The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to the breathtaking Badlands National Park in South Dakota. However, not far from the otherworldly beauty of the park is the harsh reality of life on the reservation. The estimated 29,000 to 40,000 residents of the Reservation hold on to a rich cultural history, but live amidst poverty that rivals many countries in the developing world. Pine Ridge is recognized as one of the top five poorest counties in the United States.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Oglala Oyate has maintained a strong cultural identity, and continues to preserve local traditions. This persistence against all odds has drawn our attention to the desperate need for educational opportunity at Pine Ridge. We believe that education has the power to be a transformative experience for young people, igniting in them self-confidence and leadership capabilities that will result in the gradual reversal of the devastating statistics:
Per capita income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is $6286 per year—which is lower than Egypt, and nearly equal to Paraguay. The unemployment rate fluctuates between 85% and 90%, with more than 90% of the population now living below the federal poverty line.
As a result of a poor economy, the housing office is unable to build new structures, and existing structures are beginning to fall apart. Many people are homeless, and often those with homes are packed into rotting buildings with an average of seventeen people, as many as five families, per household. 39% of houses on the reservation have no electricity, 33% percent lack running water, and at least 60% are infested with black mold.
The tuberculosis rate on Pine Ridge is approximately eight times higher than national rate, and the infant mortality rate is the highest in this continent—at about three times higher than U.S. national average. Cervical cancer is five times higher than the national average.
Fifty percent of the population over the age of forty suffers from diabetes. The life expectancy for men is between the ages of 46 and 48 years old, roughly the same as Afghanistan and Somalia. Similarly, the life expectancy for women is approximately 52 years old. The average life expectancy in the rest of the United States is age 77.
One of the most heartbreaking statistics of Pine Ridge is the prevalence of teen suicide, at 1.5 times higher than the national average. Addiction and disease consume 50% of the population, with alcoholism alone affecting eighty percent of families (and one in every four infants born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome).
Education and Employment
The educational system in Pine Ridge is in stark contrast with that of the state’s more affluent communities. Schooling on the Reservation is currently modeled after an archaic system, where children are sitting in a classroom six hours a day and are expected to learn according to “healthy child” standards. However, the reality is that most children do not reflect those standards; they come from broken homes, in which single parents, grandparents, or the foster care system are often raising them.
In this context, the educational statistics are not surprising:
- Less than one in three students living on the reservation reads at grade level
- The school dropout rate is over 70%, and teacher turnover is eight times higher than the U.S. average.
- And only 2% of Pine Ridge students are college-ready upon graduation