Pine Ridge Poverty

Pine Ridge, a Native American reservation in South Dakota, is one of the poorest places in the Western Hemisphere:

A Lakota on Pine Ridge receives on average $3,700 annually from the tribal trust fund, less than an American citizen receiving welfare.

National unemployment rate is at ~10%.

Unemployment in Pine Ridge is at ~90%.

Alcoholism rates in Pine Ridge are over 80%.

Life expectancy at Pine Ridge is 47 years for men and 54 years for women, second lowest in the Western Hemisphere only to Haiti.

There is one dilapidated supermarket for roughly 45,000 residents on Pine Ridge, far southwest in a corner of the reservation, inaccessible to most. A middle-aged old man with skin the color of the earth and weathered beyond his years, stands beside the entrance to a memorial of his ancestors at Wounded Knee. It was here that the resistance and dream of his people died in 1890, when over 350 Oglala Lakota men, women, and children were massacred by the U.S. 7th Calvary. He tells us this story, and at its conclusion asked for a few dollars; he does this with dignity, yet it seems an activity he is accustomed to. He needs the money to pay for a two-hour, out-of-state drive to the nearest supermarket — a Wal-Mart in Nebraska — for enough food to last a few weeks, and then he will once again begin saving for the trip.

Pine Ridge Reservation is possibly one of the most well-known areas of American Indian history in the United States. Despite their inseparable role in the historical narrative of the United States, the current plight of Native Americans is often forgotten, glossed over, or simply ignored. The reservation is home to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and as recorded in the works of Ward Churchill, where the American Indian Movement occupied the town for over two months while it was attacked and blockaded by the FBI in 1973.


This spring, I was able to stay as on the reservation through RE-MEMBER, a non-profit, non-evangelical organization. This group is present at Pine Ridge year-round and runs week-long volunteer trips from spring through fall. Volunteers spend three days working and three days on activities, touring Pine Ridge, Badlands National Park and Wounded Knee. During my stay, Re-Members spoke to us nightly and introduced our group to community members, exposing us to life on the reservation, if only briefly.

Most basic services are lacking at Pine Ridge. We attempted to provide a few while there, working in the organic community garden, building outhouses (most of Pine Ridge is without plumbing and septic), and putting up drywall in a semi-finished house that a church group had abandoned. All these problems, felt on an individual level, stem from gross structural problems.

Before my travels, my head was filled with stock images of “poverty,” but while out there I learned that poverty is not what you can see—it is not necessarily emaciated kids in Africa with flies on their eyes. Out in the North American desert, it’s no plumbing, no employment or opportunity, rampant alcoholism, corrupt government, and a conspicuous lack of infrastructure for transportation. To privileged, untrained eyes this poverty was invisible, but it is something that those on reservations across the United States know well, and live with. Yet the Lakota people do not necessarily see poverty, but life.

One of the most amazing things I’ve learned in my own life, I learned on Pine Ridge: that in this place of extreme poverty and palpable distress, there are no homeless. Shelter from the elements and safety from the social alienation that comes from having no home is a right, not a privilege. The bonds of community, of sister and brotherhood, run so tightly bound that in many trailer-homes over half a dozen Lakota people live together. And while I tried to enter this trip with no expectations, I realize I had borne with me some of the same preconceptions permeating a common image of native people.


Far too often, Native American culture and heritage is conflated with alcoholism and casinos, but these recent developments only disguise and drive attention away from true markers of American indigenity—the rich histories of culture, resistance, spirituality, and environmental communion.

The people of Pine Ridge have an indomitable spirit and should be regarded as survivors and agents of their own lives. When discussing the conditions they face, I’ve heard so many remarks beginning with, “Well if it’s so bad, why don’t they just . . .”

Many American families are learning now in these economic times that getting a job, moving to a someplace cheaper, or giving up the drink that may offer momentary reprieve, are not so simple. Oversimplifying the realities of life on Pine Ridge and assuming its residents are there by choice only perpetuates the implicit racism and misunderstanding of Native Americans in greater U.S. society.

Despite historical injustices that placed the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge, to the people living there today, it is their home. And their spirituality, it seems, is more connected to what is left of the historical land base of their people (the Great Plains) than the spirituality of major Western religions.

Even if these individuals did have the means to leave Pine Ridge — and an overwhelming majority does not — in doing so, they would leave behind their friends, their family, and their community, all of which are so highly valued and relied upon in Lakota culture.

And though Native Americans are commonly viewed as static, primitive peoples whose culture has not evolved from its inception to the present day, I believe nothing could be further from the truth. They do not live in teepees or walk around wearing headdresses; they are products of dominant culture like us, shaped by their environment, the times in which they live, and the culture that has nurtured them.


Within the United States, their struggle continues today. But it is not against an obvious enemy of an invading army like the U.S. Calvary. It is against an unequal distribution of power and wealth that affords little to no opportunity to those on the reservations, which results in social and political invisibility for the first inhabitants of this land.

Those who are marginalized — these Native Americans, forced into unwanted areas of little use, by way of a concentration camp-like system — hunger for a social existence, a sense of worth and importance, and battle against invisibility in the limited avenues they can access.

Therefore, I am actively pursuing another trip to the Pine Ridge reservation — hopefully as an alternative spring break trip, with help from the TCNJ community and faculty

Indigenous peoples offer an amazing opportunity for personal reflection of our own culture and values, aside from academic anthropological study. Those traveling would be exposed to knowledge and history of many things we were never taught in our academic lives — once eyes are opened, they are hard to close.


Please contact Matt Fillare  //  fillare-2-at-tcnj-dot-edu // or Dr. Benjamin Rifkin, Dean of the School of Culture & Society  //  rifkin-at-tcnj-dot-edu //  If you would be interested in making a trip to Pine Ridge.

For independent inquiries regarding volunteering or to plan your own trip to Pine Ridge, please contact RE-MEMBER,