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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:
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.