There are no jobs for 90 percent of the population. The average household income is $3,500 a year. About 60 percent of the homes have no water or electricity. An average of 17 people live together under one roof, and babies are dying at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world.
You’d expect these alarming statistics to reflect deplorable conditions in a Third World country. But according to TrueSiouxHope.org, this tragic scenario plays out year after year on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — the second largest Native American reservation in this country (roughly the size of Connecticut), and also the poorest.
“Whenever I share these statistics with people, they are shocked to learn this is happening right here in our own country,” said Twila True, founder of True Sioux Hope Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help lift the Pine Ridge natives out of a cycle of poverty and create “permanent, positive change.”
The 43-year-old True is an Oglala Sioux who lives in Irvine, Calif., but grew up near Pine Ridge. She visited frequently with her native grandmother who helped raise her, and she has returned many times since. True even adopted her youngest daughter from the reservation when she was 3 months old. “They are such a warm, welcoming people who have really lost hope and you just want to bring that hope back,” she said.
As the CEO of an international investment corporation, True is in an enviable financial position to restore hope to the residents of Pine Ridge. She and her husband are the founders of True Family Enterprises, a private investment firm focused on real estate, consumer goods, retail, private equity and venture capital.
True said she was overwhelmed at first about where to concentrate her efforts on the reservation. During her visits to Pine Ridge, she recalled Sioux children laughing and playing happily among the broken-down trailers, and she had an epiphany. “Children have hopes and dreams, and aren’t plagued by the past. I realized that Band-Aids aren’t going to do it. The long-term goal is education.”
For now, True Sioux Hope Foundation is focused on answering some immediate needs on the reservation: supporting a workforce training program that teaches the Pine Ridge natives trade skills, such as welding, home construction and farming, that can be used to find jobs and help the reservation become self-sustaining; building an orphanage for children who are in immediate danger; and providing firewood for the elderly, as well as formula for infants.
“Many families are so poor that babies have only soda or coke to drink. We want to provide proper nutrition, instead of the free stuff they get from the government,” said True.
Her foundation is also exploring plans to eventually open an all-girls school on the reservation. True plans to partner with Victoria Shorr, founder of The Archer School for Girls in Beverly Hills, Calif., on this project.
“It will be the first all-girls college preparatory school on a reservation in the U.S.,” said Shorr, who was motivated to start this school after reading in the New York Times that one in four babies born on Pine Ridge suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. “Girls who are going to college don’t have babies with fetal alcohol syndrome,” she explained.
Along the way to raising awareness and funds for True Sioux Hope Foundation, its founder has had to dispel several myths about Native Americans—especially the one about how wealthy everyone is from casino profits. While Pine Ridge does have a small casino on the reservation, Prairie Winds Casino, True said it isn’t as profitable as it could be because Pine Ridge got the short end of the stick when tribal lands were established.
“Pine Ridge is about 100 miles away from the nearest airport or major highway. Even if they built a bigger casino, not too many people would come because it is out in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
A video that True produced spells out in agonizing detail the overriding problems that have caused so much despair on the reservation: extreme poverty, lack of housing, teen suicide and pregnancy, alcohol and drug addictions, no medical care, sexual abuse of children, an approximate 70 percent high school dropout rate, obesity, and diabetes rates that are 800 percent higher than the U.S. average.
In the video, Ethleen Iron Cloud-Two Dogs, a tribal youth program specialist, said: “It’s going to take awareness and education that we’re not all drunks and dirty Indians.”
True is doing her best to spread the word and raise the money she needs to make these pressing changes. “It’s now to the point where it’s past judgment and criticism and no matter what, I think these people are worth saving,” she said. “We need not die quietly in a corner.”
Currently, the foundation is trying to raise money to buy a 16-passenger van to help natives commute to work and get to job-training sites, as there is no nearby public transportation. If you are interested in helping and/or donating to this ongoing cause for the natives of Pine Ridge, send an e-mail to Info@TrueSiouxHope.org or go to TrueSiouxHope.org.
Contributing writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.