lakota people living on Standing Rock are very divided, and this division is fueled by a loss of the local language and cultural identity.

Park in McLaughlin on Standing Rock Reservation
McLaughlin, South Dakota may seem like a quiet small town but the reservation town has very high crime rates. The worst violence happens at home, hidden from public eyes but visible to children.

Suicide rates are also high, especially among children. Children growing up with alcoholic and drug addict parents are more likely to suffer from domestic violence which leads to trauma. Even if there is no domestic violence, children on reservations lack good role models. These children start drinking at a very early age with their parents and they have no desire to pursue education or a career – thus continuing the cycle of poverty and dependency.

Old playground by the school in Little Eagle at Standing Rock Indian Reservation
Native American children lack good role models and suffer from domestic violence and suicide. Schools provide little help because of inadequate funding and high turnover of teachers, and many never finish high school.

Bringing self-sufficiency to Indian reservations

In order to solve the many problems of Indian reservations, my hosts want to empower the people from the grassroots. Their vision is a self-sufficient and healthy community at Standing Rock. To achieve this my hosts have started a non-profit organization, The Natural Law Institute, that promotes sustainability using both modern and traditional knowledge. Right now the focus is on nutrition and gardening, but my hosts also want to expand their work to promoting renewable energy and sustainable building. However, due to a lack of time the organization is currently not very active. Nevertheless, my hosts continue to take care of a community garden and orchard that they started with the help of donations.

Fruit tree orchard at Standing Rock Indian Reservation
This orchard was planted with the help of the community and donated fruit trees. The aim of the orchard is to promote nutrition, self-sufficiency and forestation.

The fruit tree orchard was planted in 2009. Once the trees grow, the orchard can become a park that teaches about nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Next to the orchard is a community garden. The garden can be used by anyone living on the reservation, and the purpose is to provide a healthier and more self-sufficient alternative to the food handouts and fast food that so many community members live on.

One of the major challenges my hosts and their organization face is getting the community members interested in the garden and in a change of lifestyle. As a result, the way the garden has been run and the amount of people involved has been different every year. This year has been particularly difficult. During my stay we planted a part of the garden, but nobody from the community was there to help.

Community garden at Standing Rock Indian Reservation
My hosts run a community garden that makes it easy for people to grow their own food for better health and self-sufficiency – if people would just find the interest and motivation to do it.

Right now my hosts and other sober members of the community are trying to focus on the children. By reaching out to the children and showing them a better role model, they hope to prevent suicides and promote alternative lifestyles. They are also trying to get the children more interested in the community garden and orchard. A part of the work is also creating a cultural identity by bringing back local traditions and the local Lakota language, and my hosts’ son goes to a new language immersion school where all classes are taught in Lakota. Maybe by focusing on children the poverty cycle can be broken so that the next generation of Native Americans can have a better life.

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