Shannon County, South Dakota, which is on the Pine Ridge reservation, is the second poorest county in America. The first is Buffalo County, also in South Dakota. In fact, half of the top ten poorest counties in the United States are in South Dakota. And here comes Hillary and Barack, sleep deprived and sweat drenched around the final bend.
Nick Tilsen grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation. Hefs 26 now and can rattle off the laundry list of obstacles that a young person faces there: rampant and wildly destructive substance abuse, the lowest paid teachers in the country, 75 percent unemployment, pervasive gang activity, domestic abuse. Hefs much more eager, though, to discuss the future of Pine Ridge.
In a very deliberate but casual tone, with a hint of an accent, he casts aside the symptoms and identifies a solution. He says, gYoung people need to know who they are. With Native people, at the core of that is culture and spirituality. Thatfs how our people have survived all the things the government has done to us.h
For someone who considers himself and his people consistently wronged by this country, though, he is notably invested in the political process. He says a big push for Democratic participation started on the reservation in 2002 as part of a new strategy because they were gdesperateh to create change. In a lot of ways, it worked. In 2004, 85 percent of voters in Shannon county voted for John Kerry, a higher percentage that in any other county in the United States. They recently turned out to elect South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, because they knew that he sits on the Appropriations Committee, which decides the funding for their social programs.
And now, Nick says, the young people of Pine Ridge have found in Barack Obama a candidate who offers the promise of a new relationship with the government. He explains, gObamafs message resonates with the people on the rez because the majority of the people living here are young and theyfre willing to listen.h
At a recent campaign stop in Rapid City, Obama addressed a crowd that, Nick says, was geasily half native.h Unlike Hillary, though, he didnft make a stop on the reservation.
That was a sizable blow to Bill Mendoza, who is the Deputy Field organizer for the Obama campaign on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He, like Nick, grew up here and at 32, hefs considered an elder in the campaign. As enthusiastic as his young volunteers are, Obamafs decision not to come to Pine Ridge affected their morale. gIndian country is as much about retail politics as rural country,h he explains. gWe need to see our candidate. And in some ways, it means much more, considering the volatile political history of Indian country.h
That volatile history, though, is what drew the young people of the reservation to Obamafs campaign to begin with. gI see a lot of hope,h he says. gAnd I know thatfs a ecampaign wordf now, but itfs the only word I can use to describe it.h
Bill explains that the support for Obamafs candidacy has come from a lot of people looking to soothe divisions in tribal politics. He explains that in their support of a gunifyingh presidential candidate, they are sending a message to end factionalism in their tribe between traditional and progressive groups and age-old arguments over whofs responsible for what. Bill tells a story of two seventh graders working on the campaign who travel with the message of hope, inspiring peers with phrases like, gHow do we make changes in our socioeconomic situation?h
As promising as this seems, Bill understands that therefs still a lot to contend with. On a recent canvassing visit on the reservation, he came back to his car and found a group of kids trying to break in. He chased them down and managed to catch two of them. When he asked them what they were doing, they calmly explained that they thought he had cigarettes in his car. An older friend of theirs told them to break into the car and threatened to beat them up if they didnft.
Bill understood right away. He said, gThis is what they live with. They have questions like, how do you improve our security situation? Theyfve had corrupt experiences with the police. And there are not enough police to patrol neighborhoods, so they resort to gangs to patrol their neighborhoods.h
He explains that the young people working the campaign are struggling with the same set of issues. gThatfs why theyfre here, thatfs why they believe,h he says. gSo many of them have inherited their fatherfs wars and they donft want that.h
Comments? Send a letter to the editor.
Albion Monitor June
3, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.