Haiti, Katrina and America's Poorest Community

Very often, what we think about things is derived from our own life experience. Sometimes, we're spoon-fed points of view by politicians, clerics and family. And sometimes, the combination of one's life experience synthesizes with those of others to give one a sense of purpose leading to action.

The fine actor Peter Coyote sent me his friend Preston Randolph's moving account of how Haiti, Katrina and the plight of our own Native Americans are all of a piece... or should be. It hauntingly reminded me of my own work in 1973 as one of a brigade of lawyers representing the residents of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the village of Wounded Knee. I was then 27, and working for New York Mayor John Lindsay who gave me two three-week leaves of absence (with pay!) to join the American Indian Movement's civil rights struggle at that historic village. Thirty-two years later, at the helm of the relief group Operation USA, I helped send many tons of "winterization materials" to the residents of Pine Ridge. Apparently, that was far too feeble an effort. Do read on...


By Preston Randolph

Recently the world was faced with the challenge of bonding together and helping the country of Haiti fight through the terror of a natural disaster. As a result, the world has now been exposed to the extreme poverty and poor living conditions of this area. This shocking reality served as a motivation for all people to lend a helping hand.

Without the earthquake, who would have lent a hand in help to the poorest country in the world? The starving people of Haiti, in all likelihood, would have not seen a dime from the average American because people are simply not informed of the tragedies that occur every day around us. We either just don't know or maybe we just don't care. Now after a horrifying disaster people have stepped to the plate to help those in need, but it simply is too late for the thousands who perished in this freak event. We as a nation seem to realize these struggles once they come to a head. Did we care about the structure of buildings and the living conditions of the people of Haiti before the Earthquake? Did we care about the poverty stricken minorities and the height of the Levees before Katrina? We help once people die, but by then it is just too late. Furthermore, most Americans are completely oblivious to the abstract and harsh poverty right here at home. The ignorance of these issues by the American people is only proven when you start mentioning the horrors going on at Indian Reservations across the Dakotas.

I started collecting winter supplies two months ago for the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is home to the Lakota Nation. The current film I am producing exposed me to these issues, which made we want to do my part. During the winter months many of Pine Ridge's citizens freeze and starve. When I say "freeze" I do not mean chilly, but actually freezing to death. The extreme poverty on the reservation and horrendous living conditions combined with the "illegal" shutting off of power to homes sheltering elderly and children result in the actual deaths by hypothermia. Even at this point, as you are reading this, people are freezing on the Reservation.

After weeks of hard work, I had managed to gather hundreds of new coats, blankets, hats, gloves, and boots. Last Friday at 3 a.m. I loaded up a U-Haul trailer and drove the eight hours to Pine Ridge. As I entered the reservation and approached the city limits I was greeted with the sight of the poorest community in the United States. Three feet of snow covered the ground as the unplowed roads formed a muddy environment. Just outside the city I passed an eroding bar giving spirits to those who already live in an area where nine of 10 families are affected by alcoholism. It was only a mile or so back that I saw a dual-sided billboard giving face to two young Native Americans recently killed in an alcohol related accident.

I drove throughout the Reservation, passing people walking fifteen mile stretches in the cold because of high fuel prices and the lack of transportation. Stray, hungry dogs roamed the muddy, snowy streets looking for scraps to survive. Broken windows breathed cold air into the shack-like shelters or homes of the 30,000 people living on the Reservation.

I gave the materials to a family that I had been in contact with and was welcomed with smiles as I filled their living room with the 30 boxes of supplies. They in turn would distribute the materials throughout the Reservation. I then left and drove through the town, passing the people who have experienced hell arguably since the white man arrived in 1492, but more specifically these are the faces that experience this hell in the United States in 2010.

The smiles of the children on the streets, playing in the snow wearing torn coats, if they have one at all, brought tears to my eyes. This existence is all they know and chances are this is all they will ever know. These are the children that will go to the school that uses materials that are decades old and have a teacher turnover rate that is 800 percent that of the national average. They will be raised alongside their brothers and sisters who all survive on the $3,500 their parents bring in a year. At this point these children, if lucky, will grow into their teenage years. When I say "if lucky" I mean it. The chance of certain diseases and cancers is up to 800 percent higher on the Reservation than the rest of the United States, and the teenage suicide rate is 150 percent higher than the national average. These kids attend school in an environment where 70 percent of those before them dropped out of a system that is in the bottom 10 percent of funding by the US Department of Education. These kids then will face other adversities of trying to find work. They may grasp on to a minimum wage job, but remember the unemployment rate is 80 percent; one of the highest in the nation. This cycle continues and continues, but nothing is done. I can only ask why? Is it that the US Government could care less about the indigenous people, which has been proved the past 200 years? Maybe, it is just that the people of the United States have no idea of what is actually happening inside their country and are confused by the stereotype that America's Indigenous receive everything from the Government. Wake Up!

I was stopped on the road by two little kids playing in the snow. The little girl had snot frozen to her face below the nose. They were both in ragged, thin coats. They asked what I was pulling in my trailer and then they found out I had coats. They quickly asked for one and told me that what was on their backs was all that they owned. I was thanked by their smiles and it was the best feeling I have ever had. It was a holiday for these kids.

The day after, I returned home. I went back to work and my regular routine. That night I watched TV, ate a filling meal and took my life for granted like many of us so often do. This experience only furthered the premise that the majority of Americans talk about issues like this but wind up doing nothing. We go home and just forget. Many of us think too often about these issues without learning. Too many pray without helping their fellow man. We are facing a national crisis, yet no one knows or even cares. Right now this is a disaster, but who is helping? Let Katrina and Haiti be example to what else can happen if something is not done now. I give thanks to all those who gave to this cause and realized that this cannot be another out of sight, out of mind issue. Americans are in need and I will help, but more importantly, will you?

Go to www.opusa.org for guidance on how you can help.