The Appalling State Of Our Indian Reservations
Yesterday I had occasion to spend about 15 hours visiting people on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota, and I’ve got to say that I was pretty shocked by what I saw.
I’ve spent a lot of time on North Dakota’s Indian reservations. I’ve worked there, visited businesses and restaurants and driven throughout them. I’ve even been up to a lot of people’s houses to deliver things or obtain information, so I’ve been aware of the poor conditions on the reservations for some time, but never before yesterday have I had the opportunity to have such an intimate look at life on the reservation. I was not impressed with what I saw.
The first thing I noticed was that while I was going around neighborhoods and knocking on doors was that nearly everyone seemed to be at home. Just about every knock received an answer. In a non-reservation community when I go through residential neighborhoods during the day it’s hard to find people at home. Everyone is out and busy. Why isn’t it like this on the reservation? Probably because in most of North Dakota the unemployment rate is around 3%, while on the Indian reservations it’s about 65%.
Which is a sad commentary in and of itself, but rampant unemployment aside the simple reality of the conditions these people are living in is even more amazing. I saw kids playing outside, on a day when the temperature was just below freezing, in shorts and bare feet (though they were wearing parkas). I met people living in homes with broken out windows and nothing but a piece of plywood or some plastic stretched over them to keep out the cold. I saw homes with dozens of abandoned vehicles around them, and took in smells emitting from some of the doors that were opened to me that brought tears to my eyes. Inside the homes I saw mountains of unwashed dishes, mounds of unwashed clothes, overflowing trash cans, walls literally dripping with nicotine from the constant smoking and throughout it all children playing in the reek.
And the people living in these homes were as disappointing as the homes themselves. I met people who were drunk (or high or something) at noon, even as their children played in the road and on the twisted, sharp metal of abandoned cars. I saw a visibly pregnant mother smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. I met a woman who was 29 years old and already a grandmother (to no fewer than three grandchildren) thanks to both her and her daughter’s young pregnancies. I met men and women, fathers and mothers, who had spent more of their lives in prison then out of prison. I met entire families whose only source of income seemed to be from stealing or selling drugs plus whatever they got from the government in terms of assistance.
I have heard tales from the notorious slums in places like Los Angeles and New York, but I’m not sure those slums can beat North Dakota’s Indian reservations in terms of pure filth and abhorrent living conditions.
So how is this happening in North Dakota? A state that is thriving economically right now? A state where the unemployment rate is so low that employers are practically screaming for workers? I know why it’s happening, but not a lot of people are going to want to hear it.
It’s happening because of the total failure of the idea embraced by some that the government exists to take care of us. The government has been taking care of North Dakota’s Indians, but it’s harming them more than it’s helping.