Poorest Counties in America: Ziebach, SD

Kelly was talking about South Dakota making the list of poorest counties in America again and sharing proximity with American Indian reservations.  Ziebach County, which is located on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, has the unfortunate distinction of making the list again too, this time as the poorest county in all of America.

This is not a distinction that is wanted or welcome on my home reservation of Cheyenne River in north central South Dakota. But it’s something that my own family and a large percentage of the residents in Ziebach have experienced for far longer than America’s most recent economic recession. 

If you cruise the unemployment statistics, the Bureau of Labor shows the state of South Dakota has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the US.  But the Labor Force Report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows a much different picture in the breakdown of Native Americans living on or near reservations. This report shows South Dakota Indians at 83% unemployment and Cheyenne River Indians at an even higher rate of 88% unemployment. The disparity in the numbers is in the equation: the state’s statistic does not include the Indians living on reservations. 

Poverty is devastating in its own right, but add a natural disaster to the mix and it’s crippling.  It’s hard to believe that nearly two years have passed since an ice storm knocked down over 2,000 utility poles and left thousands of Cheyenne River residents without water or electricity for weeks.

“We are boiling water to cook.” This was the phone call I received from my relatives in Eagle Butte. Pleading with them to attempt the trip to Rapid City and stay with us at least until their water and electricity were restored, they said: “We can’t, there are too many break-ins.” With the grocery store experiencing the same power outages as homes, food and essential supplies were in low stock and high demand. 

On the reservation, there were 41 dialysis patients who could not wait for care. They made the slow crawl via “van caravan” to Rapid City and Pine Ridge, where they received dialysis treatments until services were re-established at home – three weeks later.  One brave soul weathered the storm by putting her concerns into poem. One CNN reporter could not believe it took so long for the word to get out to mainstream America, but this is often the case.  National Relief Charities (through its AIRC and NAA programs) responded to the disaster on the ground with deliveries by semi, and also supplied the dialysis patients with personal necessities for their unexpected stay in Rapid City.

Although the severity of the 2010 ice storm was extreme, most of the reservations served by NRC are no stranger to harsh weather. This is true in the Northern Plains and the Southwest.  Emergency preparedness and prevention planning go a long way, and many of NRC’s projects are developed along these lines to assist Elders and families most in need before the perfect storm hits. NRC’s services are year-round because poverty and weather do not take a break on America’s reservations. 


**Laura Schad is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in SD. She holds an Associate’s in Early Childhood Education from Oglala Lakota College. For over a decade, Laura worked with Head Start and rural initiatives. Currently, she does field visits with NRC Program Partners and participants on many reservations.

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