Native Americans: A Forgotten People?

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CROW CREEK SIOUX RESERVATION, S.D. -- In a nation known for its wealth, there are pockets of intense poverty and despair that many Americans know nothing about.

These pockets do not exist in the inner city, but on remote reservations where Native Americans struggle to survive.

CBN News traveled to the Crow Creek Sioux reservation in South Dakota for a closer look at what some call America's forgotten people.

Defending Against Invaders

A fence of rusted barbed wire cutting across the open landscape is a symbol of a people continually dealing with invaders.

In centuries past, American Indians faced the invasion of other cultures that forced their removal from the fertile lands of their ancestors.

Promises were made by the invaders, which resulted in broken treaties. As a result, many Native American tribes were moved to reservations to isolate them, control them and to make them more "civilized" in the eyes of the conquerors.

The isolation still exists today.

Tribes continue to battle against destructive forces. Forces like poverty, substance abuse and suicide to name a few, continually strike this segment of the population to a greater degree than most other Americans.

High Suicide Rate

Norm Thompson is a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe who lives on the reservation.

"I thought I was all alone and I tried committing suicide," he told CBN News. "And the person that found me was my oldest daughter."

Addicted to drugs and alcohol, Thompson blames life on the reservation without the proper guidance for the desperate situation in which he found himself. Tragically, his story is all too common.

According to the Indian Health Service, the suicide rate for Native Americans is 60 percent higher than the general population. On the Crow Creek Sioux reservation, the suicide rate was at one time seven times higher than the national average.

Poverty and Despair

Like Thompson, Sandy Gabe was also an alcoholic. He says substance abuse is a big problem with many Native Americans using their government assistance checks to feed their habits, instead of their families.

"It's the first thing they do," he explained. "It's drugs and alcohol. Later on, maybe it's some groceries. Maybe they feed their kids. Their priorities are all wrong."

CBN News asked reservation resident Shane Crazy Bull what he had encountered and had seen among his fellow tribesmen. "Weed, chewing, drinking, meth," he replied.

So what is behind all this despair?

Experts say there are many factors, such as the historical mistreatment of Native Americans, including forced cultural changes. Living conditions on the reservations are the same as you would find in third world countries. Many of the people's homes do not have indoor plumbing and electricity.

CBN News examined the living conditions on the reservation. Many of the houses were in poor condition. When we first approached one home, you could see the broken glass in the windows, the makeshift plywood entryway, and the ground was littered with beer cans and other trash.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports about one of every four American Indians lives below the poverty level.

The Crow Creek Sioux reservation lies in Buffalo County. Its per capita income of just a little more than $5,000 a year makes it the poorest county in the country.

On some reservations, unemployment runs as high as 80 percent. Compare that statistic to less than five percent for the U.S. as a whole.

"The children and the adults all try to cope with what they have," reservation resident Gracie Pomani told CBN News. "It is hard out here, because a lot of them don't have the heat for their houses or the wood for their stoves."

 A Manmade Tragedy?

So how could this happen to a people so revered in American history for their courage and self-sufficiency?

Many say this tragedy is manmade -- the result of a welfare state spiraling out of control where self-respect, hard work and hope have been replaced with handouts.

Rod Vaughn founded the Christian non-profit organization, Diamond Willow Ministries, to reach out to Native Americans on the Crow Creek Sioux reservation.

"To me it's a train wreck," he said. "When you have reliance on a federal government with a shrieking deficit for your health care, for your housing -- for everything, and you really don't have much of a political voice," he explained. "So when there's cuts, the cuts seem to be deeper here. It is a real critical situation."

Vaughn says people living on the reservation feel like the U.S. government has forgotten them.

"They do. May be not even so much forgotten, but that they just have been able to kind of push them off to the side," Vaughn said.

A Warrior Culture Continues

Still, in spite of the exclusion, American Indians are intensely loyal. Since the September 11 attacks on America, a record number have enlisted in the U.S. Army every year. They have also served at higher rates in the entire U.S. military than any other ethnic group.

"It's kind of like a warrior culture that's passed on to generations," Gabe said.

But sadly, Native Americans appear to be losing the battle at home.

Diamond Willow Ministries works to change that by helping with the physical needs like food and clothing and helping to break addictions, including the dependence on welfare, by sharing the love of Jesus Christ.

"Pray that the barriers, the generational sin, the darkness can be broken," Vaughn told CBN News. "Prayer is so powerful."

"All they have to do is reach out their hand like I did," Gabe said. "God took my hand and gave me something, and I'm glad of that."

It is the gift of a new life in Christ. A gift that can heal a shattered people and cause them to soar on eagle's wings with a new hope.

*Original broadcast March 16, 2008.

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Mark Martin

Mark Martin

CBN News

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