Mark St. Pierre has lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for many decades and has over 40 years experience in Native American economic and community development work. His guest article today discusses the uphill battle that Native Americans face when it comes to building a local economy, but also his hopes for the future of his community.


I recently heard an interview with Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns, on the radio from my home in South Dakota. Much of what he said about the need to truly calculate infrastructure costs and maintenance expenses reminded me of the education I got while majoring in Community Development and Leadership at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts several decades ago. Our program was brand new and was a blend of sociology, anthropology, group dynamics, principles of leadership, religion and economics.

 Pine Ridge has a population of 40,000 spread over nearly 3,500 square miles (larger than the land areas of Delaware and Rhode Island combined). This makes providing services and sufficient infrastructure incredibly challenging. (Source: Google Maps)

Pine Ridge has a population of 40,000 spread over nearly 3,500 square miles (larger than the land areas of Delaware and Rhode Island combined). This makes providing services and sufficient infrastructure incredibly challenging. (Source: Google Maps)

As a curious person and, in many ways, a first generation college student, I was intrigued to see if my education had actually given me something useful. I spent the next 45 years of my life testing it out in some of the most adverse conditions in America today. While my direct experience includes the Cheyenne River Reservation in North Central South Dakota and Pine Ridge where my wife is from in Southwestern South Dakota, I have worked with many more tribes in the Northern Plains over my career. So what I discuss today regarding the economic conditions that make building a strong town extremely challenging is most relevant to the large reservations on the Northern Plains.

Let me start, though, with a little background. Native communities are modern reflections of large historic, tribal societies, which often operate on core values and beliefs very different from western society as they — despite long punishing attempts by the U.S. government at total acculturation — remain non-western. What does that mean? I will make some generalizations: Power is based in family and extended families. This includes who you are related to, the status of your family, and your personal respect and regard in the community — which is based on generosity, humility, hospitality and giving back to your community, whether it is dancing at a pow-wow to bring joy and entertainment or holding a positions on the Tribal Council. Powerful influencers may have very little in the way of material goods or money.

Families trace their lineage through their mother’s side and women are heavily involved in decisions at all levels as society is a matriarchal structure.  A large minority of tribal police officers and politicians are women. Language and deeply held beliefs are archived in tribal languages that are utterly different from the Latin or Greek origins of many other world languages. Scientific and logic based western thinking is replaced by a deep unconscious belief in a spirit realm that has power over our lives and our relationship to our community, the natural order and our family members now residing in the other side. Newborn children here are called “Wakanyeja” or sacred travelers.

With that background, here are some of the very real factors that make working in Native communities uniquely challenging, to say the least.

Lack of Access to Land and Equity

Many Americans mistakenly believe that the U.S. Government “gave” reservations to the Indian People for them to live on. In fact, the U.S. government never gave Indians title to even one inch of land. Native People are legally unable to own the land they live on. How does this translate into modern life? It is impossible for a Plains Indian to acquire equity other than cattle. For example, my wife and I could not get a home mortgage as the bank cannot secure land where the title holder of last resort is not a family member — it is Uncle Sam. If, someday, we wanted to sell our house, we would need the permission of the Secretary of the Interior of the United States — an unlikely possibility.

 Because of lack of access to capital and inability to own land, many Native people live in mobile homes as that's the easiest form of housing to secure a bank loan for. (Source: Google Maps)

Because of lack of access to capital and inability to own land, many Native people live in mobile homes as that's the easiest form of housing to secure a bank loan for. (Source: Google Maps)

We operate a small B&B that is quite successful. But we cannot use the business or the land it sits on for any kind of loan. Nor can we sell the business when we are too old and tired to operate it. This is why so many Native People live in trailer houses; the bank is more likely to finance a mobile home because they can repossess it. In fact, we financed our business start-up with car titles.

This inability to earn or achieve equity makes it virtually impossible for families to use a small business to escape poverty. Did I mention that we are also the poorest county in the United States with a male life span of 47 and a female life span of 52?

All regional banks and the larger financial institutions including the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development have powerful vested economic interest in keeping Native People and their communities in poverty and have since the very beginning of the reservation system on the Northern Plains.

