The Poor Indians Pay for the Success of the Rich

John F. Kennedy said that the American Indian is the least understood and the most misunderstood of all Americans. I believe that with the disparities now so apparent in Indian country, that description by JFK takes on an entirely new meaning.

Headlines in many newspapers last week announced that Indian casinos had brought in a record $25 billion dollars last year. What they did not say is that on reservations such as the Navajo, Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Crow Creek, Blackfeet and Crow, unemployment is as high as 50 to 80 percent. That the average income is less than $5,000 annually. That the average life span is about 55 years of age. That the infant mortality rate is 3 times the national average. That on some reservations the diabetes epidemic claims 50 percent of the total reservation population. That many homes are without electricity or indoor plumbing. That there is such a need for housing that some of the available homes house as many as three families.

But nowadays the average American reads about the $25 billion raked in by the rich casino tribes last year and shrugs it off with distaste, probably with some envy and not without a little anger at all Indian tribes. In other words, the fantastic success of some gaming tribes is setting the agenda for all Indian tribes and it is making the very poor tribes the victims of the success of the rich tribes. Who would have ever thought they would see such a dichotomy in Indian country even 20 years ago?

In the Lakota language there is a word one hears quite often these days and that word is "onsika" (pronounced oon-she-ka) and it means poor, destitute or miserable, but as with many words in the Lakota language it also can mean to humble oneself to another, to act in a humble way, or to have mercy on those who have nothing. All of these definitions could describe the present conditions of the Lakota people.

We say that we are all in the same boat so although many have very little, it is still their duty to help those who have even less. That was true in all of Indian country prior to 1988 when gaming was legalized on Indian reservations, but that is not the case today. One rich tribe, the Mohegan, just purchased a golf course for $4. 5 million. Another tribe, the Seminole, just bought the Hard Rock Cafe and Resorts for a billion dollars.

Prior to 1988 when all of the tribes were "onsika" they all pulled together. There was actually unity in their poverty. Back then one could attend the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians and meet tribal leaders that knew only poverty. They came to the convention in tattered jeans that were partially covered by a threadbare jacket or sports coat. When they addressed the convention they spoke with humility, sometimes in English peppered by words in their Native tongue. Now they show up in three-piece tailored suits.

I remember when we had our first Native American Journalists Convention in 1984 on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. Many of the editors of Indian newspapers raised the money to attend the convention by holding fry bread sales or local auctions. Some pooled their resources and caravanned to the convention. Students from the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation had bake sales and auctions and then, led by their instructor, Gemma Lockhart, piled into their cars and vans, some borrowed, to make it to the convention.

Perhaps some would think of those days as the "bad old days," but on many Indian reservations, those days are still here. And on those very poor reservations it is heartwarming to see that the very poor still have dignity in their poverty.

Last week I wrote about the poorest Indian tribes in America, with $863,286,767.90 now held in trust for them for the illegal taking of their sacred Black Hills, refusing to accept one single penny of that award.

That these people of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota speaking tribes of North Dakota, Montana and South Dakota, though encumbered with extreme poverty and the many illnesses that accompany poverty, can still refuse to accept nearly one billion dollars that would go a long way into lifting them from their poverty, is a miraculous phenomenon that most of the casino rich tribes could never and would never understand.

As a matter of fact, nearly all of the responses to my column about the monetary award to the Sioux people were from Indians all expressing great pride and respect for a people that refuse to sell their mother earth. Wrote one, "In today's world of greed and money grubbing by too many Indian tribes and their people, it makes me so proud to see the Sioux stand tall and proud against the temptations of the money givers."

Perhaps one of the reasons I received no response from white people is that this may be one concept they find strange or maybe it is just something beyond their realm of comprehension. To be poor and not accept money, according to many, is not the American way. It is not the fault of the rich casino tribes that most Americans believe that all Indian tribes are rolling in wealth. They were lucky to be in a locale conducive to wealth and more power to them for their success.

The words uttered by JFK more than 40 years ago still ring true. The American Indian is still the least understood and the most misunderstood of all Americans.

(Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. His latest book "Children Left Behind, the Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions," is now available at: order@clearlightbooks.com. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com)