Poverty’s Poster Child
By Nicholas D. Kristof
In the national number line of inequality, people here represent the “other 1 percent,” the bottom of the national heap.
Pine Ridge is a poster child of American poverty and of the failures of the reservation system for American Indians in the West. The latest Census Bureau data show that Shannon County here had the lowest per capita income in the entire United States in 2010. Not far behind in that Census Bureau list of poorest counties are several found largely inside other Sioux reservations in South Dakota: Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek.
Poverty in the United States, including in the reservations, is so entrenched because it is often part of a toxic brew of alcohol or drug dependencies, dysfunctional families and educational failures. It self-replicates generation after generation.
“What’s a man or woman to do?” asked Ben, a young man here who said he started drinking at age 12. “I felt helpless. I felt worthless, and I wanted a drink to get rid of my pain. But then you get more pain.”
Here's a pointed response:
The Letter I Wrote to the Editor of the NYT about Kristof's Column (it's been 7 days, so I guess they aren't printing it)
By Ruth Robertson-Hopkins
While I appreciate Mr. Kristof's effort to bring attention to the crushing poverty that exists on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, his column "Poverty's Poster Child" represents part of a national trend that exploits the very real problems of sovereign Indigenous Nations as little more than poverty porn, pandered to public voyeurs craving sensational stories of quiet desperation. Instead, poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, disease, and other issues we as Natives face are worthy of sincere investigation, as well as the elucidation of probable solutions.
If the pity of outsiders could solve any of our problems, it would have by now. You cannot save the Indian. We must, and we will, save ourselves. Acknowledge our efforts. If you wish to support us, do so by respecting our sovereignty as Native Nations, honoring our treaties, publishing Native writers who are best qualified to tell our stories, and voting for congressman who will enact Tribal provisions that protect Native women under The Violence Against Women Act. We are at the table. Hear us.
Columnist, Indian Country Today Media Network
1) The recent Cobell settlement will pay Indians a fraction of the amounts they're owed for their mineral rights. Through its negligent accounting, the government has robbed hundreds of thousands of Indians of thousands of dollars each.
2) Conservatives refuse to extend the Violence Against Women Act to give tribes jurisdiction over non-Indians on the reservation. Crime flourishes because the government won't let tribes prosecute criminals.
Kristof seems to be practicing "flyover journalism"--stopping in Pine Ridge for a day or two, then writing as if he's mastered the problems. Meanwhile, the media is churning out hundreds of articles, videos, and blog postings every day--exploring the issues in much greater depth. I suppose his broad-brush column can't hurt, but I'm not sure how it helps.
Another Children of the Plains?
It's much like Diane Sawyer's Children of the Plains special, which I labeled "poverty porn." Did that produce a lasting change in anyone's consciousness? Not that I can tell from reading all the ensuing reports--or lack thereof.
Or did the show let well-meaning viewers wring their hands and tell themselves, "Oh, yes, conditions at Pine Ridge are horrible. I feel terrible about it, but I feel good about how terrible I feel. I've done my part by watching the show and expressing my feelings of shame and regret. Now I can resume my privileged life with a clear conscience."
That's kind of how poverty porn functions. Unless the TV special and Kristof's column produce a noticeable change, they aren't worth much. Indians need political and social action, not another pity party.
For more on the subject, see Rez Life Avoids Poverty Porn and Video Response to Children of the Plains.