A century after Wounded Knee the battle goes on

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The Independent US

Sooner or later, every person you meet in Pine Ridge says: "This was the last bit of land that the white man didn't want – that's why they put the Indians on it."

It is the second biggest Indian reservation in the United States and a place that commands notoriety for being as remote from the "American dream" as it is possible to be.

Hard by the South Dakota "Badlands" – which scorch in summer, freeze in winter and support little or no cultivation – Pine Ridge notches up the highest incidence of anything bad and the lowest incidence of anything good of anywhere in America.

More than 100 years after Wounded Knee, the proud but battered Sioux people are again battling with the white man. On the reservation, male life expectancy is 56 and female is 60, a good 20 years less than the average for the country at large. The only age group in which the Pine Ridge Indian mortality rate is lower than that of the total population is among the over-75s, for the simple reason that so few reach that age. The infant mortality rate and the youth suicide rate are more than twice the national average.

Like so many Indian reservations, Pine Ridge – home to about 25,000 Lakota Sioux Indians – is racked with alcoholism, diabetes and obesity. Far from all homes have either running water or electricity, and the telephone service is patchy. On a reservation of 3,100 sq miles, there are only 82 miles of paved roads. The rest are dirt, and impassable after rain. Unemployment is put at "nearly 75 per cent" – the figure given by former President Clinton during a visit two years ago – in a country where the national rate still only brushes 4 per cent.

The bulk of the reservation is in Shannon County, which may just have lifted itself out of being the poorest county in America. That flicker of doubt over whether Shannon County is still bottom, or only next to bottom, was voiced to me by Tom Short Bull, the president of Oglala Lakota College and a leading light of the South Dakota Indian community.

For while Pine Ridge is an area of extreme deprivation and scant opportunity, depressingly barren and run-down, with just one grocery store to supply the whole population, there are small signs of change: a scattering of new houses, a new children's clinic, new health and youth centres, an anti-diabetes programme that promotes healthy eating and market gardening in tandem – the only way many have of obtaining fruit and vegetables without travelling almost 100 miles.Some of the renovation is courtesy of the $1m (£700,000) annual revenue from the reservation's modest new casino. Some is from an injection of public funds after the Clinton visit.

In the depths of the reservation, close to the tiny, ramshackle settlement of Kyle, where the pine-dotted ridge finally gives way to high, stony pasture land, two things are happening that have the potential to change the lives of these people and their land for good. One is the Oglala Lakota Tribal College, one of 32 such colleges providing a mix of vocational and degree-level education on Indian reservations, with study of tribal history and culture an integral part of the course. The other is Marcell Bull Bear's herd of buffalo.

A full hour's drive from the town of Pine Ridge, the only sizeable town on the reservation, the college is more an administrative hub than a humming academic institution. The teaching takes place in off-campus centres in the settlements where people live. So relatively few of the students have cars or the money for petrol, or the luxury of time to commute, that the college essentially goes to them. Even the main college building is a cast-off; it had been built as the new headquarters for the tribal government, until the reservation voted in a referendum to leave the headquarters in the town of Pine Ridge.

And while the principle of having separate colleges for Indians can be contested, these institutions provide a post-school education to people who would otherwise receive none, and have started to stem what was a drain of the brightest and best from Indian lands. Their proponents compare them to the black colleges that still flourish in the post-segregation South, and are starting to attract students from other ethnic groups because of their relatively low fees and the solidity of their teaching. The tribal colleges are funded primarily by a charitable foundation, the 15-year-old American Indian College Fund, with a modicum of federal help.

Oglala Lakota college supplies Pine Ridge with many of its own schoolteachers, nurses, technicians and clerical staff. Tom Short Bull concedes that the dropout rate is still a concern, and that any tangible effects on living standards on the reservation are still elusive. But the population is growing so fast – Indians are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the US – that stemming the deterioration is itself an achievement.

Five miles the other side of Kyle from the college is a venture that appears quite different, but is not unrelated. Here, Mr Bull Bear, a mild-mannered official in the tribal housing department, lives with his wife and six children on the three acres that remain of his ancestral land. About two years ago, Mr Bull Bear took a decision that more and more of his fellow Indians on the high plains have also been making. He bought 24 head of buffalo at $4,000 (£2,800) a head and herds them in his spare time.

Mr Bull Bear says his buffalo, which now number 49, have brought his life into "balance". He is one of several "new" buffalo owners at Pine Ridge, who are taking classes at the tribal college: in ecology, genetics and other sciences in the hope of combining the old and the new. Buffalo occupy a hallowed place in the mythology and folk memory of Plains Indians. The milk, the meat, the fur, the hide and the horns are all put to use. They even graze the poor pasture land of Pine Ridge without destroying the topsoil.

By virtue of its history, its situation and its barely concealed hostility to the white man, Pine Ridge is perhaps the last repository of resistance to American rule in the country. Its territory takes in Wounded Knee; the site that schoolchildren are taught was the last battle of the Indian wars 111 years ago.

For almost two years now, the Indians and the state authorities of Nebraska on the southern edge of the reservation have been at loggerheads over the unsolved murders of two Indian men and what is seen in Pine Ridge as the shameless profiteering of off-reservation beer dives. The tribal government is bitterly divided. One feels that this is how Washington prefers it.

The tribal college and the buffalo are planting the first seeds of hope in Pine Ridge for a long time, perhaps ever, as the Lakota Indians look to themselves for solutions. The start is slow and halting withsuccess by no means assured but, after more than a century of despair, there is some progress.