The living conditions of the Oglala Sioux, a Native American tribe residing in South Dakota, provide a concerning look at what sociologist Chris McGreal describes as “hidden social problems in isolated circumstances” (McGreal 159). These issues are not well publicized, in part, because of the secluded location of the Pine Ridge reservation. Additionally, the livelihood of Native Americans is often romanticized through Hollywood films and old legends. Lack of government support and a false perception of prosperity has led to widespread impoverishment, insufficient residential housing, alcoholism and dismally high rates of suicide, among other issues, for the Oglala Sioux of South Dakota.
McGreal’s arguments are concise and effective. My naive, romanticized view of Native American reservations was quickly shattered upon reading. The author provided a concrete amount of numerical information and efficiently wove statistics into personal interviews, affecting the audience factually and emotionally. This potent combination clearly expressed the dreadful reality of the Sioux tribe. Additionally, McGreal addresses several government attempts to improve conditions but exposes the shortcomings.
Though my personal connection to the Native American reservations is relatively slim, discussing the issues of these individuals made more sense of the lack of Native American presence in my career field. As a musical theatre major and aspiring professional performer, I’m privy to the facts of underrepresentation in the theatre industry. Between the 2016-2017 theatre season, the Asian American Performers Action released the following numbers for racial representation on Broadway: African Americans made up 18.6% of Broadway performers, 6.7% Asian American, .9% Middle Eastern/North African, and American Indian/Native/First Nation coming in at 0% (Musbach 1).
American perception of current day Indian reservations is depressingly misconstrued. Because of legends of popular native American figures such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Wounded Knee, among others, those living outside of the reservations still view the Sioux as a people coasting off of their casino profits. They imagine the Sioux sitting pretty, receiving welfare checks, government provided housing and free healthcare. Unfortunately, this image is anything but true. Theresa Two Bulls, the Sioux tribe president, speaks out about the widespread impoverishment and lack of proper shelter among her people. She says, “People across the United States don’t [realize] we could be identified as the third world. Our living conditions, what we have to live with, what we have to do with. People think we are living high off the hog on welfare and casinos.” As a result of an unemployment rate of over 80%, money is tight (McGreal 160)
With one in three homes lacking running water and electricity, existence is a daily struggle. It is reported that upward of fifteen individuals reside in each “home,” with others seeking refuge in their vehicles and trailers. Some might argue that the government was kind enough to establish any sort of housing at all, but the days of construction can be traced back to the 60’s and 70’s. Since then, there have been no updates or improvements as a result of new construction reduction policies during the Reagan administration. Current day numbers report that the Sioux are given a $10,000,000 congressional housing grant, but this only ends up covering the bare necessities. As the houses are outdated, this budget is used to fight off “poisonous black mold that infects many of the houses.” Even with enough left over to construct forty new homes a year, overcrowding is such an issue that forty new homes is nothing more than a drop in the ocean of Sioux housing problems. McGreal reports that it is nearly “impossible to heat houses” on the reservations, a grave issue with winters that plummet to -30 degrees fahrenheit at night. With no other source of income outside of meager welfare checks, it is no surprise that the Sioux suffer from a widespread sense of hopelessness and report a lack of self worth.
What does this epidemic of disparity and self-perceived worthlessness contribute to? Alcoholism. Aside from a reported “Pizza Hut” and “recently opened Subway sandwich bar,” there is nothing to offer on the streets of Pine Ridge as a source of refuge aside from the bar and liquor stores. In most established communities, a church or community center often serves as places of refuge for struggling souls, but this is yet another shortcoming. Even with laws aimed at preventing alcohol sale and consumption, police captain Ron Duke admits legal action has done little to prevent the abysmal alcoholism. Duke claims that “the majority of the problems [they’re] having right now, 90% of it is because of alcoholism.” With no government support, it is impossible to create a self-sufficient economy amongst the Sioux. There is another significant sting that accompanies the dynamic. The decrepit bars and liquor stores of Pine Ridge have made the owners millionaires, owners who make no effort to aid the very people that have funded their wealth. With little to turn to and legal punishment for alcohol consumption, a dishearteningly high rate of suicide is the reality.
Theresa Two Bulls reports on the local radio station, confirming a “suicide state of emergency.” Unsurprisingly, overcrowding, poverty, and alcoholism result in a grim image of the future. With nothing to look forward to and no sign of government rescue, Native Americans teenagers are reported as “more likely to kill themselves than any other minority group.” Numbers like this make sense of a frighteningly low life expectancy of 50 years old among the Sioux. According to McGreal, over 100 Sioux individuals attempted or committed suicide within the year preceding the article publication. President Two Bulls and other concerned elders have done everything in their power to bring in local businesses to increase revenue, but issues are so dire that they require funds that, according to previous President Iron Cloud, “only the federal government can provide to begin to turn the situation around.” Without this aid, there is little to no possibility for improvements.
- McGreal, Chris. “Chapter 16: The Myth of Prosperity.” Focus on Social Problems: a Contemporary Reader, by Mindy Stombler and Amanda M. Jungels, Oxford University Press, 2021, pp. 159–163.
- Musbach, Julie. “AAPAC Releases Report Analyzing Ethnic Representation on NYC Stages.” BroadwayWorld.com, BroadwayWorld.com, 4 Mar. 2019, www.broadwayworld.com/article/AAPAC-Releases-Report-Analyzing-Ethnic-Representation-on-NYC-Stages-20190304.