The Badlands of South Dakota bring in more than 800,000 visitors every year.
These visitors come to see the rolling hills of desolation, the rock formations that bear a striking similarity to the cliffs of the Grand Canyon. The Badlands are a national landmark of aesthetic beauty.
What tourists fail to see, however, is what the Badlands represent for the inhabitants of the surrounding areas. The Badlands, while beautiful, are completely barren. They are a stirring manifestation of the life of native people who live there. Essentially, visitors to the Badlands are basking in the pain of the Oglala Lakota Indians.
A large portion of the Badlands lies within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. It is a community that is home to some of the worst poverty in all of the United States, with almost half of the population living below the poverty line; 80 percent of the community is unemployed.
The Oglala Sioux nation banned alcohol sales and possession on the reservation for many years, but the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska became somewhat of a supplier to the community. An estimated 85 percent of families in Pine Ridge are affected by alcoholism and one in four children is born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Local police forces believe that 90 percent of crimes—many of which involve domestic violence—are alcohol-related. Last year, the council voted to legalize alcohol within the reservation, presumably as a desperate attempt to treat the alcohol problem, though it may just be an acceptance of defeat. Time will tell.
The reservation has been plagued by poor eating habits and lack of exercise, leading to high levels of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. A very small percentage of the land on the reservation is able to produce crops. The rate of diabetes-related amputations is three times higher in Pine Ridge than in the rest of the country. The infant mortality rate is three times the national average. The estimated life expectancy for both men and women hovers right around 50 years of age; only Haiti has a lower life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere. Since only a small percentage of the population has a bachelor’s degree, healthcare is a major issue within the reservation. In the past couple of weeks, the council has once again mulled the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, since many residents already use it to deal with cancer treatments and pain from surgery.
What may be worst of all is the lack of attention that Pine Ridge receives from the rest of the country. The state of South Dakota is the fourth lowest in the country in charitable donations received. Less than one percent of charitable donations go to Indian reservations. And the United States government seems to have no idea how many people live on the reservation. The census states the population at around 15,000. The executive director for housing for the Oglala Sioux Lakota puts the number closer to 40,000. All of these numbers indicate a sad, but possible truth: The people of Pine Ridge are mostly forgotten.
Still, those who are aware of the poor living on the reservation make whatever efforts they can to lend a hand. The students of Glen Ellyn Bible Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois have traveled to Pine Ridge each of the past five summers. As the mission statement conveys, the students do not make the trip with the hope of fixing a problem. Rather, they go “to serve however we can and to gain a more clear [sic] picture of life outside of our everyday lives.” The students simply raise money and awareness for the horrible conditions of Pine Ridge.
Despite the efforts of these few and far between, the reservation makes no true progress out of the fourth world. 800,000 people lay eyes on the reservation every single year, yet almost none move forward to help. They only see the beauty of the Badlands, not the pain that it brings along with it.
Photo Credit: (http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2012/05/pineridge.jpg)