Lack of Local Economy

We have 9 major villages with schools and a few goods and services available on our reservation — and as many with no businesses or infrastructure at all. If you do not have an internal community economy, then you are forced to go to off-reservation communities to buy virtually everything. So 90% of local wealth is transferred off the reservation within 24 hours of payday. The remaining 10% goes to the few on-reservation businesses in existence today. There still exists a barter system, strong sharing behaviors, and a black market for drugs and alcohol.

 Children at Cloud Horse Youth Camp learn traditional arts. Securing funding for anything beyond basic services — anything that would help children envision a future for themselves — is extremely challenging, but we do what we can. (Source:  Cloud Horse Art Institute )

Children at Cloud Horse Youth Camp learn traditional arts. Securing funding for anything beyond basic services — anything that would help children envision a future for themselves — is extremely challenging, but we do what we can. (Source: Cloud Horse Art Institute)

Tribes themselves have jurisdiction over lands so large that even offering basic services is sometimes impossible, and remember, the tribes do not have a property tax base or much of a sales tax base.

In our college studies we were taught to look at quality of life issues as a basis of approaching community problem solving. Quality of life includes things like safety in your person, your home and your community; whether the chance for a competitive education exists in your community; whether it’s possible to make a living wage and increase your income over time; and whether any of your children or grandchildren will find the community and its existing institutions attractive enough to want to stay.

This translates to material things like clean water, a fire department, affordable food, a place for you to move when you become frail, good health services, etc. So many of these quality of life features are utterly out of reach for my neighbors and I.

Towards Some Creative Solutions

So we are forced to develop solutions to our challenges using creative problem solving to move our community forward. Pine Ridge now has a community development financial institution, the Lakota Federal Credit Union. While it has not yet reached its full potential (lack of business infrastructure and lack or personal equity aside), it has made a small and growing difference.

A successful credit union will, in the long run, have very important impacts on our community and is a solution to the fact that regional and national banks simply refuse to locate here. (The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 means that a branch bank would have to offer home and business loans. No one in the South Dakota business or banking community seems willing to allow that to happen as it will steal business from border towns.)

These large tribes have also built successful colleges, but they are struggling to improve schools that lag far behind national standards for performance. Tribes have spent the last 40 years coming to terms with language loss and colonization, developing methods to reverse its impact on a community’s belief in itself and its ability to make important changes.

 A pow-wow on Pine Ridge (Source: Hamner_fotos)

A pow-wow on Pine Ridge (Source: Hamner_fotos)

Nonetheless, over the last several decades, the attitude and ability of tribal program personnel to manage and improve community services has been remarkable. Transitioning from the 1970’s where the Bureau of Indian Affairs made all real decisions on the reservation to today has been revolutionary. Sub-contracting roads away from the Bureau of India Affairs means that dollars are spent far more efficiently and we’re able to make improvements that serve the needs and safety of our local communities. Tribes are becoming more effective at managing all aspects of government.

Developing feasible local projects that reflect the needs and dreams of our community is pioneering work. Can modern Native communities become truly healthy, safe, and financially sustainable human environments? Can young people receive the skills they need here in the homeland to be part of building out a positive future for a colonized tribal people?

I believe the answer is yes. And my degree in Community Development and Leadership has shown me that more education in this realm is sorely needed. I believe that if Community Development was taught in our Tribal and non-Tribal colleges in South Dakota, everyone would benefit — from nearby towns realizing that permanently poor neighbors (and all the suicide, prison sentences and early death it brings) are not in their best interest to reservation communities solving many of their current problems for the first time.

From community wells, to housing, to land cooperatives, to community colleges, swimming pools, a first Native American Chamber of Commerce, tourism development and much more, my life has never been boring. Do I wish change could come quicker? Yes. But I have seen the Native community tackle dozens of problems over my lifetime and watched many lasting solutions be developed locally. My formal education in Community Development was an integral asset to helping me participate constructively in these goals.



 The author and his wife, Tilda

The author and his wife, Tilda

About the Author

Mark St. Pierre and his wife (a certified Lakota Language Teacher and Folk Artist), Tilda Long Soldier-St. Pierre, operate the Odd Duck Inn and the Cloud Horse Art Institute. Mark is the author of three books including Madonna Swan: A Lakota Woman’s StoryWalking in The Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers--Medicine Women of the Plainsand Of Uncommon Birth: Dakota Sons in Vietnam.