South Dakota is home to some of the harshest poverty stricken areas in Indian country, as unemployment rates are well above national and state levels. This week, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it’s worth highlighting those organizations and individuals who are working to change the status quo in South Dakota.
According to Bureau of Indian Affairs reports, Native unemployment statistics throughout South Dakota were as low as 39 percent in 2003 and as high as 77 percent only two years later. Recent statistics across South Dakota are unavailable but the Pine Ridge Reservation reports unemployment at 87 percent.
Lowering unemployment rates are the priorities of two Community Development Financial Institutions, (CDFI) which are investing in businesses in Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River, though other reservations are still finding economic progress difficult.
Rosebud Sioux Tribe Economic Specialist Paul Valandra blamed the sluggish economy throughout the United States, but added, “In the last 10-20 years I haven’t seen a difference in accomplishing economic development but cooperatively things have gotten better. The state doesn't sue us all the time like they used to, they used to challenge us on everything. I think that mentality is gone, it’s not good politics anymore.”
In Pine Ridge, it is still difficult for reservation residents to obtain bank loans, so Lakota Funds rose to meet the needs. “I think in 1986 there were only one or two privately owned businesses on the reservation,” Tony Taylor, Lakota Funds loan specialist, said. Since then, Lakota Funds has made $6.7 million in loans, resulting in 1,386 jobs and 473 businesses owned by tribal members on or near the reservation.
“Some of those are big, like the Subway restaurants, Pine Ridge Building Products and Bow-Ks Florist and Bakery,” Taylor said, “and some were $500 loans to artists. Loans range from $500 to $300,000.”
On the Cheyenne River Reservation, the Four Bands Community Fund began with a similar purpose. “This is about Native Americans not having access to funds, and we invest to get around the bias,” Lakota Mowrer, assistant director of Four Bands, said.
On reservations, residents may lack the opportunity to develop credit, making loans from traditional banks difficult to obtain. The CDFIs can base their loan decisions on collateral or character, and individuals seeking grants are required to take courses in financial literacy. Both offer credit-building loans to pay off old debts, and a matched savings program helps residents earn money by saving money.
“When people put forth the initiative to change their lives, they can do it, that’s the exciting thing,” Mowrer said.
While Lakota Funds lends primarily in Pine Ridge and within 25 miles of the reservation borders, exceptions can be made to lend in Rosebud and beyond. Four Bands lends to enrolled Natives throughout South Dakota.
Mowrer said that the spirit of the entrepreneur is part of the spirit of the community. “We believe that when you activate civic engagement in your society, you demand better service from your government,” which she said is part of being financially capable.
Also on Cheyenne River, Eileen Briggs, executive director Tribal Ventures, said their organization took a traditional approach to developing programs. “Our ideas came from the people and we made partners with organizations to carry those ideas to reality.”
Funded by the North West Area Foundation, Briggs said Tribal Ventures has been a process of empowerment. “It takes ideas of the people and puts resources into them.”
Programs chosen as part of the company’s 10-year plan to reduce poverty include workforce development and financial programs but also Lakota immersion daycare, a cultural consortium, healing project, community radio, and community learning centers. “We also do a conference in Rapid City and we have medicine people come in to reinforce the identity of Lakota people,” Briggs said.
“We are doing community leadership, reservation partnerships offering matching grants to invest in business expansion, chamber of commerce and community development. We give Four Bands a grant for youth financial literacy and we have the community learning centers which goes through the housing authority,” Briggs said, adding, “We are trying to change poverty by getting people to think differently.”
Another solution to poverty is keeping tribal money in tribal homes. On Pine Ridge, Lyle Jack, chairman of The Pine Ridge Community Development Corporation, said that seven tribes are currently organizing as the “Oceti Sakowin,” a wind turbine/power authority project that will allow tribes to sell power commercially, and set up resident turbine systems.
Although South Dakotans were skeptical of the billion-dollar project, Jack said, “It’s coming at us really quick. All of sudden, it’s coming together.”
Valandra said that wind energy “is not a job, it’s not economic development, but it’s working on keeping 15-30 percent of income in the household.”
No matter the speed the change comes, the first step is, as Briggs, pointed out, changing the way people think, a routine that appears to be taking hold.