|By Russell Morse
New America Media Report
Jun 03, 2008
When L. Frank Baum described the great, parched prairies of Kansas in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it wasn’t Kansas he had in mind. The gray mass of cracked land that he placed little Dorothy in the middle of was, in fact, South Dakota. He based this drought-punished landscape on observations he made during his time there as editor of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer.
He was living in South Dakota at the time of the Massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It was a volatile time for the region and Baum, long before he found any fame, became a voice for the settlers who were at odds with the natives of the Dakota territory. After Wounded Knee, he offered the following words on the editorial page of his newspaper: “Our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians.”
Soon after writing those words, he was swept up in a tornado of his own and landed in his Emerald City of Chicago in time for the World’s Fair, allowing the tragic saga of the Dakotas to unfold behind him.
Some 120 years later, what appeared to be the same tornado swept Hillary Clinton through the Badlands for her final stand. Last week, she stood before 300 Lakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation at Little Wound High School and declared, “I will fight for you!” She was met with wild enthusiasm, and rightly so. The Pine Ridge Reservation in the southeast corner of the state is a troubled and forgotten pocket of America. Bill Clinton was only the second US President to visit the reservation. The first, nearly 70 years ago, was Franklin Roosevelt.
It seems a proper finish for this ever-increasingly bizarre primary season: two exhausted and adored presidential hopefuls vying for the affection and approval of Lakota Indians in one of the poorest and neglected pockets of our country.
Shannon County, South Dakota, which is on the Pine Ridge reservation, is the second poorest county in America. The first is Buffalo County, also in South Dakota. In fact, half of the top ten poorest counties in the United States are in South Dakota. And here comes Hillary and Barack, sleep deprived and sweat drenched around the final bend.
Nick Tilsen grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation. He’s 26 now and can rattle off the laundry list of obstacles that a young person faces there: rampant and wildly destructive substance abuse, the lowest paid teachers in the country, 75 percent unemployment, pervasive gang activity, domestic abuse. He’s much more eager, though, to discuss the future of Pine Ridge.
In a very deliberate but casual tone, with a hint of an accent, he casts aside the symptoms and identifies a solution. He says, “Young people need to know who they are. With Native people, at the core of that is culture and spirituality. That’s how our people have survived all the things the government has done to us.”
For someone who considers himself and his people consistently wronged by this country, though, he is notably invested in the political process. He says a big push for Democratic participation started on the reservation in 2002 as part of a new strategy because they were “desperate” to create change. In a lot of ways, it worked. In 2004, 85 percent of voters in Shannon county voted for John Kerry, a higher percentage that in any other county in the United States. They recently turned out to elect South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, because they knew that he sits on the Appropriations Committee, which decides the funding for their social programs.
And now, Nick says, the young people of Pine Ridge have found in Barack Obama a candidate who offers the promise of a new relationship with the government. He explains, “Obama’s message resonates with the people on the rez because the majority of the people living here are young and they’re willing to listen.”
At a recent campaign stop in Rapid City, Obama addressed a crowd that, Nick says, was “easily half native.” Unlike Hillary, though, he didn’t make a stop on the reservation.
That was a sizable blow to Bill Mendoza, who is the Deputy Field organizer for the Obama campaign on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He, like Nick, grew up here and at 32, he’s considered an elder in the campaign. As enthusiastic as his young volunteers are, Obama’s decision not to come to Pine Ridge affected their morale. “Indian country is as much about retail politics as rural country,” he explains. “We need to see our candidate. And in some ways, it means much more, considering the volatile political history of Indian country.”
That volatile history, though, is what drew the young people of the reservation to Obama’s campaign to begin with. “I see a lot of hope,” he says. “And I know that’s a ‘campaign word’ now, but it’s the only word I can use to describe it.”
Bill explains that the support for Obama’s candidacy has come from a lot of people looking to soothe divisions in tribal politics. He explains that in their support of a “unifying” presidential candidate, they are sending a message to end factionalism in their tribe between traditional and progressive groups and age-old arguments over who’s responsible for what. Bill tells a story of two seventh graders working on the campaign who travel with the message of hope, inspiring peers with phrases like, “How do we make changes in our socioeconomic situation?”
As promising as this seems, Bill understands that there’s still a lot to contend with. On a recent canvassing visit on the reservation, he came back to his car and found a group of kids trying to break in. He chased them down and managed to catch two of them. When he asked them what they were doing, they calmly explained that they thought he had cigarettes in his car. An older friend of theirs told them to break into the car and threatened to beat them up if they didn’t.
Bill understood right away. He said, “This is what they live with. They have questions like, how do you improve our security situation? They’ve had corrupt experiences with the police. And there are not enough police to patrol neighborhoods, so they resort to gangs to patrol their neighborhoods.”
He explains that the young people working the campaign are struggling with the same set of issues. “That’s why they’re here, that’s why they believe,” he says. “So many of them have inherited their father’s wars and they don’t want that.”