In the barren grasslands of Ziebach County, there’s almost nothing harder to find in winter than a job. This is America’s poorest county, where more than 60 percent of people live at or below the poverty line.
At a time when the weak economy is squeezing communities across the nation, recently released census figures show that nowhere are the numbers as bad as here – a county with 2,500 residents, most of them Cheyenne River Sioux Indians living on a reservation.
In the coldest months of the year, when seasonal construction work disappears and the South Dakota prairie freezes, unemployment among the Sioux can hit 90 percent.
Poverty has loomed over this land for generations. Repeated attempts to create jobs have run into stubborn obstacles: the isolated location, the area’s crumbling infrastructure, a poorly trained population and a tribe that struggles to work with businesses or attract investors.
Now the tribe – joined by a few entrepreneurs, a development group and a nonprofit – is renewing efforts to create jobs and encourage a downtrodden population to start its own businesses.
“Many, many people make these grand generalizations about our communities and poverty and ‘Why don’t people just do something, and how come they can’t?’” said Eileen Briggs, executive director of Tribal Ventures, a development group started by the tribe. “It’s much more complicated than that.”
The Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, created in 1889, consists almost entirely of agricultural land in Ziebach and neighboring Dewey County. It has no casino and no oil reserves or available natural resources.
Most towns in Ziebach County are just clusters of homes between cattle ranches. Families live in dilapidated houses or run-down trailers. Multicolored patches of siding show where repairs were made as cheaply as possible.
Families fortunate enough to have leases to tribal land can make money by raising cattle. Opportunities are scarce for almost everyone else.
The few people who have jobs usually have to drive up to 80 miles to tribal headquarters. The nearest major population centers are Rapid City and Bismarck, each a trip of 150 miles or more.
Basic services can be vulnerable. The tribe’s primary health clinic doesn’t have a CT scanner or a maternity ward. An ice storm last year knocked out power and water in places for weeks. And in winter, the gravel roads that connect much of the reservation can become impassable with snow and ice.
Nearly six decades after the reservation was created, the federal government began building a dam on the Missouri River, but the project caused flooding that washed away more than 100,000 acres of Indian land. After the flooding, the small town of Eagle Butte became home to the tribal headquarters and the center of the reservation’s economy.
“There are things that have happened to us over many, many generations that you just can’t fix in three or four years,” said Kevin Keckler, the tribe’s chairman. “We were put here by the government, and we had a little piece of land and basically told to succeed here.”
But prosperity never came. The county has been at or near the top of the poverty rankings for at least a decade. In 2009, the census defined poverty as a single person making less than $11,000 a year or a family of four making less than $22,000 a year.
Eagle Butte has few businesses and the handful that do exist struggle to stay afloat. The town has just one major grocery store, the Lakota Thrifty Mart, which is owned by the tribe. There’s also a Dairy Queen, a Taco John’s and a handful of small cafes. There’s no bowling alley, no movie theatre.
But a few entrepreneurs are trying to break the cycle of failure, with mixed results.
Stephanie Davidson and her husband, Gerald, started a plumbing-and-heating business in 2000 with a single pickup truck. Eventually, D&D Plumbing started to grow, and they hired several employees.
But the reservation economy, which was never strong, has been hit hard by the economic slump. Many customers don’t have the money to pay for work upfront, and the Davidsons have struggled to get contracts in new construction, such as a nearly $85 million federal hospital being built to replace the aging clinic.
They’ve laid off employees and filled empty space in their building by adding a bait shop and then a deli. Nothing has worked.
“People think you’re a pillar of the community because you have a business, and that part of it is good,” Stephanie Davidson said. “We don’t feel that way right now because we’re having such a tough time.”
Nicky White Eyes, who owns a flower shop on Main Street, says there are days when she doesn’t sell a single flower. Most of her business comes from families who get help from the tribe to buy flowers for a relative’s funeral.
“We’re getting by with nothing extra,” said White Eyes, who said she hasn’t taken any salary in the months since she quit another job to run the shop full-time. “But no, I have too much heart in it to let it go quite yet.”
The nonprofit Four Bands Community Fund has invested in both businesses and people in Eagle Butte. The group teaches residents basic financial skills – how to open a checking account, how to save money on a budget and how to develop credit.
“You have the most complicated little world here,” said Tanya Fiddler, Four Bands’ executive director.
Without a viable private sector, federal money permeates every part of life here. The federal government pays for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Indian Health Service, three of the reservation’s largest employers. Businesses rely on the federal money that comes into the reservation.
Federal stimulus dollars are paying for the new hospital, which will create about 150 permanent jobs when it opens this year. Other federal contracts bring sporadic jobs, too.
One tribal success story is Lakota Technologies, which has attracted call-center and data-processing work and trained hundreds of young people since it started more than a decade ago. The company now employs a handful of tribal members on a State Department sub-contract, even though most of its cubicles remain empty.
But other businesses owned by the tribe have run into trouble. Last year, a buffalo-meat processing company was sued by a rancher in federal court. The lawsuit accused the company, Pte Hca Ka Inc., of not delivering on contracts. A federal judge ruled against Pte Hca Ka for $1.1 million when it did not respond to the lawsuit.
Keckler, the newly elected tribal chairman and a former business owner, has pledged to try to fix the problems. He said previous officials have rejected overtures from outside investors because they feared the loss of tribal control or the risk of losing their positions.
“It’s difficult for us to get people to come here and have faith in us as a government,” he said. “We just had a new election, and there was discussion about, ‘Oh, people want to give away things.’ Those are kind of the issues that we have.”
Still, there are small reasons to hope.
Later this year, the tribe will start to receive payments from a $290 million settlement with Congress related to the farmland that was lost to the Missouri River flooding. The tribe will receive annual interest on the settlement money starting this fall. This year’s payment could be as much as $75 million, according to one tribal estimate. A Department of Treasury spokeswoman says the final amount hasn’t been determined yet.
That money can be used for infrastructure improvements, economic development and education.
Raymond Uses The Knife, a rancher and tribal councilman, wants the reservation to be “accessible for other companies to come in and invest their money right here.”
“We have to attract business. Regardless of how much money we have, we can’t set up our own businesses,” he said. “We also have to realize that we’re all not experts.”
Meanwhile, groups like Tribal Ventures and Four Bands continue to look for ways to bring in jobs and help those who are fighting the decades-old obstacles here.
“You can have all the heart you want, but you have to have actual cash and resources,” said Briggs, of Tribal Ventures. “All those things play a part in our being able to basically use our greatest asset, which is our people.”