“It’s not our fault,” Jacob Rosales said. I had asked the recent high-school graduate what he wants people to know about life on the reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. “There’s a liquor store right across from the border,” he continued after a pause, pointing off into the distance. “Right over there.”
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a striking 3,469-square-mile expanse of sprawling grasslands and craggy badlands that sits in the southwest corner of South Dakota, touching Nebraska’s northern edge. Traversing the reservation by car, along its rugged matrix of two-lane highways and unmarked roads, reveals just how vast it is.
Park the car and wander around the softly bustling community hub of Pine Ridge town, and it’s clear there’s also a lot going on beyond the bluffs and tree groves and decaying trailer homes. There are the men in braids and jeans waving at each other from across the street, there are the teen girls drinking frappés at the colorful Christian coffee shop, and there are the “rez dogs” scouring piles of trash. There are also the young people, like Rosales, who are on a mission to make the world understand that it’s not their fault that this reservation—home to an estimated 20,000 Oglala Lakota Nation members—is one of the poorest, and most underdeveloped, places in the country.
Pine Ridge doesn’t get much national attention except when the news is sad. Unemployment and gang violence are rampant. The life expectancy for men is just 48. A youth-suicide epidemic has plagued the reservation in recent years, with a cluster of nearly 200 teens killing or attempting to kill themselves in the span of a few months starting in late 2014. And even though Pine Ridge remains a “dry” reservation, alcoholism is widespread; until recently, residents could, as Rosales pointed out, easily drive just a few miles south into Whiteclay, Nebraska, to buy booze. Mary Frances Berry, the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, once remarked, “Whiteclay can be said to exist only to sell beer to the Oglala Lakota.”
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