Three’s the charm: An economy grows on the Northern Plains

Published in Indian Country Today in August 2005.

Porcupine, N.D. — “When the Porcupine District Council meets, things happen,” declared Mary-Louise Defender-Wilson, Dakota-Hidatsa, at a recent gathering of the group, which administers one of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s eight districts.

During the last few years, the four-member council and a three-member planning commission, of which Defender-Wilson is a member, have purchased a nearly 16,000-acre ranch that had passed out of Indian hands decades ago, have positioned their buffalo and cattle programs for expansion, and are building a gymnasium with a combination of foundation, local and federal funds. Each is a profit center — generating sales or rental income — and a way to create employment.

Going forward, the agenda includes expanding irrigated areas to produce more alfalfa for sale and bidding on the linens contract for a tribal casino hotel. “The point is developing jobs in the community,” explained council chairman Darrel Iron Shield, Dakota, at far right with other Porcupine officials.

“They’re working on us becoming self-sufficient,” said Arlene Murphy, a Dakota elder and one of the district’s approximately 300 Native residents. “I’ll always back them up.”

Porcupine’s officials are a diverse group, ranging in age from the 31-year-old treasurer, Kim Lawrence, Lakota, who has nursing and business degrees, to Defender, a famed storyteller and author who’s 75. Vice-chairwoman Chastity Looking Horse, Lakota, and planning commission member Koreen Iron Shield, Dakota, also have business degrees, and Darrel Iron Shield is community health representative. Planner Dennis Paint, Dakota/Lakota, has a degree in environmental sciences.

The diversity means a range of viewpoints, and sometimes sparks fly. Chairman Iron Shield, a soft-spoken man who votes on motions only in cases of ties, continually works to unite the group. “It’s been a process of learning to cooperate, to discuss things thoroughly, to offer opinions, but never to hold a grudge,” he said.

In fact, the varied outlooks are an advantage because the challenges Porcupine faces are complex. Long-term economic isolation has meant, for example, that many elders are impoverished, having spent their working lives in jobs that didn’t offer Social Security or pension benefits. Housing that’s unsuited to the extreme weather of the Plains and nutrition-poor commodity foods have created health problems. And the experience of pervasive racism has resulted in such phenomena as epidemics of teen suicide.

As a result, the district must complement economic ventures with social projects that include wholesome meals in the community center, an elders program with get-togethers ranging from bingo nights to quilting sessions and a just-opened youth center supervised by Looking Horse in nearby Selfridge (along with Porcupine, one of the district’s two villages).

“We’re building a community, not just a collection of people whose names came up on a housing list,” said Defender-Wilson.

Stewardship of the natural world is another concern. This past spring, Porcupine officials set aside an 85-acre botanical sanctuary for native medicinal plants; and this fall, to prevent damage to the land, the group will begin requiring hunters to stalk prey on foot, rather than via ATVs or other vehicles. Defender-Wilson called the land “a major asset.”

Safeguarding and enhancing that asset — rolling mixed-grass prairie, rock-faced bluffs and cottonwood groves — is not always easy. In 2004, to make way for new housing in Porcupine village, the tribe plowed under 3,899 fruit trees the district had planted in 2000 and 2001. “They were on the north and west side of town, so they were a windbreak as well as a food source,” said Lawrence. The Standing Rock Housing Authority did not respond to requests for a comment.

Unbowed, the district is developing a reforestation plan with the America the Beautiful program. But then, Lakota/Dakota people have long practice overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The economy Porcupine residents are developing is their people’s third one in the last century and a half.

Their buffalo economy of times past is, of course, legendary. However, during the reservation era, when the buffalo had been largely exterminated, they moved into hamlets along the Missouri River and its tributaries — condensing and diversifying their former lifeways by taking advantage of the rich resources of the riparian areas. In the fertile, tree-sheltered swaths, they hunted deer and small game, fished, planted gardens, gathered culinary and healing plants, raised cattle and other farm animals and availed themselves of driftwood and fallen timber for heating, cooking and building.

Their new economy was a great success, says planning commission member Dennis Paint. In today’s parlance, it would be termed sustainable, since it fit perfectly with existing resources. In his 1994 book, Killing Custer, the late Blackfeet author James Welsh wrote that Sitting Bull, the 19th century spiritual leader of many who settled at Standing Rock, became an accomplished farmer. To this day, stories abound of his generosity to neighbors, Indian and white.

That life continued until the mid-20th century, when dams built along the Missouri by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inundated the bottomlands. Ostensibly constructed to produce hydroelectric power and control flooding, the giant earthworks of the Pick-Sloan Project were also immense pork-barrel schemes that helped give the Corps its reputation as “the most lawless agency in American history” — as Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, described it.

On seven Sioux reservations in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, the closing of the dams’ gates created lakes that swept away thriving villages and forced some 900 families onto the windswept prairie. Once self-sufficient, they were suddenly destitute and homeless.

“They expected us to farm miles from water,” recalled Sioux elder Philip Lane in an interview in 2000. Lane lived with his family on the Standing Rock and Yankton reservations in the early years of the 20th century. “In any case, this is all buffalo pasture. It was never meant to be broken up.”

Descendants of those families are still rebuilding. In repairing historical problems and anticipating future ones, Porcupine District’s leadership relies on values their ancestors held dear. “We’re looking years down the road,” said chairman Iron Shield. “What we’re building will be carried on by future generations. It’s for the children.”

Text and photo c. Stephanie Woodard.

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