`What We Need Is Lots of Jobs'
The Hard Road To Self-Sufficiency
PINE RIDGE, S.D.
AT 7:30 in the morning, Michael Fairbanks is correcting myths. ``Indians do not receive a check from the government once a month just because they are Indians,'' he says with a tolerant smile that means ``How many times do I have to say it?'' Mr. Fairbanks has been superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for five years, and before that for seven years at the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. ``Indians have been citizens of the United States since 1924,'' he says, seated in his office in the BIA building next to the Oglala Sioux tribal headquarters, ``and as such they are entitled to any benefits provided to all citizens.''Skip to next paragraph
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Thus, on the Pine Ridge reservation, where a 73 percent unemployment rate prevails, the highest anywhere in the United States, many tribal members are recipients of benefits from various federal, state, and a few tribal welfare programs. The popular stereotype is that all Indians receive a ``generic'' check at the first of the month, and blow it on alcohol, junk food, and old cars.
``We have become a very socialist people,'' suggests Randy Plume, executive director of the Oglala Sioux tribe. He is seated at the end of a conference table in tribal president Paul Iron Cloud's office. His statement is as much a reluctant admission as it is an inevitable conclusion based on the way the white man has treated Indians. ``Personally, I think [welfare] destroys initiative,'' Mr. Plume says. ``I don't like it, but here we are.''
No single historical factor is to blame for the squalid living conditions that exist for most Indians at Pine Ridge or for their dependence on government welfare: not liquor, as much as it dulls the spirit and pervades life on the reservation; and not the BIA, with which many Indians have a love-hate relationship.
But a key factor might well be the reservation land and how it is owned and administered. Land, and land use, is clearly linked to whether the tribe can ever achieve the goal of self-sufficiency. Pine Ridge covers about 2.7 million acres, an area larger than Rhode Island. Aside from some farming and ranching, few proven natural resources are available, but the tribe has yet to explore all the possibilities of land use.
Why does the land remain so important? As the Indian wars of the 19th century drew to a close, Congress shuttled Indians off to reservations. Later, under a 1904 act, individual Indians received acreage allotments.
Putting aside for the moment the impact of these forced changes on the spirit and well-being of Indians, the motive behind the plan was clear: termination. No more tribes, no more trouble. Congress wanted Indians to be farmers or ranchers.
The BIA was to oversee the land as a trustee. What happened over the years is an ownership nightmare. As Indian families have increased and land has passed from one generation to the next, or as parcels were sold to other Indians or to non-Indians, ownership has multiplied to the point of parody. ``A hundred people own interest in an acre,'' explains Pine Ridge superintendent Fairbanks, ``and some individuals may own a square foot.''
To do anything with the land - build on it, sell it, farm it - permission has to be granted from all owners. ``Even if an individual has a majority interest in the land,'' says superintendent Fairbanks, ``he has to get permission from all the others.''
Consequently, and despite the BIA's effort to keep track of the mess, there are thousands of tangled land cases. Often solutions are not sought. At the BIA offices at Pine Ridge, land records are kept on computers and administered by nine full-time employees.
Despite the best intentions of the BIA, the system hardly encourages maximum use of the land as a resource for people with great needs. Yet reservation land, troubled and limited as life on it may be, is still revered by many Indians as sacred homeland.
``Ten or 12 years ago when land was suddenly very valuable,'' says Fairbanks, ``some individuals who owned trust land wanted to sell it to non-Indians.'' Because Indians have so little else in assets or prospects, it is understandable why selling land was attractive.
Not wanting the tribal lands to shrink further, the tribal leadership quickly went to the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) and borrowed about $19 million to buy the land. If serious questions about the loans were raised then by the BIA, no one seems to remember them.