Good News, Bad News

May 15th, 1992 | By | Category: 4-1: Breaking Down the Walls: Confronting Alcohol, Drugs and Family Violence, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

The Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota is a broad, sparsely populated region of grasslands and rolling hills.

Driving between towns on frequently empty roads, the dominant forces often seem to be the wind and sky. To an out­sider, perhaps most especially to an Easterner, the emptiness can appear haunting and picturesque.

But Pine Ridge is also a land of pover­ty. Shannon County, where the reserva­tion is located, is one of the poorest in the nation. While figures vary, it is fre­quently said that unemployment and alcoholism both exceed eighty percent.

Perhaps for both reasons—the scenic and the sensational—Pine Ridge has been a place of pilgrimage for television and newspaper reporters hoping to cap­ture modern reservation life. Filled with the evidence of both a proud heritage and undeniable modern needs, it is treated as a portrait in black and white of what it means to be Indian.

A few years ago an NBC News crew spent time on the reserva­tion producing a three-part story called Tragedy at Pine Ridge. Last year, a Wall Street Journal story also fea­tured the community in an article head­lined, “A century later, Sioux still strug­gle, and still are losing.”

In both cases, the stories reported on the poverty, the evidence of social ills, the sense of abandonment. “The grim statistical litany of life on Pine Ridge,” was how Wall Street Journal reporter Judith Valente described it.

And in both cases, the stories caused an angry uproar on the reservation. The NBC series, especially, was discussed for weeks in the native American press. Some disputed specific facts. But most were frustrated by what they saw as an overwhelming emphasis on the nega­tive. A few charged it was a willful attack on Indian people.

When writers and producers are con­fronted with these charges, their first reaction is often not anger or denial, but simple surprise. Most journalists who enter a reservation and describe the problems they see assume a service is being provided. They believe their sto­ries will help educate an ignorant nation and possibly inspire legislators to push for a more responsive national policy. “1 am stunned and surprised to learn that some people may be upset over this arti­cle,” said Valente as quoted by the Indian-owned Lakota Times. Later in the Times article she said: “I stand by my job. I kept an open mind and I think I did a lot to help the reservation.”

But what non-Indians may view as a helpful effort to inform, some Indians interpret as a frontal assault on their dig­nity and sovereignty. Native Americans have been victimized, but it does not follow that they want to be portrayed only as victims. And what may be a shocking revelation to a reporter from New York is yesterday’s news—even the last centu­ry’s news—to many native Americans.

Why can’t the media focus on the pos­itive? many American Indians ask. The real news, they say, is not about the problems in Indian societies, but how they are being recognized and solved.  That is the news for the century to come.

It is true, for example, that alcoholism and drug abuse have been enormously destructive to many Indian communi­ties. Reports of eighty percent alco­holism on some reservations are not exaggerations and a wide variety of drugs—from inhalants to cocaine—are consumed. But it is also true, and much more timely, to report that many reser­vations are now working in meaningful ways to break the cycle of addiction and educate communities about the impact of substance abuse on children, families and culture.

Poverty, too, is a fact of life and job opportunities are often limited. Unemployment figures typically match or exceed the alcoholism rate. But with this, too, a number of reserva­tions—including Pine Ridge—are cre­ating truly innovative economic devel­opment programs. Several reservations support entrepreneurs through revolv­ing loan funds. Others have entered very successful business ventures that provide jobs and income for the whole tribe.

In many cases these programs are small and their impact on the communities are not yet obvious. But visitors, over­whelmed by the problems that remain, may not recognize the significance of even limited success. Beyond the number of jobs created or people counseled, these examples provide visible evidence of a profound and emotional change taking place within Indian societies.

More than ever before, reservation communities are acknowledging their needs and working to solve their own problems. No longer willing to wait for outside experts and government studies, Indians are relying increasingly on their own skills to run institutions and administer programs. In this way, the effort to confront issues from unemployment to teenage suicide is closely connected to a broader movement for cultural pride and political self-determination.

But many Indian leaders feel they still have to prove them­selves to non-Indians who remain skeptical that tribes can manage their own affairs. And this helps explain why negative stories are not well received within reservations: An emphasis on failure may be interpreted as a denial of what has been accomplished by native Americans and, even worse, be viewed as an attack on tribal sovereignty. Tribes are not responsible for the harm done by European conquest and the nation’s attempts at forced assimilation. But they are taking responsibility for their future. And that deserves recognition, they assert.

Not all stories are negative, of course. The tribally con­trolled colleges, for example, have received frequent and consistently positive attention in the nation’s newspapers and magazines, for example. In addition, future stories should not ignore the problems that remain. That would be to ignore the truth and not be in anyone’s interest.

But to fail to see the complexity of reservation societies and the transformation taking place within them is to miss a very exciting story.

Paul Boyer is editor of Tribal College.

In This Issue

Native Americans are certainly not the only people to suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and the illnesses that inevitably follow. Nor were they the first deny its destructive influence or feel powerless to stop it.

But in this issue we look at these problems as they relate to native American societies because some­thing important is taking place. A growing number of communities are not only learning to confront sub­stance abuse and other social ills, they have turned a once fledgling movement into a cultural crusade that is being felt all across North America.

As we report in Cultures in Recovery, the evidence of this movement can be seen everywhere from pro­fessional conferences where alcohol has been banned to the streets of reservation towns where community members sponsor sobriety marches.

It can also be felt on tribal college campuses. These institutions are important leaders in the movement and we include several examples of how Indian con­trolled colleges are addressing substance abuse on their campuses and within their communities.

Family violence is also a critical issue. Brenda Hill, an instructor at Sisseton Wahpeton College, looks at its impact and urges native American communities and tribal colleges to become even more responsive to the needs of abused women and their children.

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