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New business spirit at Pine Ridge

PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, S.D. ? A silent revolution is underway on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

It doesn't involve the overthrow of the government or the ouster of isolated elected officials or anything to do with immediate change in the culture.

It has to do with economics, social welfare, health care, alcoholism, drug addiction, lifestyle change, cultural environment and jobs.

The revolution is the dream child and creation of a grass roots movement spearheaded by small individual entrepreneurs. One little step at a time, one additional employee at a time, one more business where people can receive goods or services and help keep money on the reservation. That is what is taking place.

Shannon County, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, for years has harbored the dubious distinction as the poorest county in the nation. Joblessness continually has been estimated at between 60 and 80 percent. When it gets that high, 20 percentage points matter very little. But to the optimistic people of the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce it represents a change for the good. A drop from 80 to 60 percent is progress.

"At the height of the great depression the unemployment rate in the country was between 16 and 18 percent. If you had 60 percent unemployment in Rapid City (S.D.) you would have Armageddon. If you had 60 percent unemployment in New York City you would have people eating each other," said Mark St. Pierre, executive director for the Chamber of Commerce.

It has been that way for years, and it almost became what Pine Ridge was known for. But the label is no longer acceptable. In fact, the poorest county in the nation has moved to the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota.

Poverty breeds alcoholism, drug addiction and other social ills that tend to tear a community apart, say sociologists. The members of the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce said they want to make changes in those social ills by creating an economy on the reservation that will support the population.

People on Pine Ridge have lived through past attempts by what they call do-gooders with missionary mentalities and a Messiah complex. These have failed.

Change ? quality, lasting change ? has to come from within. That is what the new entrepreneur of Pine Ridge knows and preaches.

The people behind this revolution are most times dedicated to improving their community while providing a job or two for young people or adults with children and families. It may seem to some like too little too late, but to people who take the jobs, and to the entrepreneurs an entire world is in transition.

What many people are doing is provide a healthy work culture for young people to enter and from which to learn, St. Pierre said. Because for many decades there have been so few jobs available on Pine Ridge, young people and some adults have no experience in the work force. Those who have are now opening businesses. Others have left the reservation in the face of despair and carved their niche in the world without returning to help benefit their communities. Communities off the reservations in South Dakota have had the same problem for years. It's called the brain drain.

It isn't easy. People who have the desire to start a business have to combat federal, state and tribal regulations and laws and spend hours with bankers who are located off the reservation, some times to very frustrating and possibly futile results. Those who fight against the current to open a business, no matter how small, will usually stay in business, survive and make a difference for the community.

New entrepreneurs have to fight land issues, infrastructure problems and as they put it, lazy bureaucrats who work for the BIA and tribal government. Sometimes strange laws stop some prospective business owners in their tracks. The entrepreneurs have to arrange creative employee scheduling and other imaginative ways to provide a service.

Still, the revolution continues. More businesses are cropping up to accommodate a growing tourist industry. A newly formed Chamber of Commerce on the Pine Ridge Reservation is only a year old, but is as active or even more so than ones that have been in existence for years.

And the result is that small restaurants are filled at noon and in the evenings, grocery stores are constantly replacing inventory, gift shops and art galleries are attracting tourists who buy art, sometimes very expensive art, and new money is coming onto the reservation that wasn't there before. Unfortunately that new money continues to leave the reservation.

Businesses are still needed that will help keep the money circulating within the communities. This is what creates a local economic base, say economists. Pine Ridge still has no banking system, no loan system, no furniture stores, no auto dealers and no department stores. Its grocery stores are scattered miles apart with limited inventories. It is not uncommon for people to have to travel 50 or 60 miles to find a grocery outlet.

Pine Ridge needs its own banking system, chamber members said, that will loan money, help people invest and keep the exchange of currency alive on Pine Ridge. Studies are underway to create such a system that may end up becoming a credit union. Now the only banking system on the reservation is a mobile unit from an off-reservation bank that provides the service because of a past federal lawsuit. However, it is only a check cashing or depository bank. The money is taken off the reservation and loaned with interest to non-Indian business people, ranchers and farmers.

If you listen to the members of the chamber at meetings you can't help get caught up in the excitement of the revolution. Discussions about problems and difficulties that many business owners have to overcome, employment problems, licensing, land issues, and financing are prevalent, but there is an optimism that rises above the din of any difficulties.

Pine Ridge is on the move. It will take some time, but with time the revolution against poverty and joblessness will be lasting, because the change comes from within, which is the best method, all business owners agreed.