Wounded Knee post office under siege

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in October 2011.

Wounded Knee resident Walter Littlemoon checks his mail.
Residents of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, are facing the latest assault on their community with dread. Their local post office is on a list of branches the United States Postal Service wants to close in order to help erase the agency’s multi-billion-dollar annual deficits. The Wounded Knee outlet joins more than 3,600 others in the crosshairs, including other post offices on Indian reservations.

The mucilage that holds stamps onto envelopes may still be working, but USPS itself appears to be coming unglued. Will the many proposed closings even make a dent in the agency’s deficit? Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who opposes the idea, says a Postal Regulatory Commission study found that getting rid of all 3,600-some would save less than seven tenths of one percent of the USPS operating budget. For those in Wounded Knee, the consequences are clear. “Closing our branch may sound like a solution, but it would create terrible hardships for us,” says resident Walter Littlemoon, Oglala Lakota.

The Wounded Knee branch, shown right as it appeared in the late 1800s, was already a fixture in the village when the infamous 1890 massacre occurred. The first newspaper accounts of the event were penned in a cabin behind it, and the postmaster’s house sheltered some of the victims, according to an application to the National Trust for Historic Places. Today, the branch provides the tiny village the lifeline to the world that the framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned when they gave Congress the power to establish a postal system, along with the ability to pass laws, coin money and regulate trade.

“We don’t have stores in the village, nor do we have computers that would let us order essentials electronically, so we typically mail-order clothes, shoes and other items,” says Littlemoon.

What commerce there is—mostly sales of crafts—relies on the post office, as artisans receive materials and ship finished items via the post, says his wife, Jane Ridgway. “Unemployment here is around 80 percent, so disrupting the little economic activity that exists would have serious consequences,” she says.

Without a local branch, bill paying would also become difficult, says resident Anita Ecoffey, Oglala Lakota. “Most residents use money orders, which they get at the post office. And there are the medication refills many get through the mail.”

Nor do most villagers have vehicles, so they walk to the post office. Indeed, they often walk—to visit neighbors, to run errands. Standing on a hill overlooking the village, this reporter saw folks tramping around Wounded Knee’s hills and dales. When they get to highways, they hitchhike, a dangerous proposition on high-speed roads with no sidewalks. As a result, picking up mail at the Porcupine, South Dakota, branch, which Ecoffey says has been mentioned as an option for Wounded Knee residents, would be a substantial, and perilous, trek: at least 16 miles, round-trip. “That’s just not possible,” she says.

Allen is another Pine Ridge hamlet that may lose its post office. If its residents have to go to Porcupine for mail, they’ll travel 72 miles, some of it over the worst road imaginable. Those making decisions in far-away cities may not realize how huge the distances can be between rural towns and how difficult the journeys, Ecoffey says.

Winter and its heavy snows will exacerbate the problems, adds her husband, Frank Ecoffey, Oglala Lakota. He also points out that Federal Express and other private companies aren’t a substitute, since they often drop off deliveries at, you guessed it, the post office.

“We’ve been through such struggles to keep our branch,” Anita says. “The old one burned down during the 1973 militant takeover of the community, and I served as interim postmistress for several months. We finally got regular staff and then the current building.” She termed “crazy” the latest assault on zip code 57794. “Officials came from Rapid City to talk to us about it but couldn’t really explain why this might happen.”

Media attention has focused on the many activities—bill paying, ordering goods and more—that used to happen via the post but have moved to the Internet, resulting in a drop in mail volume and associated revenue. Also, the soft economy has meant less advertising, so less “junk” mail.

Far more important, according to Ruth Y. Goldway, chairperson of the Postal Regulatory Commission, the USPS is staggering under a financial burden placed on it during good economic times. In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, requiring the postal service to pre-pay 75 years’ worth of retirees’ health claims over the course of just 10 years.

It was an ill-advised idea that followed several years during which the USPS had modest surpluses, says Sally Davidow, spokesperson for the American Postal Workers Union: “No other private company or government agency is required to do this. Every year, before the post office sells its first stamp, it’s $5.5 billion in debt.” And there’s more: pension funds have significantly overcharged the service. Goldway says the excess payments are $50–$55 billion. Some estimates run as high as $75 billion, says Davidow.

In the meantime, the USPS has cut billions from its expenditures. It’s looking for more, though. On October 4, Senator Johnson told Wounded Knee residents he’d look for cost-cutting that would save their post office. “While I recognize the fiscal challenges the agency is facing, I am committed to ensuring the Postal Service continues to fulfill the universal service mandate,” he told them.”

Why are some eager to strip down the USPS? Consumer advocate Ralph Nader accuses them of trying to clear the way for private companies to nab the lucrative delivery routes, leaving the rest of the country in the lurch and creating “great damage to our economy.”

Voting rights may also suffer, with a possible disproportionate effect on Native people. “On reservations with small far-flung populations, voter registration and absentee voting largely depend on local post offices,” says Greg Lembrich, legal director of the voting-rights group Four Directions and a senior associate at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. The USPS does not have figures for the number of reservation branches tagged for closing, according to spokesperson Pete Nowacki. However, the official list indicates that 5 of 11 Arizona closings appear to be on Indian reservations; in South Dakota, it’s about 10 out of 80. 

Lembrich considers the applicability of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits actions that diminish minority enfranchisement: “Because the Voting Rights Acts applies to actions by states, counties and local governments — not the federal government and its agencies — we have an unfortunate situation in which the federal government and USPS are able to do something impacting voting that the states and other small governments probably could not.” This does not preclude legal options such as filing a lawsuit, Lembrich adds, but may limit them.

Littlemoon says Wounded Knee residents are not hopeful. “We feel it’s a done deal and that we’re being punished for a problem we did not cause.” Meanwhile, Wounded Knee’s postmistress is busy dispensing stamps, sorting mail and keeping the community humming. But for how long?

Stamp Dance
You can take steps to preserve your local post office, says USPS spokesperson Pete Nowacki: “Tell us your concerns during the public comment period for your branch. Each location has its own timetable, which should be posted in the lobby. Send comments to the address on the notice, and please be specific. We understand you don’t want your branch to close, but we need to know your precise concerns, including the distance to alternative offices, security issues with roadside boxes, and whatever else is important.”

If you lose your branch, don’t give up, says South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson: “Customers will have the option to appeal.” Nowicki notes that 50 locations slated for closing have already received reprieves and will remain open. To see if your branch may close, go to http://about.usps.com/news/electronic-press-kits/expandedaccess/statelist.htm.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy Jane Ridgway.

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