What Do We Owe?

I listened to a talk by Aaron Huey on T.E.D. the other day. He spoke on “America’s Native Prisoners of War.” Huey is a photographer and storyteller. His award-winning work has been published in the National Geographic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. He has traveled the world and spent quality time with many cultures. Here is a quote from his biography, “My success is not measured in money. I have no financial security. I have no savings account. I measure my success by asking myself if I’m telling a story that the world needs to hear, if I am educating people.”

His heartfelt talk on T.E.D. was about the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Lakota people who live there. The theme of his talk was centered around an old expression used by the Lakota people that means, “the one who takes the best part of the meat”. He went on to discuss the timeline of the European invasion of the Native American’s land. Huey presented this history in a calm and factual manner, but encased with deep emotion. He had spent the past five years among the Lakota, learning first hand about their existence. I say existence because that is about all they are doing – existing – not thriving, not living a full life, not privileged to celebrate abundance.

Huey’s presentation educated me. My social ignorance was embarrassingly high. My jaw dropped when I learned that the average life span for a man on the reservation was between 46-48 years. That’s in the same range as Afghanistan and Somalia. The infant mortality rate is three times greater than the rest of the country. 90% live below the poverty line. Average annual income is $3,800. Unemployment is 85-90% and that isn’t the fault of our current Great Recession. It’s been at that level for who knows how long. Actually, how could it be any other way? Jobs are scarce on the reservation. Economic development couldn’t get a toehold even if it tried. There is no industry nor commercial operation on the reservation. The land is infertile.

On December 9, 2009, Theresa Two Bulls, President of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe declared a Suicide State of Emergency at a press conference that day. I’ve never heard of anyone issuing a declaration like that. Again, my social ignorance is showing. Suicide has reached epidemic proportions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Theresa Two Bulls organized a campaign to call their local, state and national elected officials on February 16, 2010. She instructed the Lakota people to please be respectful when they call. Tell them about the suicide epidemic and the extreme poverty. Please remind President Obama of his promise to help us.

I’m sure President Obama wants to help. So did President Clinton when he toured the reservation in June, 1999 on his “Economic Empowerment Tour.” Maybe every president has wanted to help. Maybe not. Maybe it’s too overwhelming. Maybe some people think that it’s the Indian’s own fault that they’re in such a mess. Alcoholism is rampant. Drugs. Gangs. They’re all on some form of public assistance. Generations upon generations living on welfare. They should pull themselves up by their boot straps, right?  just like the rest of us. Self-sufficiency. It’s the American way, right?

I saw a t-shirt a few years ago that had a picture of a group of Indians standing in full battle regalia. Across the bottom it read, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” After I listened to Aaron Huey’s talk, I thought of the famous quote by Chief Joseph, “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

What do you do with an entire nation of people who have no fight left in them? Broken spirits in need of repair.


About Kathleen Franks

Kathleen Franks is a writer, artist, storyteller, and community volunteer based in Berkeley, CA
This entry was posted in Empathy, Justice, Racism, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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