Issue 216 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US: native Americans

Sharon Smith

In December a study by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that life expectancy at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is the lowest anywhere in the US. At Pine Ridge men live on average 56.5 years - on a par with figures for Sub-Saharan Africa and lower than those of any nation in the western hemisphere except for Haiti.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the second largest Indian reservation in the US - home to 26,000 members of the Oglala Sioux tribe, descendants of the legendary Indian warriors Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Pine Ridge is also of historic importance - it is the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, an unprovoked slaughter by US Cavalry against the Sioux.

The US founding fathers had promised fair treatment to Native Americans. In 1789 Congress declared, 'The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken away from them without their consent.' But these words were never put into practice.

In reality, the US was involved in a ruthless quest for land, minerals and other riches - which it stole from the Native Americans, who had settled there thousands of years earlier. The US government ceded the entire western half of South Dakota to the Sioux in 1868 - only to take it back seven years later, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The US government, ironically, justified its war against American Indians as a defence of civilisation against barbarism. President Theodore Roosevelt argued, for example, 'The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages.'

But the significance of Pine Ridge is not merely historic, as current life expectancy rates suggest. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is also a living symbol of Native American oppression. In 1992 Pine Ridge, South Dakota, was named the poorest county in the US, where two out of every three adults are without a job and more than half the population lives in poverty. There are no factories or other industry anywhere near the reservation. The land is barren - with no crops or lumber, minerals or gas anywhere in the vicinity. The only source of employment besides the tribal government is the Prairie Wind Casino, a gambling operation much less impressive than its name. It consists of three trailers hoisted on cinder blocks, with several slot machines and two tables for poker and blackjack.

There are no buses or trains anywhere in Pine Ridge. There are no gyms, movie theatres or shopping centres on the reservation, while the nearest city is 80 miles away. More than one third of homes have no indoor plumbing or electricity. Tribal officials estimate that an average of 17 people are crammed into each dwelling. The residence of Michael Little Boy, age 41, is typical. He lives in a one room shack which measures 20 feet by 20 feet along with his wife, five children and two nieces. Little Boy was a janitor once, and later worked as a tribal policeman, now he has no job in sight. The Little Boy family would have been eligible for federal housing assistance, but the programme was cut by 67 percent two years ago.

Government rations for the destitute residents of Pine Ridge have been high in sodium and fat and low in nutrition, helping to create a diabetes epidemic. Before 1940, when the rations started, diabetes was virtually non-existent among Native Americans. Today, one in four Native Americans has been diagnosed with it. Alcoholism and suicide also claim a staggering number of Native American lives. At Pine Ridge nearly half the adult population has a dependency on alcohol. No liquor is sold on the reservation, so residents must travel miles and miles of winding, steep and often unpaved roads just to buy liquor. Not surprisingly, Pine Ridge motorists are four times more likely to die in a car accident than anywhere else in the US. Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death for Native Americans.

Poverty alone does not explain the extreme demoralisation of the Pine Ridge population. State repression - this time the FBI, rather than the army - has once again played an extensive role. In the early 1970s the reservation was a focal point for Native American struggle. The American Indian Movement (AIM) was formed in the late 1960s in the wake of the Black Power movement, initially by young, urban Indians who wanted to fight against oppression both on and off the reservation.

In 1972 the AIM organised a 'Trail of Broken Treaties' march in Washington DC and seized the government's Bureau of Indian Affairs office. In 1973 the FBI attacked AIM militants at Pine Ridge, leading to a 71 day FBI occupation of the reservation. For the next three years Native American activists were at virtual civil war with the FBI and tribal authorities at Pine Ridge. During this period at least 61 AIM members and their supporters were killed at Pine Ridge, either by the FBI directly or by their Indian supporters from the group calling itself Guardians of the Oglala Nation (nicknamed, appropriately, Goons).

Researchers Bruce Johansen and Roberto Maestas concluded in 1979 that, using only documented political deaths during the three year period between 1 March 1973 and 1 March 1976, the political murder rate among the 10,000 Native Americans 'was almost equivalent to that in Chile during the three years after a military coup supported by the United States deposed and killed President Salvador Allende.'

The American Indian Movement was crushed through sheer repression. Its best known leader, Leonard Peltier, still sits rotting in a prison cell more than 20 years later, on a trumped up murder charge. As AIM defence lawyer Kenneth Stern, who toured the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation years after the FBI occupation, described, 'We heard more horror stories as we travelled around the reservation...about the Goons shooting at old people, about the FBI invading Oglala as if it were a battle front in Vietnam. Everyone had lived in constant fear of death. So many years later, the trauma was still fresh. Young adults pulled up their shirts and pant legs, showing us wounds they received as children - from bullets.'

Native American oppression is hidden from US history books and ignored by the mainstream media. To expose it would be to lay bare the savagery of the capitalist system. The suffering of the Oglala Sioux at Pine Ridge - both past and present - shows why capitalism must be overthrown if Native Americans are ever to receive justice.


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