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There Can Be Dignity in the Face of Poverty

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Two Harvard graduates, Bevis Longstreth and Timothey Wirth, were discussing that Harvard should divest itself of investments in fossil fuels.

They argued that it is "repugnant to profit from enterprises directly responsible for carbon emissions or to allow shareholder funds to be deployed in searching for more fossil fuel." (Harvard Magazine; September/October Issue). Divestment is now on the table at Harvard, but not quite as forcefully as it was when the arguments about investments in South African enterprises came under scrutiny.

To gain or not to gain profits from the investment or exploration of fossil fuels is the question. But what is the answer?

Rumors are circulating on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota about large quantities of oil beneath the surface of the lands harboring the poorest people in America. If this be true then the next question would be: What do we do about it? Do we "drill baby drill" or not?

Having been born, raised and educated on this "the poorest county in America" according to the 1980 U. S. Census, I would venture to say that if the question was put to a vote of the Oglala Lakota people, the answer would be a resounding NO!

How can that be? Other Indian nations have become wealthy by exploiting the natural resources on their lands. The Three Affiliated Tribes, or as they now call themselves, the MHA Nation (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) are located smack dab in the middle of the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota. Oil is literally gushing from every available hole drilled in the ground. What used to be a very quiet and peaceful land is now reminiscent of the Cushing Oil Fields near Shamrock, Oklahoma in 1915.

During the boom Shamrock sported hotels, gambling halls, saloons, brothels and man-camps spread throughout the region. As the oil supply diminished Shamrock began to decline in the 1920s and business after business closed their doors for good. Even the makeshift homes that were hastily constructed to house the oil workers were moved to other locations.

I would advise the residents of New Town on the MHA Nation to visit Shamrock and pause and reflect if this is ever going to happen to their community. Take a look at the man-camps springing up all around your community imagine them gone. What shape will the landscape take after that?

Twenty-two years ago I spoke at the Fort Berthold Community College graduation ceremonies at New Town. I visited New Town again in the fall of 2013 and the shock of what I saw 22 years ago and what I saw on my last visit still haunts me. I asked a longtime friend of mine who has lived in New Town most of her life how she felt about the sudden boom. She said, "Back when you visited us we were a very poor people with a dysfunctional government and now we are a very rich people with a dysfunctional government." So I suppose one can say that money never solves all of the problems.

The Lakota people of Pine Ridge are, for the most part, very traditional people. In a sense they are much like the Hopi of the Southwest, a people who have retained and enriched their traditional and spiritual heritage even in the face of extreme poverty and endangerment. You will not find a gaming casino on the Hopi Nation and there would not be one on the Pine Ridge Reservation if the traditional people had been organized enough to defeat the proposition when it was placed on a ballot, but even then the casino passed by a very narrow margin.

To the Lakota people the land is sacred and to drill holes in the earth in search of oil would be considered a desecration of that sacred land. One of the best kept secrets from the American people is the fact that the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people have more than $1 billion dollars in a supposed settlement of the ownership of the Black Hills and other lands, but the poorest of the poor have refused to accept that money. Since 1980 when the United States government forced the cash settlement on them they have been saying, "The Black Hills are not for Sale. One does not sell one's mother just as one does not dig into the flesh of Mother Earth to extract wealth."

When the New York Times' reporters and Dianne Sawyer of ABC traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation they were more interested in depicting the Lakota people as falling down alcoholics, which they are not, than in reporting on the historic refusal of a poor and downtrodden people to accept money for the sale of their sacred land. Now that is the story not the drunks lying in the streets of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

If there is a billion gallons of oil beneath the soil of the poorest county in America, will the Lakota people allow the oil companies to dig for it? I believe the answer to that is an unequivocal NO! While Longstreth and Wirth argue with Harvard for divestment, I believe the Lakota people addressed that argument many generations ago. Dignity in the face of poverty is a virtue.

If the Lakota people can turn their backs on more than $1 billion dollars while standing in the shadows of extreme poverty where is the national media to honor and report on them for their unflinching courage? Answer: They just don't give a damn! Where is the controversy in that?

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com)