The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is one of the most impoverished communities in the nation. Unemployment hovers around 80%, and most residents subsist on government handouts. Home to the Oglala Sioux, Pine Ridge sits near Mount Rushmore and the Dakota Badlands; both prime tourist destinations. Most visitors, however, simply bypass Pine Ridge. There are no hotels, museums, gift shops or restaurants; there aren’t even many public restrooms.
The 2.7 million-acre reservation, however, is ripe for development, and tourism could dramatically alter the economic future for the Oglala Sioux. But, like most Native Americans, the Sioux are suspicious of outsiders. Their land is sacred, and – after years of broken treaties and experiencing painfully racist marginalization – they’re naturally reluctant about the prospect of other people arriving with promises of financial security. It’s not difficult to understand why.
“When you take a community of people where at one point our language was outlawed and parts of our culture were outlawed, it’s hard for us to, I guess, open up to the idea of sharing that in a way to make money off of it,” said Nick Tilsen, executive director of Thunder Valley, a nonprofit on Pine Ridge set up to keep traditional Lakota culture alive among young people.
Other Indian nations have opened their land to tourism and development. The Navajo in the Southwest, for example, welcomes some 600,000 visitors annually who spent $113 million in 2011 alone. In Oklahoma, nearly 45,000 people visited the Cherokee Nation’s Heritage Center museum last year.
But, the Oglala Sioux have just one tribally run casino-and-hotel complex, the Prairie Wind, on the western side of the reservation. They recently opened a smaller casino in Martin, a town near the reservation’s eastern edge.
The community, Tilsen said, is not “totally against” development. “I think we’re at the stage of, ‘What parts do we want to protect and what parts are we willing to share and what does that look like?’”
Pine Ridge is the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where more than 250 adults and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry in 1890. Many residents, especially community elders, simply feel the area shouldn’t be turned into a tourist attraction with a museum. Such development would be disrespectful to the dead in their view.
A museum commemorating the massacre was ransacked and its contents lost in 1972. Another museum dedicated to the massacre draws thousands of people annually, but it’s 100 miles north of the reservation in Wall, South Dakota. The tribal and federal governments are the two biggest employers, but many residents travel outside to find work or sell hand-made goods and trinkets for a few dollars. In June, the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux reached a new agreement that calls for creation of the nation’s first tribal national park at Badlands National Park – an endeavor that might also attract tourists and jobs. Congress still must approve the idea.
But, the Oglala Sioux have relied too much on the federal government anyway with housing and food subsidies. They could allow outside investment, but still retain control over any development on the reservation. They don’t have to relinquish absolute authority to the federal or even state governments. Establishing a museum and library highlighting the Wounded Knee Massacre wouldn’t be disrespectful, if the Oglala Sioux managed them. I feel it would have just the opposite effect – it would make people aware of exactly what happened that winter day in 1890. Tribal residents could tell the real story and not the John Wayne-style version that most Americans see and read about. They have to do more for their children’s future than just selling pretty baskets and wind chimes on the side of the road. They have to take their lives back from the clutches of a bitter history.