South Dakota: In Ziebach County's barren
grasslands, a job may be the hardest thing to find.
residents live at or below the poverty line. Most are
Cheyenne River Sioux living on a reservation.
Poverty is defined by a single person making less than $11,000 a year. For a family of four, it's less than $22,000 a year.
Ziebach is America's poorest county.
Poverty has loomed over this land for generations. Repeated attempts to create jobs have run into stubborn obstacles: an isolated location, crumbling infrastructure, and a poorly trained population.
"There are things that have happened to us over many, many generations that you just can't fix in three or four years," said Kevin Keckler, the tribe's chairman. "We were put here by the government, and we had a little piece of land and basically told to succeed here."
The Cheyenne River Indian Reservation was created in 1889. Its lands are almost entirely agricultural. Most towns are just clusters of homes between cattle ranches. Families live in dilapidated houses or run-down trailers.
Basic services on the reservation are vulnerable. The tribe's health clinic doesn't have a CT scanner or maternity ward. Ice storms can knock out power and water for weeks, and roads can become impassable with snow and ice.
Cheyenne River has no casino and no oil or available natural resources for income. The few families who own leases to tribal land can make money by raising cattle.
The Cheyenne River Sioux have renewed efforts to create jobs and start-up businesses:
Eagle Butte, the reservation's main city, does have a few struggling businesses. The tribe owns the town's only major grocery store, the Lakota Thrifty Mart. There's also a Dairy Queen, a Taco John's and a handful of small cafes. It has no theaters and no bowling alleys.
A few entrepreneurs have tried to build their own businesses. The results have been mixed.
1. One tribal success story is Lakota Technologies who offers call-center and data-processing work. Lakota Technologies has trained hundreds of young people since it started more than a decade ago. They now employ a handful of tribal members on a State Department sub-contract.
2. Stephanie and Gerald Davidson started D&D Plumbing in 2000 with a single pickup truck. D&D began to grow, and they hired several employees. But the economic slump hit them hard. Many customers can't pay for work upfront, and D&D struggles to get new construction contracts. The Davidson's have laid off employees and filled empty space by adding a bait shop and then a deli. Nothing has worked.
"People think you're a pillar of the community because you have a business, and that part of it is good," Stephanie said. "We don't feel that way right now because we're having such a tough time."
Nicky White Eyes quit another job to run a flower shop
on Main Street. Some days she doesn't sell a single
flower. Most business comes from families who get tribal
help to buy flowers for a relative's funeral.
The federal government funds much of Cheyenne River's
economy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of
Indian Education and the Indian Health Service are three
of the reservation's largest employers. Small businesses
rely on those employees to keep operating.
Still, there are small reasons to hope.
Later this year, Congress will begin payments on a
settlement with the tribe. Cheyenne River had sued the
government for building a dam on the Missouri River that
flooded thousands of acres of tribal farmlands. The
tribe could receive up to
in interest this year alone.
"You can have all the heart you want, but you have to have actual cash and resources," said Eileen Briggs of Tribal Ventures. "All those things play a part in our being able to basically use our greatest asset, which is our people."
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