Sioux pay dear for losing the West

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Here Is your starter for 10. Which nation after Haiti is the most destitute in the western hemisphere? Guatemala? Guyana? Colombia? How about El Salvador? Nope: none of the above. It's the Sioux.

Okay, perhaps it was a bit of a trick question since the descendants of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull have been deprived of their nationhood along with just about everything else. Twenty-six thousand of them are facing a bleak Christmas on the freezing Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

New research at the Harvard School of Public Health shows that on average they die 20 years earlier than other Americans. Their life expectancy is at sub-Saharan African levels; in the Americas, only Haitians can expect a shorter life span. Infant mortality is twice as high as elsewhere in the US. Two-thirds of adults are unemployed (and as if this was not enough, one Washington observer noted with horror last week, "There is no gym").

Like other indigenous peoples, they are suffering a plague of diabetes. Genetically programmed as hunter-gatherers to subsist on very little - and to store any extra as fat - they cannot cope with junk food. They never used to get the disease: but for 50 years until last year the government aid on which they depend included only fatty, salty foods. "Diabetes is our Aids," says Joe Blue Bird who has the disease, as have two of his brothers, "but they don't seem to be breaking their necks to find a cure."

o "OUR job is to glory in inequality," exclaimed Mrs Thatcher at a moment of high enthusiasm. If she had been in New York last week she would presumably have been very happy, for a new report shows that the gap between rich and poor has reached unprecedented levels. The richest fifth of the people of New York state have an average income nearly 20 times higher than the poorest fifth: $132,390 comparedwith $6,787 a year. In fact the gap has grown in almost every US state in the past two years, while in 44 of them the incomes of the poor have actually fallen - in New York by as much as 20 per cent.

It has been much the same story in Britain, despite Mrs Thatcher's insistence that "Everyone in the nation has benefited from increased prosperity, everyone."

The poorest tenth of Britons also saw their income fall by 20 per cent in the past two decades (to be precise, since 1979, when she took power) while the incomes of the richest tenth increased by more than 60 per cent. Meanwhile, the world-wide gap between rich and poor has doubled. All this explodes a basic tenet of Thatcherism and Reaganism: that making the rich richer helps the poor; the wealth, the dogma went, would automatically "trickle down" to them.

Unsurprisingly, this naive notion became highly fashionable among the already wealthy. But it undermined economies as well as failing the poor. The World Bank - a leading apostle of the dogma - now admits that the countries with the greatest inequality have grown least economically, while those that combated it (rather than glorifying in it) have done best. Pity that no one seems to have told Tony Blair.

Meanwhile, of course, the Christmas rush is reaching a climax. Toys R Us and other stores have even introduced the euphemistically titled "Non-bridal gift register". In practice this means that the little blighters are given hand-held scanners and allowed to roam the isles zapping the bar codes of whatever they fancy: friends and relatives can then "access" the list at any branch of the store in the country.

By contrast, Adbusters, an organisation fighting a rearguard action against the commercialisation of Christmas, has set up a site on the Internet from which people can download a certificate stating that they agree to exempt each other from the exchange of Christmas presents.

Surprisingly, the idea seems to be spreading in unexpected quarters. Even the Wall Street Journal, the daily herald of capitalism, last week published an article enjoining a present "cease-fire" among adults (it also urged, "Don't give unless you get," which sounds more like the journal we know).

A godfather of mine and his three brothers seem to be pioneers of this approach. Every Christmas lunch, each of them would walk round the table and solemnly place half-a-crown on the others' plates. Honour satisfied - each having given and received seven shillings and sixpence - they then sat down to celebrate the festival.