Native Sun News: Pine Ridge Reservation still among poorest

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy. All content © Native Sun News.

Shannon County, located in its entirety on the Pine Ridge Reservation, historically remains one of America’s most impoverished counties. Photo Courtesy Shannon County

The Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota people, continues to be one of the most poverty-stricken geographical regions in the country.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Shannon County, which lies entirely within the exterior boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is the third poorest county in the nation. For the third consecutive year, the county ranks among America’s three poorest. The 1980 census listed Shannon County as the poorest county in America, prompting one Shannon County resident to shout, “We’re number one.”

With an overall poverty rate that almost consistently hovers near 50%, the primarily Native American residents of the county remain hard-pressed to combat the rampant unemployment and diminished economic development, among other things, that plague this isolated community and keep it ensconced among the country’s most indigent areas. Neighboring Jackson and Bennett counties, which both lie partially on the Pine Ridge Reservation, are also among this nation’s poorest.

South Dakota, with its high Native American population, currently holds the dismal distinction of having four of the nation’s ten poorest counties situated within its borders. In addition to Shannon County’s number three spot, Corson County, which lies entirely within the Standing Rock Reservation, is number nine; Todd County, lying completely on the Rosebud Reservation, is number two; and Ziebach County, which makes up the majority of the Cheyenne River Reservation, is America’s poorest county.

2010 census data collected from Shannon County residents place the median annual household income level at $25,048, which is seemingly unrepresentative of the Pine Ridge Reservation as a whole. Yearly per capita income sits at $7,880.

In stark contrast, the nation’s richest county, Loudoun County, Va., claims a median annual household income of $119,540 and a yearly per capita income of $44,788. Loudoun County is part of the Washington Metropolitan Area, which includes the District of Columbia and portions of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

The approximately 3,500-square-mile Pine Ridge Reservation has a community-estimated population of close to 40,000. Shannon County, at just over 2,000 square miles, comprises a large portion of the reservation’s land base, though its reported 2010 population of approximately 13,500 makes up far less than half of the total population of the reservation. Pine Ridge Village is Shannon County’s largest residential district, with an unofficial population estimate of 2,500.

Bearing the brunt of this continuous social and economic injustice are children under 18, who have less control over the circumstances that affect their lives than the impoverished adults who care for them.

Tribal and community member Jeffrey Whalen places the responsibility for the region’s longstanding bleak economic conditions squarely on the shoulders of Oglala Sioux Tribe leaders.

“Our tribal council consists of a group of misfits who know nothing of business or the economy,” said Whalen. “We have a finance committee and an economic business development committee who would rather put road blocks up to prevent all business development from forming on the rez,” he said.

Lack of education on the part of the tribe’s administration unfairly contributes to the reservation’s deeply embedded poverty, according to Whalen.

“The council only has a handful of educated individuals who hold bachelor’s degrees and, of that small group, only two of them have degrees in business,” he said. “The rest are barely high school graduates.”

“These are the people who we depend on to make the right decisions. I strongly suggest that this is the very reason why we cannot grow economically, or grow in businesses.”

Whalen said that increasing the personal investment of the tribe’s council and members in tribal self-sufficiency and authentic self-determination in an effort to decrease external government dependency and involvement is the key to overcoming the Pine Ridge Reservation’s distressed economic conditions.

He maintains a vested interest in bringing outside enterprises to the reservation, but has little faith in tribal government to support such entrepreneurialism.

“We want to establish a bank, build houses, commercial wind farms, payday lending and much, much more, but if the powers that be cannot so much as understand how to create a business plan, much less know what a pro forma is, then how can we justify consistently going to (tribal council) to get permission to move forward? Our tribal council is too unstable. If an organization developed and operated a factory here, what will protect them from unscrupulous councilpersons? The factory could be fully operational one day, and the next day the councilperson could singlehandedly cause everything to stop because his relative didn’t get hired.”

Whalen cited Lance Morgan, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Ho-Chunk Inc., as a role model for OST’s intermeshed government to follow in its necessary quest to permanently remove the region from the ranks of America’s poorest. Ho-Chunk is an economic development corporation owned and operated by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

“Lance Morgan … got it right the first time,” said Whalen. “He made sure there was a distinct separation of business and government in Winnebago,” he said. “Aside from Mr. Morgan himself, this separation is the root reason why Ho-Chunk is so successful.”

According to the tribe’s vice president, Thomas Poor Bear, the council is currently working closely with the tribe’s economic development committee to address and resolve the issue of poverty on the reservation.

“We’re not going to solve the issue overnight, of course, but I have confidence in the council and committee to deal with the issue so we’re not the third poorest in the nation,” Poor Bear said.

Poor Bear said the joint effort is currently focused on expanding economic development on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In response to the claim of some Oglala Sioux tribal members that approximately $1 billion in external government funding has been funneled to the tribe over the last five years primarily for economic development expansion, Poor Bear said, “I don’t know the actual facts and figures of how much the tribe has received in the past five years as this is my first two-year term on tribal council.”

“I have confidence that the tribe’s administration will deal with the poverty here,” he reiterated.

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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