Thousand year old badlands seem to effortlessly turn into 400 species of mixed grasses rolling through miles of land. Pine and cedar trees cover thousands of acres into dusty sand hills. This is the landscape of many Indian Reservations located in North and South Dakota and Montana.
ORU Missions and Outreach has sent numerous teams to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to work with at-risk children and minister to families during spring break, but for women’s basketball player Ashley Beatty, members of her family call these reservations home.
“They [usually] don’t have a Wal-Mart,” she said. “There’s just a little grocery store, one gas station and a lot of houses. Then, they have a gym and high school.”
Most reservations are located several hours from metropolitan cities and only small areas of land are suitable for agricultural development.
Many residents of reservations face financial issues, alcohol abuse and health struggles. Twenty-eight percent of all Native Americans live below the poverty line. Some reservations are dry, but not here. Approximately 4.5 million individual beers are sold annually to Native Americans from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, one of 326 American reservations. Death rates among Native Americans due to diabetes are three times higher than the national average.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Reservations have the poorest citizens per capita in the U.S., and aside from Haitians, have the shortest life expectancies in the western hemisphere.
Beatty recalls visiting Pine Ridge on multiple occasions and being heartbroken for her fellow Native Americans.
“My family was driving around town when we visited and there were cardboard huts that people were living in,” she said with sadness in her eyes. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get that out of my mind. [Another time] it was pretty chilly and they had trash cans that were on fire and there were little kids with tattered jackets and no shoes standing around the fire trying to get warm.”
Native Americans are not required to live on the reservations, but due to strong familial ties, many never leave, despite what the numbers say.
“Whenever you see your family going through struggles, you just want to stay and help out as much as possible. That’s a really big part of people not leaving the reservation,” Beatty said. “Another reason is because I know people are scared. That’s all they’ve known and some get money from the government for being Native American and living off the land.”
She said while it’s easy to see only the negative, the bond of family and work ethic are two of the most encouraging things about reservation life.
“Every Native American I’ve ever met has been about their family and that’s just been ingrained in us,” said Beatty. “Family is one thing we pride ourselves on and being around that and knowing you have people that are going to love you unconditionally, that’s really beautiful.”
Eighty-three percent have high school diplomas or GEDs, 40 percent, 25 years and older, have a degree in math, science or engineering, according the U.S. Census Bureau.
But Beatty, just like many others, wants to change the statistics and the way people view the culture. She wants to be an advocate for her people and encourage them to follow their dreams.
“My dream job would be to travel around the U.S. and speak about Native American reservations and the problems they are facing,” she said. “I think the more people hear about the stories of reservations that would push them to help. I know there are a lot of other Native kids that are in college right now that want to and are working toward the same goal I am.”
She is using her college basketball career as a vehicle to tell her story and the stories of many other Native Americans in order to bring to light the struggles many face.
“I know there is one girl who has told me she wants to go to college and she wants to leave. It made my world, even if it’s just one person,” she said.
Beatty is a freshman exploratory major, but she plans on making an impact on the Native Americans.
“It’s really big and it can be overwhelming if you look at the whole picture, and I know it sounds corny, but I believe even one person can make a change by just chipping away at the problem,” Beatty said. “We come from strong ancestors, we are strong people and we are survivors who have over- come a lot. But just like anyone, we need help too.”