January 19, 2018
taking desperate measures to fight cold weather
As temperatures dropped below zero on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation earlier this month, one young girl felt she had had enough.
She was tired of feeling cold inside her home as temperatures plummeted, which they do often there. She had enough of watching her parents constantly struggle to scrounge up wood to heat the house.
The 12-year-old girl went to the bathroom and tried to kill herself.
“She was tired of waking up cold,” Jimmy Two Bulls, a Pine Ridge resident who’s helping out the girl’s family, told HuffPost. “Reservation life is a hard life to live. It’s a struggle.”
Suicides reached record highs in South Dakota last year. Oglala Lakota County, which is where the Pine Ridge reservation is located, was one of five counties in the state with the highest rates of suicide. People who have experience dealing with depression and suicide on the reservation say this is tied, in part, to the devastatingly difficult conditions residents face.
Pine Ridge, which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, is in the third-poorest county in the United States. It’s home to the Oglala Lakota, a tribe that’s part of the Sioux people. Per capita income in the county is $9,150, and 80 percent of residents are unemployed.
The pervasive poverty forces residents to make impossible choices: whether to pay to heat a home or buy enough food to feed the family, for example.
Suicide is the most severe risk advocates worry about during the winter. But it’s not the only one. People living without heat are also susceptible to hypothermia, and older members of the community are particularly vulnerable because their health could already be compromised. Those who rely on space heaters run the danger of starting a house fire. Children who don’t have access to sufficient heat struggle to sleep at night and then aren’t able to concentrate in school, Alice Phelps, 47, principal of the Wounded Knee School District, told HuffPost.
“The children act up at school. But when we talk to them one-on-one, the bottom line is they didn’t sleep that night,” Phelps, who grew up on the reservation, said. “They’ll say: ‘I didn’t have a blanket. I gave it to my little sister. I was cold.’ It just breaks your heart.”
families confront legacy of "adoption"
Conrad Eagle Feather, a Sicangu Lakota, was only three when he was taken from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and adopted by a non-Native farming family in the state of Nebraska. His three sisters were removed to separate families.
He recalls a childhood with little joy.
“They used us for farm labor,” he said, detailing a list of chores that began before dawn and continued until bedtime. He said he still bears the scars of physical abuse.
“For every sin I had committed according to the Bible, I got one strike with whatever they had in their hands at the time — a garden hose, a broom handle, a wire hanger,” he said. “And all the time, they used to tell me, ‘Who knows what would have happened to you if we hadn’t saved you?’”
For generations, the U.S. government turned to forced assimilation to solve what was generally called, “the Indian problem,” that is, how to govern Native Americans, lift them from “barbarism,” reduce their reliance on federal funding and guarantee their loyalty.
Beginning in the 1880s, children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in out-of-state boarding schools, where they were forbidden to practice their cultures or speak their languages. Many suffered years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. This era nearly destroyed the extended family system.
Eagle Feather returned to Rosebud 17 years ago. But the reunion was not what he expected. “Because I didn’t speak the language, because I didn’t know the culture, I was called ‘white’ by my own blood relatives,” he said.
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