Taking a stand against poverty in Indian country

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Hidden away, dotted throughout the landscape of America, are the reservations of the indigenous peoples of our land. Mostly unknown or forgotten by the mainstream culture of the dominant United States society, the average person knows little or nothing about these people other than what they see in movies and television, or in the nearest reservation casino.

Most assume whatever poverty exists on a reservation is most certainly comparable to that which they might experience themselves. This is not the reality for the people who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Pine Ridge is the second largest reservation in the U.S. and where the most impoverished of any people in the country live. Pine Ridge is home to the Oglala Lakota who are members of a major Sioux division known as the Western or Teton Sioux. The Pine Ridge Reservation is situated in southwestern South Dakota on the Nebraska state line, about 50 miles east of the Wyoming border. The area includes more than 11,000 square miles, contained in seven counties.

Equally as impoverished on other reservations are communities such as Kyle, Wambli, Cheyenne River Sioux and Standing Rock, located in North and South Dakota; the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) of North Dakota, the Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma, the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona, and the Navajo Nation. There are many Native people living in worse than third world conditions.

Four years ago I received an e-mail from a little Indian girl who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation asking for a new toothbrush and some good tasting toothpaste for Christmas. Many Americans find it hard to believe that in the 21st century people still live under these deplorable conditions. However, those who grew up on an Indian reservation or in an Indian community understand the dynamics of existing on land that is not suitable for human habitation.

Fortunately, there is plenty of goodwill throughout Indian country. Brothers Who Care, a Maryland nonprofit organization focused on preserving Native American culture, will host an inter-tribal powwow Oct. 24 – 25 in Mount Airy, Md., as a way of raising awareness and encouraging others to help, whether by donating funds or items such as warm clothing, household items, furniture and appliances. Items collected at this powwow and throughout this effort will be moved to a central storage facility in Washington, D.C., and then transported to the tribes and communities out west.

Already, there is encouraging forward movement. Not only have numerous individuals responded to this call, but tribes like the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation have supported this effort as well. Additionally, the U.S. Census has made a sizeable donation to the powwow fund. By law, all donations – cash, products and in-kind services – are tax deductible.

We can’t solve all the issues of poverty and hunger in Indian country, but we can try to help who we can, and that deed of human kindness is of the utmost importance.

Jay Winter Nightwolf (Cherokee/Shoshone/Taino) hosts a national Native American radio program that has aired for more than eight years and reaches more than 1.9 million listeners in the mid-Atlantic region alone on WPFW 89.3 FM – Pacifica Radio out of Washington, D.C. Nightwolf is the 2009 recipient of the Maryland Governor’s Volunteer Service Award. He can be reached at wahyasunoyi@aol.com.