Clinton Visit Illuminates Depth of Poverty on Sioux Reservation


In the heart of the Badlands Wednesday, President Clinton encountered some of the worst of American poverty.

Clinton was the first incumbent president to visit Indian tribal lands since Franklin D. Roosevelt made a quick stop at a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina in 1936, the White House said. Clinton spent 3 1/2 hours at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, site of what Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo called “probably the most extreme case of poverty” in the country.

What he encountered were grim statistics and anger about unkept promises.

The White House presented the day as a “nation-to-nation” visit, in which the president of the United States met the president of the Oglala Lakota nation. Sensitive to Native American feelings, Clinton spoke a word or two in the Sioux language during a speech, his attempt so appreciated that members of the audience cheered even when he announced he was about to try.


But some of his hosts remained skeptical--and angry that Native Americans, so long in the background of American life, were again being used as a backdrop, this time for a president’s poverty tour.

“There have been generations of broken promises,” said Butch Denny, president of the Santee Sioux Tribe in neighboring Nebraska. “It’s hard to get me hook, line and sinker.”

Clinton was greeted by Harold Salway, president of the Oglala Lakota nation. The tribal leader wore a brilliant bonnet of red, black, white and yellow feathers, and a business suit as he introduced Clinton.

During the visit, the president sat with a tearful Geraldine Blue Bird on her front porch and heard how she lives. She buys school shoes for her children on a layaway plan. She shares a home and the trailer next to it--with a total of five bedrooms--with 27 members of her extended family. She keeps the heat turned off in the bitter winter of the Great Plains because it costs $50 to bring a propane truck to her neighborhood. She occasionally sells tacos and takes the meager profits to a neighborhood store to put more money down on the basics she needs but can never quite afford.

Clinton responded by telling Blue Bird: “I sit around in Washington and try to imagine how in the world they make ends meet when nobody has a job.”

“It would really mean a lot to everybody,” the 44-year-old Blue Bird said, “if we could get jobs.”

Pine Ridge was the fourth stop on a presidential cross-country tour of impoverished communities left behind during the economic expansion that began nearly seven years ago.

The Shannon County, S.D., reservation, home to 38,000 people, is a portrait of poverty. The median income of about $17,000 annually is about $20,000 below the national average, and 46.7% of the county’s population lives in poverty. According to a Harvard University study, life expectancy here is 45, lower than that of any group in the United States. Nationwide, the unemployment rate has been below 5% for two years. Here, it is 73%, a figure Clinton declared “appalling.”


There are no banks within the borders of the 2.3 million-acre reservation, and no public transportation. Only one industry, which makes uniforms, employs more than a few people in Pine Ridge Village, the White House said.

For Clinton, the visit offered a carefully crafted opportunity to spotlight government programs intended to begin to tackle the poverty that has grown since Native Americans were offered refuge on reservations more than 100 years ago.

“I have seen today not only poverty but promise,” the president said in his speech to several thousand residents on the campus of Pine Ridge High School, 20 years on a construction list but completed only three years ago.

Clinton also came with some assistance: a $1.5-billion expansion of government housing loans in Native American communities, a $650-million investment plan to finance housing for 7,500 families in South Dakota, an “empowerment zone,” granting tax incentives to investors in Pine Ridge, and a pledge of $3 million from the Federal National Mortgage Assn., the quasi-government housing loan agency. In detailing these plans, he pointedly noted: “You have all heard years of pretty words.”


But Milo Yellow Hair, the tribe’s land director and former tribal vice president, told a reporter he is dubious. “We hope it’s more than promises. We’ve had plenty of those. We want something to take home to our children and say, ‘There is hope in America.”’

Clinton’s proposal “makes sense for middle-class America,” Yellow Hair said. But, he added, it may not work to encourage long-range outside investment in communities where there is no established system to distribute products, where the nearest interstate highway is 100 miles to the south (Clinton arrived by Marine Corps helicopter) and where the federal government owns nearly all the surrounding land as far as the eye can see and beyond.

Yellow Hair was also disappointed that Clinton had stayed less than four hours.

“We wanted the opportunity to showcase the cultural depth of our nation,” he said. “It’s cramming 2,000 years of history into 10 minutes. We are a culturally viable people, with our language and government. That should have been respected, rather than White House protocol.”


What is needed, he said, is nothing less than “a fundamental reassessment of how the federal government deals with Indian tribes in America.”