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Matters of cultural identity, race explored on Pine Ridge

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. ? Two producers from Roha Productions toured the Pine Ridge reservation in southwestern South Dakota as a part of their research for an hour-long segment that will include the Oglala Lakota and Native Hawaiians looking at matters of race.

The segment will be part of a four-hour series on PBS focusing on a broader look at race in a nation.

Producers will look at the cultural identities, traditions and racial divisions that embedded themselves in the fabric of American culture. Demographers suggest that by the year 2056 there will be no racial majority in the United States.

'Matters of Race' will explore the rapidly changing multiracial, multicultural society combining the histories and the present-day realities of cultures that make up America. The inclusion of Indigenous people will look at the past of tribal cultures on the mainland and Hawaii as well as African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and whites.

Producers Jacque Jones and Sindi Gordon traveled the Pine Ridge reservation the week of Sept. 10. They looked at the communities and talked to Oglala Sioux tribal members from different backgrounds including tribal leadership, and chatted with people across the reservation to get a feel for their identities and the reality of lives on the reservation.

Traveling to Whiteclay, Neb., they interviewed family members who are mourning the loss of a man whose body was found near the border of the reservation.

Nathan Black Elk was at Camp Justice, a small encampment protesting the deaths of two tribal members more than two years ago.

June 8, 1999, the bodies of two murdered Lakota men, Wilson 'Wally' Black Elk and Ron Hard Heart, were found beside a road between Whiteclay and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They were last seen about 10:30 p.m. June 6, walking back to the reservation.

The issue for Nathan Black Elk, whose brother was murdered, is justice. An unemployed carpenter, he spends much of his time at the small camp. Nearby is a beautiful monument erected near the site where his brother and Hard Heart were found.

Black Elk said family and tribal members who want federal agents to solve the crimes have found the issue overshadowed by a cry from activists who want to put an end to liquor sales in nearby Whiteclay.

Black Elk, who had been drinking, admitted he buys liquor from the off-sale liquor establishments, but said the issue of its availability on or off the reservation boundaries doesn't bother him. He said consumption is an issue of personal responsibility.

More alarming, Black Elk said, is that little progress has been made in solving the two murders and nobody has been arrested in connection to the event.

His 42-year-old brother Loran stood before the monument, quietly talking about his hopes for finding the murderer or murderers. The two men said there will be another walk marking the event in a couple of weeks.

The village of Whiteclay has been used by activists to illustrate that close proximity of the liquor establishments has led to social ills feeding alcohol problems of tribal members and violence related to bootlegging on the reservation where liquor sales are prohibited.

Gordon interviewed tribal members who have worked on civil rights issues, economic development and with the unemployed on a reservation ranked the second poorest county in the state.

Elsie Meeks, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, talked about the challenges tribal members face in raising their standard of living and fueling business endeavors. The former director of the Lakota Fund is a businesswoman who runs a convenience store on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She said the Lakota Fund has helped in developing new businesses, but residents still struggle with changing an attitude of dependency to self-sufficiency while learning how to manage new business opportunities.

'We have high unemployment, but we don't have a work force,' Meeks said. Changing the standard of living means changing attitudes of some people who haven't made the leap of understanding the work ethic of getting up and going to work each day.

Working with economic development is taking the time to develop, one small business at a time.

'We are rich in human resources and a land base,' said David Plume, who works with rural development. His office is working with credit-building loans that afford tribal members the opportunity to start small ventures.

Loans of $500 are offered under flexible terms with payments as small as $20 a month to pay off the debt, fueling business enterprises such as those for people who cut wood for tribal members to buy during the winter months.

Developing a global market for tribal artists is another area Plume said he wants to pursue. Artists often sell projects they have spent hours working on for a minimal return when they run short on cash. A better prospect might be establishing a store online, selling the items on eBay and reaching the global market, he said.

Plume, who spoke of problems of alcohol addiction on the reservation, said changing the dynamic starts on the reservation. 'We need to clean up our own backyard. In a sense, we are own worst enemy.'

His suggestion to change such social ills is to create a higher level of awareness among young people.

Terry Albers, a long-time educator and a consultant talked about moving people into the workplace and the welfare-to-work program. He said of 361 people in the program only 130 people continued with full-time employment. More than 60 percent of reservation residents don't have a driver's license which hampers their ability to travel to work.

Organizations intended to serve tribal people have become elitist, he said, adding that often tribal colleges intended to serve tribal members who need to build skills have stepped away instead of reaching out.

Plume and Albers told Gordon about the racial profiling which often serves as an irritation for tribal members traveling as part of their work.

Albers said he was stopped in Wagner after police noted the number on his license plate. Knowing he was in less than friendly territory, he carefully drove through the town. The lights on a patrol car came on and he pulled to the side of the highway.

Plume said he thought the police were trying to pass his vehicle to catch up with a speeding motorist. The officer had pulled him over for speeding though Plume said he was not exceeding the speed limit. But he paid the fine instead of fighting over the issue.

While the hour-long documentary won't focus on economic development, it will focus on tribal traditions, the quality of life for tribal members and look at the challenges they face using a series of powerful portraits, the women said.