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Housing on the Pine Ridge reservation

At the end of April I flew to Rapid City, South Dakota, rented a car and drove to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Lakota Native Americans. I went there to prepare the natural building workshop planned for this coming August. I entered the reservation about 90 minutes outside of Rapid City, a little bit after the town of Scenic. When I say “town”, I mean a cluster of about 20 turn-of-the-(19th)century houses and shops. The antique, (closed down) saloon says with big letters “Indians Allowed.”

The landscape is spectacular: softly rolling grassland hills with the dramatic, wind blown, badlands constantly on the horizon. For the first time I am entering the home of the buffalo, a center of Native American struggle and resistance, the land of Wounded Knee and Crazy horse.

I am also entering the land of intense poverty, disfunction and violence. The vast majority of the people(about 80%) are homeless, are addicted to alcohol, have diabetes, and are unemployed. The county that lies within the reservation is known as being the poorest county in the USA.

As I can’t get a hold of the person I am supposed to meet, I decide to first drive to Wounded Knee. This is the place where several hundred Natives, after they had already surrendered, were slaughtered by the American Forces (1890). I visited the graves (including the mass grave from the massacre) and talked to the young boy (13) at the Visitor’s Center. He proudly showed me the radical texts that were written on the walls of the round concrete building. One of them said:

“AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT Pledges to fight White man’s injustice to Indians, his oppression, persecution, discrimination and malfeasance in the handling of Indian Affairs. No area in North America is too far or too remote when trouble impends for Indians. A.I.M. shall be there – To help the Native people regain human rights and achieve restitution and restoration.”

When I arrived in the town of Porcupine, out of desperation, I tried some of the other phone numbers that my contact person had given me. I finally got picked up by Harvey, who showed me the site of our workshop as well as one of the most interesting straw bale homes I have ever seen: All the bales were covered with drywall and paint on the inside and vinyl siding on the outside. We talked to the owner and, considering she lived in a single wide trailer before that, found her home very comfortable.

Harvey, truly by accident, got me in contact with Gary and Michelle, who were the people I was supposed to meet to begin with. He suddenly remembered seeing Gary’s grey car at the junkyard/ towing station, where he was “turning wrenches”. Gary, and his friend Donny, escorted me to a single wide leaky trailer without electricity, in what seems like the middle of nowhere, which would become my home for the next 2 days. On the way we made a quick stop at the dump (which they called “the Home Depot”) to see if there were any goodies and drove to be greeted by Michelle, who had made us macaroni soup.

That evening I was educated in Native American history, from the viewpoint of the oppressed. Even though I am not a citizen of the USA, it was hard not to feel horribly embarrassed. The words “concentration camp” and “genocide” came up more than once. This was a part of the USA with which I am not familiar.

The next day we drove around and I learned about the housing and economic situation. Before the arrival of the white man, these were the people that lived in teepees, followed the buffalo herds and lived off the land. After they were massacred, cheated and forcefully migrated, they had lost their way of life. In the 20th century they became more and more dependent on government welfare checks and food supplies. In addition to that, many natives became raging alcoholics, their bodies react to alcohol in a much more violent and addictive manner than the white people’s. All the alcohol, white sugar and flour has led to the high rate of diabetes.

In the mid 20th century, people lived in trucks, tar paper shacks and in trailers. Mind you, this is South Dakota, where the winters can dip to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and the summers are above 100 degrees on a regular basis. As a solution, the government stepped in and started developing “Cluster Housing” which is actually cheaply built, paper-thin houses that look from the outside like middle class neighborhoods. Because almost everyone on the reservation was a family in need of housing, the houses quickly filled up, not just with with 1 family, no, with 4 families at a time. It is not unusual to have 20 people living in a 2 bedroom house. The cluster houses have developed into ghetto’s, where Native youth with shaved heads listen to gangster rap music, instead of growing their hair out and listening to the stories of their grandfathers. Murders happen on a regular basis, and, although many of the people who live in the cluster houses still own land on the prairie, they have no means to move away from the ghetto’s.

The individual land ownership, originally a strange concept to the Lakota’s, was promoted by the federal government. According to critical thinking Natives, this was an intentional move to split up the reservation in smaller pieces, and have desperate Natives sell their land to white ranchers. The long term effect of this process will be that the reservation eventually will cease to exist. This is what they call a hidden form of “ethnic cleansing”.

The tiny towns, scattered over the prairie, usually have some form of cluster housing, a small grocery store (more like a bad Seven-Eleven), a U.S. post office and quite a few single wide mobile homes. Some towns have a health clinic, which then usually is the nicest building in town. Just about every house and trailer is surrounded by about 3-10 junk cars. Leaving the towns, you find little groups of (seemingly) half falling apart, single wide trailers in the middle of the prairie. These trailers too, are inhabited most of the time by several families and are surrounded by the junk cars.

It is in one of these places where we will be building a small strawbale cabin. It will be on the land of one of their respected medicine men, who I only now know by the name of Dave. I could not meet him as he was called to assist in the healing of a cancer patient in California. This coming August, in a beautiful flat meadow, a little ways away from the trailers, a bunch of white people and Natives will be learning about building a small, natural cottage, with a composting toilet and solar energy.

Before my flight out I had some time to explore “downtown” Rapid City, where I stumbled across a gigantic store, filled with Native American crafts, instruments, clothing, books and more. They also sold a t-shirt that had an ancient picture of 4 Natives with rifles in their hands, the text below the picture said: “Fighting terrorism since 1492″. I wanted to get one but they did not have one in my size. When I asked whether they might have one more in the back they apologized and explained that it was their most popular t-shirt. There is always hope!

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