Chasing the Dream: Historical Trauma and Grassroots Solutions

Jun 24, 2016

The American Dream takes many forms. It can include things like cars and houses, or being happy and healthy. No matter how you define success, behind it is the belief that we can have it all through hard work.

In North and South Dakota, poverty hits the Native American population much harder than it does whites. Prairie Public’s Ashley Thornberg explores the causes and one woman’s attempt to help. 

Jamie with a hoe.
Credit NDSU University Relations

 

Ashley:

When you hear the word poverty, what comes to mind? Money? The lack of it? Well, that's certainly a major component says Dr. Donald Warne, but it's far from the whole picture.

Dr. Warne:

It has an impact on people's sense of the future and their hope for the future. People do not believe they have opportunities.

Ashley:

Dr. Warne is an Oglala Lakota man with an impressive list of accomplishments. He studied at Stanford and Harvard and he's currently the chair of the Department of Public Health at North Dakota University. All of this is far cry from his upbringing on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Dr. Warne:

The epicenter of health disparities and poverty.

Ashley:

Poverty hits reservations particularly hard. According to the North Dakota census office, the state's average is about eleven percent of the population living in poverty. In some areas with reservations, that number can be nearly four times higher.

Dr. Warne:

The average age at death for men from Pine Ridge is now down to forty eight. We have in many ways third world health conditions in our reservation communities.

Ashley:

Much of that is because of chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Those kinds of conditions tend to happen when there's not enough healthy food or health care. Something Jamie Holding Eagle knows all too well.

Jamie:

So the diabetes rate for white folks in North Dakota is about seven percent, and for native folks, it's about thirteen percent. However, the death rate is actually six times higher.

Ashley:

She's pursuing a master's degree in public health from NDSU. Holding Eagle works to restore the eating habits of her ancestors. Here great, great, grandmother's Scattered Corn was a corn priest of the Mandan people. Here's an early 1900's recording of Scattered Corn singing a traditional corn song.

[music]

Jamie:

Corn spirit went south when it was cold and they'd be summoned back when it was the right time.

Ashley:

It sounds easy to say there's not enough grocery stores, so let's build one. Holding Eagle says that's a bandaid approach.

Jamie:

You have to be able to have money to go there. Let's see, if you do have money, is it culturally appropriate food? Can you get access to it? Do you have stable housing? Do you have the utensils to do so? Can you actually cook something in your house?

Ashley:

Researchers linked these chronic problems to the systematic breakdown of traditional native life. In the four hundred year history of the American Indian genocide, roughly ninety percent of the population was killed, and many survivors taken from their homes. Dr. Warne's mother was taken from her family and sent to a boarding school.

Dr. Warne:

There were a lot of beatings that occurred. Kids would have their hair washed with turpentine, so it was very dehumanizing.

Ashley:

Dr. Warne studied the collective impact of sustained abuse known as historical trauma.

Dr. Warne:

People who feel culturally closely connected to cataclysmic events that occurred in history tend to have worst health status and tend to have more challenges.

Ashley:

When it comes to solutions, there's no easy answer. Dr. Warne would like to see more and better leadership at the tribal level, but also, with the federal government.

Dr. Warne:

The land and natural resources that have made this country wealthy are not European resources. These are American Indian resources and we did not lose those resources in a war. They were exchanged through treaties, in which the tribes exchanged land and natural resources for various social services like housing, education, and health care.

So if the federal government does not want to fully fund Indian health service for example, that's fine, just give us our land back.

Ashley:

For Prairie Public, I'm Ashley Thornberg.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is ​WNET’s multi-platform public media Initiative that aims to provide a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society: what life is like below the poverty line, its impact on our economic security and on our children, and what has happened to our age-old dream of striving for a better life. We’ll also highlight solutions: what has worked – and what is working to bring people out of poverty – and what lessons we can and must learn for the future.

Chasing the Dream news reports can be found online and on air on PBS NewsHour WeekendMetroFocusNJTV News and Long Island Business Report. The initiative will also include a signature nationally distributed one-hour documentary that will focus on one or more of the promises, pitfalls, and/or paradoxes in the search for the American dream and in-depth reporting on the ongoing economic challenges of Atlantic City as it struggles with the implosion of its casino industry and the loss of more than 8,000 jobs.​

Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.​​