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The Second Poorest County in America

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The old saying goes that "The more things change, the more they stay the same." That, my friends, is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in a nutshell.

The 1980 U.S. Census proclaimed Shannon County, the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation, as the single poorest county in America. Thirty years later the 2010 U. S. Census has just announced that Shannon County is the second poorest county in America. Thirty years have passed and Shannon County has dropped from number one to number two. How in the hell do you explain that?

In the past five years a shade more than $1 billion federal dollars have come to the Pine Ridge Reservation. That's right: $1 billion federal dollars and the scale moved Pine Ridge from number one to number two. How in the hell do you explain that?

Of course the red-neck element in South Dakota has an easy answer; everybody on Pine Ridge is living high on the welfare hog by getting a monthly check and not paying any taxes. Nobody wants to work because they don't have to work. The government is spending so much money on Pine Ridge because they are caring for its residents from cradle to grave.

Any Indian worth his or her salt can shoot big holes in this simplistic explanation. But it is out there and it is one of the biggest misconceptions that cause such a wide separation between the Indians and whites of South Dakota.

So what is the explanation? Thirty years ago they federal government should have taken the bull by the horns when the 1980 Census made this outlandish report. They should have gone after the problem like they did when they initiated the Marshall Plan to rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II. Lakota leaders from Pine Ridge should have been given a required training course in the basics of economics. In order for a community of more than 40,000 to sustain itself it must have an economic base.

But as long as the annual checks for government, education, social welfare and health kept coming with regularity, the Pine Ridge leadership failed to see beyond the obvious limits of this underwhelming benevolence. The old saying that the federal government gave Pine Ridge just enough money to fail carries more truth than not.

There are still those who believe that the 30-year lapse to improve a grave situation rests not only with the federal government, but also with the failed leadership of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

As written above, a little more than $1 billion federal dollars have come to Pine Ridge in the past 5 years alone. When President Clinton visited Pine Ridge he saw an opportunity to improve the economic conditions by naming Pine Ridge, thus Shannon County, as an Empowerment Zone, meaning a Zone where the leadership could seek out economic development factors outside of the reservation by offering many tax-free incentives for businesses to locate to the reservations. $20 million dollars were earmarked for this project to be spread over a 10-year period. The lack of strong, educated leadership saw to it that most of the money was wasted on useless projects, given away in worthless grants, handed out to cronies as non-repayable loans, or outright stolen. There was absolutely no oversight on how this money was spent by the government.

And since the 1980 Census that named Shannon County as the poorest county in America, the above set of circumstances has repeated itself over and over again. Money that has poured into the Pine Ridge Reservation has disappeared with little or no oversight. The federal government has handed out millions to non-profit organizations to improve the economic conditions on Shannon County, organizations that have never run a business and have no idea of how to program or promote a successful one. These non-profits are also notorious for no oversight and worse yet, no accountability.

And so the beat goes on. Poor leadership, bad management, and no accountability or oversight, these are the daggers that have stabbed deep into the heart of Shannon County, nee, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. If things continue as usual, Shannon County will still be among the top ten poorest counties in America come the 2020 U. S. Census. How in the hell do you explain that?

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