NBC made a visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation in November of 1989. The result was a horrible newscast titled, "Tragedy at Pine Ridge." The tragedy was that NBC showed up.
One young Lakota lady basketball star named SuAnne Big Crow took exception to the telecast and attacked it as a show that dwelled on sensationalism to distort what Pine Ridge was all about. She then went on to talk about all of the good things they forgot to televise. SuAnne had big plans for Pine Ridge, but unfortunately she died in a car crash near Murdo, S. D. while on a trip to participate in the Miss Basketball South Dakota conference.
There have been occasional forays to Pine Ridge by different news organizations since NBC arrived, but all of them have followed the same path of gloom and doom.
Dianne Sawyer and ABC News decided to give it a shot. Her show titled, "A Hidden America; Children of the Plains," aired on Friday night. In reality, it was much of the same pap that has been served up in the past. The show was good in that it focused on actual children and showed their lives of poverty and, of course, it dwelled on the addictions of alcoholism pointing out that 80 percent of the adults on Pine Ridge were afflicted with this disease.
The show was well done and as always, Sawyer was down-to-earth in her presentation. It showed her visiting a school with many structural problems, and the home of one family that housed many more inhabitants than the house was built to support. The obligatory shots of drunks lying on the streets of White Clay, Nebraska were highlighted.
The show could have included some of the schools of the Shannon County School District at Wolf Creek, Rockyford or the brand new school at Batesland. It could have visited Little Wound School at Kyle or Crazy Horse School at Wanbli, or it could have visited the campus of Oglala Lakota College and talked to Tom Shortbull and of the many things he is achieving and is hoping to achieve with this great college.
Sawyer kept referring to the Red Cloud Indian School and the fact that it was a very good private school that only takes about 600 students and she mentioned that students from around the reservation wanted to enroll there. Red Cloud, which began its existence as Holy Rosary Indian Mission, a school run by the Franciscan Nuns and Jesuit priests, had its own history of child abuse and like Ms. Sawyer, no one is happier to see the dramatic changes at that school than its former students, myself included.
There are programs now in place on the reservation to combat and cure alcoholism and drug abuse. The commodities food program was slammed by Mark Tilsen, a co-manager of Tatanka Bars in Kyle. I am sure that Joe Blue Horse, Jr., the man who has been running the program for many years would object to Tilsen's comments. The commodity program has done a complete turnaround over the years when most of the commodities were starch filled, and Blue Horse has made an extreme effort to get the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the overseers of the program, to stock much more healthy foods even to the point of bringing in fresh vegetables and fruit.
For every point made by Sawyer there is a counter-point. The problem is that all of the major television affiliates never look at the counter-points.
ABC has made its presentation and next NBC will be making another trip to Pine Ridge, perhaps wishing to make up for the bitter taste their first venture left in the mouths of so many residents of the reservation. I spoke to one of NBC's producers last week and advised him to get his staff to look at things beyond the obvious.
There are a lot of people running programs such as the suicide prevention program, another oversight by Sawyer, and alcohol and drug prevention programs. Paul Iron Cloud would be only too happy to show NBC what the Oglala Lakota Housing Authority is trying to accomplish and there are doctors and nurses that would love to show them around the new and improved hospital facilities.
There are many things wrong on Pine Ridge just as there are many things wrong in Washington, D. C., but for every wrong, there are many people trying to make it right.
Whenever I hear of any major television station wanting to do a show on Pine Ridge in hopes of winning another award, I cringe. In the more than 30 years I have been in the media, I have seen them come and go and nothing has changed.
Maybe Ms. Sawyer's show will make a difference, but I will believe it when I see it.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net