Helping the people of Pine Ridge beyond charity

November 18, 2011

Helping the people of Pine Ridge beyond charity

After watching the recent 20/20 television special "Hidden America: Children of the Plains," you might be thinking, "There are poor Indians on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation? Why don't they have a casino?!"

"What can I do?" is the question I have been asked often in the weeks since the airing of the ABC network show in October, which featured the Oglala Lakota children of the plains in South Dakota and the living conditions on Pine Ridge. I do believe that the American people's hearts are in the right place.

Before I address this question, I want to be clear:
I do not speak for the Oglala Lakota people. I am not a member of any recognized tribe. I am a fourth-generation activist raised in a family and community dedicated to fighting against war, racism and injustice.

I am a social entrepreneur who has worked with the Lakota people and lived on and off the Pine Ridge Reservation since the late 1970s and I am the father of three beautiful Lakota Jews who have given me the most beautiful grandchildren in the world.
My work and life is dedicated to them and future generations. My opinions are based on my life's experience.

Charity vs. Empowerment

People around the country have responded to "Hidden America" with donations and offers to help many of the important organizations and institutions serving the people on Pine Ridge.

I have the utmost respect for the dedication of the people who work with the charities that struggle to meet the daily needs of people. Life on the reservation is hard. The groups that help get heat to the homes of the elderly, provide food for children, books for schools and much more are important and worthy of all of our support.

But it is also time for change. Over 150 years of charity has helped ease the pain of poverty. But it has also helped to create dependency and generational poverty. This has also created a system where many major decisions about projects and services are decided by the federal government or off-reservation churches, charities or foundations that, at worst, feel they know what is best for Indian people or, at best, don't know any better.

The truth is the reservation system was created to restrict and control Indian people, and the system has worked quite well for a very long time. However, it's time to go beyond charity and get to work on real change. Which means it is time to support the Lakota people's vision and dreams for their own future. It also means taking risks and defining success in others' triumphs! And it starts by us non-natives learning to listen.

Creating success and transition on the reservation

Since the 1980s, I have worked with Lakota people helping to raise millions in small contributions for reservation-based non-profits. Each one of them is distinct in that they are 100 percent controlled by the Oglala Lakota people themselves. They were created on the reservation and their success or failure is in the hands of the Oglala people. And we did this from the reservation while training Indian people to run these campaigns themselves, and today they do.

This is critically important because if we are all going to help the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation break out of generational poverty, they are going to have to become empowered to make their own decisions for their community and build their own future. We can't do it for them; we can only help encourage and support with whatever resources we have.

The Oglala Lakota people are taking control. The reservation is a community in transition when you look beyond the statistics and tragic lives that the Oyate (people) have endured.

You will see a tribal community with deep family ties -- a community of people dedicated to moving from dependency to independence. The coming generations are not satisfied with just surviving. They want to thrive, and they are pushing hard for a new day and new way of thinking about the future and we all need to listen and support them.


My 30-plus years of experience here on the reservation has taught me that Indian people lead by example. So here are a few examples I would like to share:
There are more Lakota people in college today than at any time in history. There are more Lakota people who are professionals, doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, counselors and principals than ever before in history.

There are more Indian people returning to Lakota-based traditional ways and working to protect the language, horse culture and the lands. There are more Indian-owned business than at any time in history. There are more people learning to live with the diseases of alcoholism and diabetes instead of dying from them.

Did you know that job creation on South Dakota Indian reservations is surpassing the state of South Dakota? Did you know that the only rural counties in South Dakota that are increasing in population are those with Indian reservations?

And yes the buffalo are returning! There are more buffalo on the Great Plains today than any time since the 1900s. None of this is happening by itself - it is lead by Indian people with the support of people from around the country. But they are supporting local leaders, who are accountable to the people and projects they serve. Every one of them needs and deserve help.

Social entrepreneurism

Each entrepreneur on Pine Ridge is breaking new ground overcoming tremendous obstacles to create business. Here are a few that I know are operating now or soon will be. There are restaurants, art galleries, auto repair shops, construction companies, hotels, a movie theater, health services, horseback tours, skate parks, community development corporations and CDFIs, a credit union and so much more. And, of course, the nation's No. 1 selling buffalo product in the Natural Food category -- the Tanka Bar.

The process of building a private sector economy in one of the most isolated places in America is a hard, lengthy process and not welcome from those in border towns and businesses who owe their existence to the flow of money off the reservation.

Evaluate how you can help

So what are the lessons here? When deciding which groups or businesses to invest in, first ask yourself what is the most important work that you can value enough to make a long-term commitment to help and do some research.

Ask these questions:

Is this group controlled by local tribal members?

Do they profit from those they help?

Does the organization empower those it serves?

Does it help people who are helping themselves?

Are they credible?

Do they know how to manage their money?

Are they transparent in their operations?

Are young people involved in their organization?

If the group you are supporting is sending food, are they sending healthy food or adding to the food desert that is already here? I am not a big believer in the charitable ratings organizations.
What should you give?

  • Money is important, effective and creates independence. Long-term money creates long-term change. Social change is not cheap or easy. Even $5 a month can make a difference.
  • Give more than money -- give opportunity. Share your skills to help empower people.
  • Ask your friends to help. Hold house party viewings of "Hidden America" and get involved.
  • Invest with local business or reservation-based CDCs or CDFIs.
  • Open a saving account with a reservation-based credit union.
  • Buy certified Native American-made art and products.
  • Buy from Native American retailers when you can
  • Stay on the reservations when traveling to Indian Country.
  • Spend your money on the reservation. If you just buy gas, you are helping to put needed dollars into the tribal government.
  • Don't buy fake Native American products.
  • Tell your elected official you want Native people's rights protected and opportunities for Indian people created.
  • Tell them Indian people are at the bottom of the 99% of Americans who are deemed today as less wealthy than the 1 percent that is very financially prosperous.
  • Tell them to support tribal programs, schools and colleges and sustainable development should grow and be spared from federal budget cuts.

  • Do NOT send used clothes and shoes, outdated computers, phone, printers or fax machines. Only send books that the schools say they need. Indian people cannot build an economy on our rummage.

    Since the airing of "Hidden America," I have heard of people trying to donate everything from outdated computers to truckloads of gum and even sodas and candy - as if we need more help creating diabetics.

    None of this will help in the long run.

    We can all say, "It is terrible what our ancestors did to the Indians," but this is now. Yes, this is now, and it is still happening. It is just hidden from most of America!

    Mark Tilsen
    President Native American Natural Foods

    Web sites to contact
    Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce

    Lakota Mall (official site of the Oglala Sioux tribe)

    Thunder Valley

    Important off-reservation sites:
    The Native American Rights Fund

    Indian Land Tenure Foundation

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