May 23, 2012

Kristof's Pine Ridge column

Here's an interesting exchange about Pine Ridge. It's especially interesting because Nicholas Kristof is a liberal columnist who has written extensively about poverty and related issues around the world.

Poverty’s Poster Child

By Nicholas D. KristofThis sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a Connecticut-sized zone of prairie and poverty, where the have-nots are defined less by the money they lack than by suffocating hopelessness.

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.”
Kristof goes on to list three things holding Indians back. He finishes with a brief mention of "bright spots" and "enormous resilience," but the overall feel is negative. "The reservation system is largely failing in the West," he concludes, and "these Indian reservations will have to shed people."

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-HopkinsTo the Editor:

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.

Ruth Hopkins
Columnist, Indian Country Today Media Network
Comment: A few more points:

  • Pine Ridge may be the poorest reservation in America. It's not fair to look at the worst situation and conclude the reservation system is failing overall. How about looking at average reservations, or the best reservations, instead? If they're failing--which they aren't--then you can conclude something about reservations as a whole.

  • None of Kristof's problems or solutions involve the US government. But the government is a key player in most aspects of Native life. Consider a couple of examples:

  • 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.


    Anonymous said...

    Yeah, I think a lot of it is that you can deal with "issues" a certain way, by overemphasizing them. A few months ago, the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center said that the HIV-positive population of the Navajo rez doubled. From 40 to 80, out of 173987 people in 2000. Statistically, that's 0.046%, far less than the United States at large. (My old statistics teacher had a maxim: "The unicorn population of Atlantis doubles every day." Meaning relative numbers like "doubled" are worthless.)

    That, my friends, is poverty porn.

    A big part of it is crime. Back in the 70s, there was something white kids did called "Injun rollin" where they'd take a passed-out wino Indian, roll him in a blanket, and throw him off a cliff. It's still done to this day, of course, but again, as far as Indians are concerned, conservatives are soft on crime.

    (As an aside, this reminds me of what I said to a friend. "I shouldn't have loaned her any money. She's a Republican, they can't plan a budget for their lives."

    Anonymous said...

    If you look at income levels across the board, Indian reservations are not unlike inner city ghettos or Latino barrios. There's just no jobs, period. What little impact gaming has brought to Indian country gets met with white anger and rhetoric of "preferential treatment" from Republicans and white America in general, but my point here is that what most Americans feel today in the areas of unemployment; homelessness and health issues has always been a way of life for many native people, yet, amazingly, conservatives insists it is not their support for excessive greed and corporate profits that keep ALL Americans in poverty. This is a phenomenom Americans refuse to change or try to re-approach from evolving better ideals into policy. Natives are no different. We create and harbor our own poverty or prosperity. Lakota people may seem poverty stricken to the world, but they still manage a radio station, an impressive campaign to save the language and traditions some so-called progressive tribes cannot maintain, particularly in Oklahoma. Truth be told is that social programs and Indian gaming take nothing away from anyone compared to what goes into the CIA; FBI; law enforcement and the defense industry, and what do these entities gain the working poor? America is one of the only alleged modern countrys where you can be employed, pay taxes and still be homeless. And Americans insist this is the best nation on earth?

    dmarks said...

    "(As an aside, this reminds me of what I said to a friend. "I shouldn't have loaned her any money. She's a Republican, they can't plan a budget for their lives.""

    Tell this to Obama, who has chosen to increase the entire national debt by 50%, and quickly tossed away great promises like to never sign earmarks as soon as he gained office.

    dmarks said...

    "What little impact gaming has brought to Indian country gets met with white anger and rhetoric of "preferential treatment" from Republicans and white America in general"

    Actually, this is quite poorly informed, as you get major state Republican leaders like John Engler expanding Native gaming, and strongly liberal Democrats like Feinstein opposed to gaming.

    "conservatives insists it is not their support for excessive greed and corporate profits that keep ALL Americans in poverty."

    Conservatives have a record of opposing excessive greed: a great example of this is the opposition to the tax hikes.

    And corporate profits keep people in jobs and out of poverty. Once "excessive greed" comes into play in the forms of tax hikes and other destructive policies, the corporations are forced to fire people or leave the country.

    Anonymous said...

    @dmarks: Yeah, maybe he just realized just what an earmark is. Technically, money to fix the interstate highway system is an earmark.

    Most people just thought of the bridge to nowhere.

    I was more referencing how wrong political stereotypes are, though.

    Feinstein's weird. She also advocated racial profiling post-9/11.

    One of the biggest issues facing all indigenous peoples, though, is the "oil curse". Once a country finds a resource they need, usually on indigenous land (which is basically the only land not taken for some previous resource), bad things happen.

    Rob said...

    Democrats support Indian gaming more than Republicans overall.

    "Greed" is a description of people's mental state. Tax hikes aren't "greedy" since they benefit the country, not individuals.

    The conservatives' record is to benefit from America's government without paying for it. Specifically, to avoid taxes through legal tricks whenever they can. That's greedy.

    Democrats have a much better record than Republicans on almost every issue of fiscal management. As I've noted in Democrats Are Better Money Managers.

    Rob said...

    As for Obama's record on the national debt, you can read about it here:

    Is Obama responsible for a $5 trillion increase in the debt?

    Rob said...

    For more on the actual subject of this posting, see:

    The Roots of Tragedy: Lakota People's Law Project Challenges New York Times "Poverty's Poster Child" OpEd by Nicholas Kristof