On Halloween of 1998, we moved from Missouri to Norris, SD in the heart of the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. I thought it would be “way cool” because my only “real” experience with Indians was through Kevin Costner in my favorite movie Dances With Wolves. As it turned out, that movie was actually filmed in the region and during our five years there I met many folks who had been in the movie. But like most things from Hollywood, it was not at all a reflection of Indian life today.
Life on “the rez” is on my mind because I made the journey to the Standing Rock Reservation in Morton County, ND last week. I stood at the riot line where 141 people were arrested on Thursday Oct 29, 2016. I have been in some pretty hairy situations in my 50 years but I have never witnessed as much anger and tension as I did here.
The #NoDAPL protest might have started with good intentions but it has flared completely out of control. I spent time talking to neighboring ranchers who faced raids, stolen property, death threats and destruction. One gentleman actually sent his family away to safety for period of time. He had 21 rioters arrested on HIS property only because the other 80, all wearing masks and carrying weapons, got away from law enforcement. Fire has now become favorite tool of destruction and terror for the rioters. If this happens in St. Louis, we aren’t all that shocked, but this is North Dakota!
I was extremely impressed with the job that Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier has done. The entire team effort of many counties, with limited resources, to keep the peace is impressive. Meanwhile, Governor Jack Dalrymple acts like he received strict orders from the White House to allow these protesters room for destruction.
While the Standing Rock Sioux may have a case for protest against the Federal Government, it has NOTHING to do with Dakota Access Pipeline. In fact, this offers a glimmer of hope toward fixing the real problems.
I do not subscribe to the fact that we stole their land. They were killing other Indian nations and stealing their women long before the white settlers came and settled all the Indian wars. Since the reservation system was created, they have become a social experiment on how true socialism works.
With that said, as with all communities, the greatest challenges come from within. In my time working with the Rosebud Sioux tribe, I quickly learned that there were a few leaders who truly wanted to find a solution to improving the living conditions and opportunities on the reservation like Norman Wilson who was the tribal chairman when we moved there. On the other hand, most leaders thrived on the two class system and were able to keep their power by ensuring that folks were dependent on them.
I was hired by the Bell Family, in partnership with the tribe, to recruit and train tribal members to raise pigs. I interviewed 132 people to fill 17 positions. I found myself conducting interviews partly because I was enthralled with I learned.
I noticed that an overwhelming majority of the people I talked to had scars on their arms. I learned that the scars were a result of someone under the influence who had used their kid’s arms as an ash tray.
Many Dakota reservations have a serious unemployment problem. The Pine Ridge is 91%, Rosebud 89% and Standing Rock 86%. Quick research will tell you that the suicide rate for tribal members is significantly higher than all other races. In fact, ND Indians report that Standing Rock Sioux youth ages 15-24 have a 386% higher suicide rate than their white counterparts.
The previous tribal chairman of Standing Rock, Ron His Horse, actually led the charge in trying to curb sexual assault on women. One in three tribal women will be raped and incest has become a serious problem on these reservations.
Other individuals have taken a serious look at the drug addiction so common today on reservations. Fetal alcohol syndrome is also a growing problem that will take real work to fix.
I have painted a very bleak image of life on the reservation but it is a reality I witnessed firsthand. So when I see uninformed people from around the world getting upset because somebody is trying to recover and utilize the resources on this land that could improve human lives, my patience runs thin. I see this as a great opportunity for the real issues in Indian Country to surface. The revenue generated could help find solutions to these tragic issues. Like all things, until the tribe grabs the buffalo by the horns, the problems will just continue to grow until the tribe is extinct.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved living on the reservation and still have great friends who call it home. Some of the Indian traditions are worth replicating like their intergenerational homes where kids grow up with grandparents they see every day. Their culture, art and dance are like no other but they deserve a better opportunity for themselves and their children than what they have now. With an open mind, progress could be made and this could be a great home for everyone once the smoke settles and the rioters pack up and head out.
NOTE: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.LoosTales.com, or email Trent at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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