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Monday, November 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Evelyn Nieves
Had she been better off, President Clinton's 1999 summer "poverty tour" to the Oglala Lakota Sioux reservation might have overlooked her house among all the other cabins and trailers doing hard time in her neighborhood. But even in the poorest patch of the poorest place in the country, the Blue Bird residence stood out.
Children spilled out the doors, plywood covered the windows, and an outhouse stood near the wreck of a pop-up camper used as an extra bedroom in the back yard. When Clinton touched down here to point out that parts of the United States were as in need of help as developing countries, he called on Blue Bird.
Soon after, she received a call from Ronald Dozoretz, a Washington psychiatrist and husband of a major Democratic Party fund-raiser. He was buying her a four-bedroom double-wide mobile home what color did she want?
Now, Blue Bird's double-wide, baby blue with black shutters, is the biggest house on her block. It only looks small, since she still takes in about two dozen children and young people, along with her son, daughter and four grandchildren.
Still, she and everyone else here will tell you that her house was the best thing to come out of the first presidential visit to a reservation in more than 60 years.
Many people say it was the only good thing. Five years after that visit, all the hopes Clinton stirred have amounted to very little. The house across the street from Blue Bird's still has no windows and no running water. Same goes for the one next to it, and the one next to that one. Beyond this neighborhood of brittle hovels, the Pine Ridge reservation is besieged by problems decades in the making and beyond its ability to fix.
More Lakotas who had left are returning to the Plains, preferring to live among their own people rather than in relative comfort on the outside. But failings of the federal government from mismanaging Indian money held in trust to shortchanging programs it is legally bound to fund continually undermine efforts at self-help here.
Things are not much better on some other reservations. The Navajos in the Southwest, the Crow tribe in Montana and the Comanches in Oklahoma are also poor, while some other tribes even without casinos have seen their living standards rise in recent decades.
But Native American poverty rarely makes the national political agenda. The federal government has acknowledged it has grossly mishandled money it began collecting in the late 1880s, when it leased reservation land to oil, mining and timber interests and held the proceeds in trust for Indians.
The government owes Native Americans billions, but a class-action lawsuit filed eight years ago on behalf of nearly 500,000 Indians is still unresolved.
Meanwhile, on Pine Ridge, three and four families live in single-family houses, more than eight out of 10 people are out of work, and more than half the people, helpless against disconnect notices, have no phone in any given month.
The Lakota can revel in a few hopeful signs. Tribal culture is undergoing a renaissance, after decades during which the federal government put Indian children into English-language-only boarding schools and banned sun dances. The Oglala Sioux Tribal College graduated 179 students this spring, its largest class since it was accredited in 1983.
But barely a week passes here without a fresh roadside cross going up for yet another car-accident victim, or a cloud of black smoke rising from yet another trailer fire.
One afternoon, as the remains of two trailers smoldered on the horizon propane fires, most likely Blue Bird was sitting in her kitchen, minding eight children, from 4 months to 12 years old, as they watched a "Scooby Doo" cartoon.
The screen door kept banging open and shut, with kids going in and out, letting the flies inside. Fingerprints were all over the walls, footprints all over the floor. "Auntie Geraldine" was grateful the house was still in one piece.
"A lot of people get donated trailers," she said, "but the trailers are already falling apart when they get them."
Blue Bird gets by on $1,480 a month in Social Security disability benefits and boxes of food the Agriculture Department hands out in poor rural communities. Her wards children of relatives or neighbors whom she takes care of for weeks, months or years at a time keep her creative with money, she said.
"I can stretch one can of soup to four," she said.
Still, she is always worried.
Blue Bird was due to drive to Rapid City, 118 miles away, the next day to have a tumor removed from her back, and she was feeling her mortality. Even after she had gastric-bypass surgery and lost nearly 200 pounds in three years, her body, burdened with diabetes and hypertension as well as heart problems, was always betraying her. If she were to die the next day, she wondered, what would become of all these children?
"We all try to help one another here that's our way," she said. "But life is so hard."
People in Pine Ridge pour their energies into trying to make things better. The reservation needs help with everything: infrastructure, housing, health care, education, economic development. Yet federal money that is supposed to go to the Indians, under treaties or laws, keeps getting cut.
The most glaring example, the Indian Health Service, was created by treaties drawn more than a century ago that promised high-quality health care (along with high-quality education and decent housing) for every Native American in exchange for the federal government's taking vast swaths of Indian land.
But the health service, run by the Department of Health and Human Services, is funded at less than $2,000 per Indian each year, half of what federal prisoners get. This year, Congress rejected legislation to increase its budget. The administration redirected Indian Health Service funding to homeland security and the Iraq war.
Indian Health Service hospitals operate under a "life or limb" policy. For lesser ailments, people write off a day of their lives in a clinic waiting room. Often, they just give up and go home.
Deferred health problems take their toll. Life expectancy on the reservation is 47 to 56 years, the nation's lowest. Infant mortality is twice the rate of the rest of the country.
Diabetes afflicts about half the population, and people here talk about their blood-sugar levels the way other Americans mention their cholesterol counts.
Alcoholism is rampant some figures place it at 80 percent of the population yet on a reservation about the size of Connecticut, there is no alcohol-treatment center. The roadside crosses are too often the result of alcohol-fueled car accidents, which are nearly three times as common here as in the general population.
The Pine Ridge Economic Empowerment Zone, which was the best hope for an economic shot in the arm after Clinton's visit, came with a promised grant of $2 million a year for 10 years as seed money for businesses.
But this year, when the zone began to see long-term plans get off the ground, the Bush administration cut its grant to $1.5 million. It allocated no money for the zone in its proposed budget for next year.
Some people blame politics for the funding slights. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Tim Johnson, D-S.D., his junior colleague, have proposed bills to increase funding for Indian programs, only to see them defeated in the Republican-controlled Congress.
In 2002, Johnson beat Republican John Thune by 524 votes based on late returns from Pine Ridge. Last week, Daschle, facing Thune in a nail-biter race, counted on the Democratic voting bloc on South Dakota's nine reservations to win, but went down to defeat.
Indian programs have been cut or underfunded over many administrations, Democratic and Republican. Last year, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a report criticizing the federal government for underspending on Native American programs over generations. Between 1975 and 2000, the study found, funding for Indian programs declined when adjusted for inflation.
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, a source of complaints ever since federal law established the tribal-council system to help make tribes self-determining, is never stable, since the whole 16-member governing body faces election every two years. It is also on the verge of bankruptcy.
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