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Only Trash Vehicle for 5,000-Square-Mile Indian Reservation : Big Blue Truck Goes to Black Hills as a Welcome Gift

November 20, 1986|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

Driving 1,300 miles in a trash truck would be an unpleasant ride for most travelers.

But for two Sioux Indians, the drive this week from the South Bay to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota was one of the most enjoyable drives they have ever had.

The 7-year-old vehicle, worth $120,000 new, was a gift from BFI Waste Systems, a refuse hauler based in the Gardena area. It will replace the reservation's only trash truck, which broke down recently.

Pine Ridge, an area of about 5,000 square miles, is home to about 18,000 Sioux. It is the nation's second-largest reservation, after the Navajo reservation in Arizona. The county in which it lies, Shannon, is the poorest in America, according to the 1980 U.S. Census.

'Still Good People'

"When the world is so bad, it is great that there are still good people," Wayne Tapio, a member of the Black Hills Sioux Nation Council, said last week as he marveled at the newly painted blue truck sitting at BFI's parking lot on South San Pedro Street.

"This will be of great help," said Joe American Horse, president of the Oglala band.

BFI, the nation's second-largest waste management firm with residential trash-hauling contracts in Hermosa Beach and Lawndale, donated the refurbished truck after receiving a plea from Melody Suppes, an independent film producer and writer who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Suppes has spent six years developing a television mini-series based on a book about Chief Crazy Horse and Gen. George Armstrong Custer with the support of the Sioux Nation Council. She wrote to BFI and two other companies explaining that the reservation's only garbage truck broke down recently and the council did not have the money to repair it.

BFI was the only company to respond, Suppes said.

Surprised at Request

Gerald Perissi, BFI's area public relations coordinator, said the letter was forwarded to him after his boss, Los Angeles District Manager Charles E. Leonard, was "taken aback at first that someone would have the nerve to ask for a truck, considering their cost."

Perissi said he talked to Suppes and to reservation officials to confirm the story. He then checked the company's fleet of trucks to see if one could be spared. He said the company was phasing out its rear-loading trucks for newer, more economical side-loading trucks, and found an older truck that was no longer useful to the company.

Perissi said more than $15,000 in material and labor was spent for refurbishing, new tires and paint. The tribe will use parts from its old truck for repairs to the newer one.

"This was something that we could do that was not going to cost us too much," Perissi said.

"I lived in Arizona for four years and I've seen how bad the situation is" on Indian reservations, said Leonard. "We just wanted to help a little if we could."

Gifts Presented

To show the tribe's gratitude, American Horse presented Leonard the tribe's flag and gave Suppes a hand-made quilt.

"They were very nice just donating the truck, but BFI went beyond that to make sure the truck was running perfect," Suppes said, noting that BFI overhauled the truck's heater and added a 56-gallon gas tank, among other things.

Suppes, who has spent some time on the reservation doing research for her project, said the truck will be greatly appreciated there. Unemployment is about 90% there, she said, and the average annual income is about $2,800 (contrasted with a national reservation average of about $7,000).

The Indians' life expectancy is 47, partly because of an alcoholism rate between 80% and 95%, despite a ban on the sale of alcohol on the reservation, Suppes said.

Nearly everyone at Pine Ridge lives on welfare, supplemented by free food through a government commodities program. A major reason for the poverty is lack of jobs. Most Sioux--who are by tradition hunters, not farmers or ranchers--own land, but it is virtually worthless to them except to lease out for grazing because most Indians cannot get financing to start their own businesses. The land is leased to whites for as little as $3 an acre per year.

Few Amenities

The reservation, which is larger than the state of Connecticut, has no public swimming pools, movie theaters, recreational facilities, motels, craft shops, cafes, stores, or even traffic lights. There is no public transportation. Only three ambulances serve the entire reservation, and its villages have no fire engines.

Two trash trucks had served the entire reservation, and frequent breakdowns often resulted in three to four weeks without service. Trash has had to be picked up by the residents with private vehicles. One of the trucks became unservicable about a year ago and the second truck broke down in August.

American Horse, the Oglala band's president, said the truck may give the Indians the chance to bid for some commercial refuse hauling in nearby communities.

"We would have never been able to buy something like this truck," he said. "It's just unbelievable."

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