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Diane Sawyer on the Rez

Oct 11, 2011

Rural South Dakotans may be a lot of things — good and bad and in between — but one affliction we seldom suffer is LOSEFOWS. That's my acronym for Loss Of Self Esteem From Outside Writers' Stories. Hit-and-run journalism just doesn't seem to bother us. In fact, my experience has been that South Dakotans enjoy reading an outsider's perspective ... but mainly they just enjoy it for the laughs.

Cory Heidelberger of the Madville Times poked some fun this week at a New York Times writer who, shocked at the de-population of rural America (where was she when the trend began in the 1890s?), tried to frame the causes in one little story. She figured that some South Dakotans blame it on what she called the "super slab," a term for Interstate 90. I don't think many rural citizens  — or serious demographers, for that matter — blame I-90 anymore than they blame Henry Ford or the caveman who invented the wheel.

And if you asked a South Dakotan how to get to the super slab, they'd probably direct you to the Empire Mall parking lot.

A few years ago, we hung around Gregory for a day or two, working on a story on that town's trials, tribulations and the like. While everyone was more than happy to visit with us, several noted with chagrin that they'd just been burned by a Chicago Sunday Tribune writer who came to town and concluded in his article that the town was dying.

"We didn't necessarily agree with everything he wrote but his story made us realize that he might be right and we started doing something about it," said Francie Johnson. So right or wrong, a critique can be a kick in the butt.

This Friday night, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer will report on the plight of young people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Promos to her report (Hidden America: Children of the Plains, 9 p.m. CST) look as if she and the producers tried to find the good and the bad of life on the rez for youngsters. But regardless of the accuracy, it is mostly a plus when Diane Sawyer comes to your town or reservation. "Just spell the name right ....," as the politicians say. See the promo video here:

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Here's what may be missing from Ms. Sawyer's report. Tremendous strides have been accomplished in Indian Country in the past generation. We report this based on 26 years of visiting all nine reservations many times in our travels across South Dakota. And most of the good advances can be traced to education.

Twenty-six years ago, the tribal colleges were in their infancy. Since then, they've grown and prospered — thanks to the dedication of local leaders who believe in education, and thanks to the American taxpayer who has footed most of the bill.

The tribal colleges have educated nurses and administrators and K-12 teachers who have filled many of the few good jobs on the rez. That has enabled smart, caring and resourceful young Native Americans to stay in their home communities, where they've become role models for the youth.

Some of the tribal grads have also become artists and entrepreneurs and writers.

Ben Reifel, the first Lakota Sioux to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, liked to tell Indian youth that if Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were alive today, they wouldn't be riding horses and shooting bows and arrows — but they'd be leaders in business, education and politics because that's where the warrior can make a difference in the modern world.

It will be interesting to watch ABC's take on the Pine Ridge. Maybe it will help to awaken people to the challenges of the rez. But hopefully the conclusion will not be that life there is going to hell in a hurry because that would be far from the truth.

Much progress has been made because today there are educated leaders in every community who are there to stay and make life better.


04:19 pm - Tue, October 11 2011
Mar Johnson said:
I was born and raised in South Dakota, but haven't lived there in decades. Every time I visit, I see welcome changes such as the visitor center at Bear Butte that has exhibits of the Native American culture, too.
06:55 pm - Tue, October 11 2011
Dan said:

Looking forward to seeing this. If nothing else I hope it brings some awareness to the problems there. Maybe it will bring in some solutions from across the country.
06:48 am - Wed, October 12 2011
Cheryl Eagle said:
When I saw the previews I got chills of excitement & pride. Because WE ARE HERE, it seems ALL First Nations have been forgotten. I watch our country rescue & fund disasters across the world when the first occupants of OUR own country are ignored. i'm encouraged to finally see the news/media come into our Nations and see we need what They give others across the world... I am looking forward to watching this & have been spreading the word for others to watch it as well. It gives me hope.
02:01 pm - Fri, October 14 2011
David Kitzler said:
One truth I always carry is something my grandfather said: "South Dakota is America's best kept secret." Like any state, SD has problems, and the reservations have suffered many hardships. However, ours is a land that does not succumb, but rather, endures. What South Dakotans have in common is their ability to embrace the fundamentals of life while also appreciating change. Born and raised in SD, I have also lived in other parts of the U.S. In comparison to other places, SD is a land of dignity and decency. It's a place where you can feel safe, where you can wave at a farmer on a lonely country road and be waved back at. Its rough spots are docile compared to places where extreme violence, unbridled racism, self-indulgent politics, and rampant crime and corruption are the norm. Of course there is progress to be made, but I have faith that both Natives and non-Natives will continue to strive in making SD a stronghold of "American Tribal" values. Perhaps instead of scorning it as some kind of national pariah, people outside SD might realize that although far from perfect, it has a good thing going. If we all adhere to the words of Sitting Bull and “put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children,” then maybe our humble patch of earth can serve as a model for the survival and restoration of this entire nation. While the sins of history have left wounds, it behooves us all, in the fashion of true warriors, to rise up, to instigate healing, and to embrace the life and blessings of our Creator.

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