Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Food, Educational, and Medical Deserts of the Badlands

Posted by Jacy E. Thrasher, OGLALA LAKOTA NATION, SOUTH DAKOTA -- The Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Nation, sits on the South Unit of Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota.  In the 1860s, the United States government confined the Sioux (which includes the Lakota) to a 25 million acre tract of land to be known as the Great Sioux Reservation.  Today, this space is aptly called The Badlands, and is home to many members of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. The area is rife with social problems stemming from the historically-embedded discriminatory policies the government implemented to ‘contain’ Native American Nations. Particularly problematic is series of interlocking sociological deserts that plague the Pine Ridge Reservation: a food desert (a lack of access to healthy food) a housing desert (the absence of adequate housing and safe living conditions), an educational attainment desert (inadequate educational attainment and institutional performance), and a medical desert (lack of medical care options and high illness load). 

The Lakota were the first to refer to the Badlands as makosica (which means land bad) due to its extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain. French-Canadian fur trappers similarly noted the difficulty of travelling through the region in the early 1900’s by referring to it as les mauvaisterres pour traverse.  When the US government created the reservation in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, they set aside this 25 million acre tract of land to the Lakota. Sadly, only approximately 84,000 of the 25 million acres are considered arable.  The treaty further hindered the ability for Lakota to hunt beyond the reservation. 

The Lakota little access to healthy food. The local reservation grocery store is the primary source for food, but Indian Health Service reported a variety of violations, including the selling tainted meat.  Other options are approximately five small convenience stores. Convenience stores typically offer a fare limited to processed snack foods high in sugar and carbohydrates.   When the Indian Health Service closed the Pine Ridge grocery store for a week due to health violations, residents were required to drive to White Clay, Nebraska to buy groceries or choose to live off convenience store foods for the remainder of the week. Not surprisingly, the Pine Ridge Reservation has eight times the United States rate of diabetes and twice the rate of heart disease.   

AP Photo

Income plays an important part in purchasing decisions. Since the only businesses on the reservation are one grocery and five convenience stores, over eighty percent of Lakota living on the reservation are unemployed. Seventy percent of jobs on the reservation are also held by women.  An average Lakota family only makes $2,000-$4,000 a year, severely limiting their purchasing ability.  As a result, the Lakota are more likely to choose cheaper processed foods over fresh, but more expensive, vegetables. Food costs are also typically much higher on reservations.  

Pine Ridge is also within a housing desert, where much of the housing is inadequate, underserviced, and unsafe. As part of the Fort Laramie Treaty, the United States government built a school, a doctor’s office, and buildings for a carpenter, farmer, blacksmith, miller, and engineer. Later, the US government promised the Lakota housing.  Sadly, many government-sponsored houses today lack running water, heat, and even sewage.  Each family receives one half of one of a duplex, with typical families consisting of a husband, wife, their 3-4 children and a grandparent or two. Many households will also take in other tribe members who need a roof over their head. At least 60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are also infested with black mold, which can be fatal to infants, children, elderly, those with damaged immune systems, and those with lung and pulmonary conditions.

Pine Ridge is the site of an educational attainment desert as well.  The school dropout rate is over 70% on the reservation, less surprising given that the teacher turnover rate is over 800%, even though most of the teachers and principals in the school systems on Pine Ridge reservation are of Lakota origin. Without education and without much hope for jobs on the reservation, there is little likelihood of Lakota youth moving upward out of poverty.  The only form of mobility they have access to is within their social groups, leading many Lakota teenagers to seek sense of accomplishment and solidarity through gang affiliation.

Given this, gang violence is very high on the reservation.  Rape on the reservation is almost 465% more than the U.S. average.  Gang rape is common on the reservation.The high rape and sexual assault rate on the reservation increases the spread sexually transmitted diseases, such as HPV and cervical cancer.  Cervical cancer is 500% higher than the U.S. national average. The suicide rate among teens on Pine Ridge is four times the national average for this age group, while the overall suicide rate is twice the national average. 

Pine Ridge is also in a medical desert, where there is limited access to medical care and a high disease load.  One in four infants in the Badlands die of fetal alcohol syndrome.  The infant mortality rate is three times the national rate; out of every 1,000 live births, 18 of those infants will not make it to their first birthday.  Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest anywhere in the United States and it is the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere, exceeded only by Haiti’s life expectancy rate.  Residents have an alcoholism rate of almost 80% and exceed national averages on diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and sexually transmitted diseases.  With a population of over 17,000 relying on only three medical centers on the reservation—a hospital with 45 beds and a 16 physician staff,  and two health centers featuring a dentist, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, and pharmacist—most Lakota forgo treatment.

The National Park Service advertises the park as Good Times at the Badlands in hopes of attracting tourists traveling through the region to the park.  Yet the Lakota are experiencing a great separation of its people from the whole amid tourism vans and photo ops.  They are a part of a country by treaty.They are Americans yet their lives do not resemble the American Dream in the least bit.The Lakota see people stopping in, in big campers and then leaving to return to their luxurious lives while the Lakota are isolated in a living hell with no hope of an escape.  The Lakota are experiencing the death of their entire community, but more than that, the death of their culture.  There is no longer a sense of pride in being Lakota.  Trust has been lost, hearts have been broken, and all hope is gone.  Just like the church pictured below, the Lakota have been abandoned, and left to weather the storm alone.

Further Reading
"Indian Health Service The Federal Health Program for American Indians and Alaska Natives." Indian Health Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Aug. 2014. <>.
"Pine Ridge Grocery Store Waits to Reopen after Closure Lifted." 2012. Rapid City Journal. WEBSITE accessed August 3, 2014.
"Pine Ridge Indian Reservation." 2014. RE-MEMBER. WEBSITE accessed April 22, 2014.
"Pine Ridge Statistics." n.d.Pine Ridge Statistics. WEBSITE accessed April 22, 2014. <>.
Price, W.F. 2013. "Most Gender Equal Place in America: Pine Ridge Indian Reservation." The Spearhead RSS. WEBSITE accessed August 13, 2014. <>.
Rose, Christiina. 2013. "Young Lakota’ Focuses on a Woman’s Right to Choose, Premieres on PBS." Indian Country Today Media Network. WEBSITE accessed July 12, 2014. <>.

Jacy E. Thrasher is a Sociology major at University of Tennessee at Martin. Jacy can be contacted at

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