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Grief settles in on the Great Plains

In South Dakota, an Indian reservation mourns the deaths of two children -- and much more.

June 08, 2008|Bay Fang | Chicago Tribune

CHERRY CREEK, S.D. — The wind shrieks and blows the rain sideways on the prairie, but the townspeople standing with their heads bowed do not seem to care. Gathered between the rows of trailer homes, this small, isolated community is grieving for two lives lost -- a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old killed in a house fire.

In the charred remains are scraps of clothes and a heartbreakingly tiny tricycle, and in jail is the chief suspect -- the siblings' 17-year-old brother, who had attempted suicide before the incident.

This is a forgotten settlement on a forgotten reservation in a remote corner of America. To get here, you fly into Rapid City and drive three hours northeast on roads that cut like scars through flat, dry plains.

You drive through the Black Hills, where a gold rush in the late 1800s prompted the federal government to push out the American Indian population, past trailer parks and biker bars, until you get to the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation.

There are no borders to cross, no customs officers, but entering the reservation is like entering a foreign country. It is the size of Connecticut, but the only hospital and grocery store are in the city of Eagle Butte, site of the tribal government. The few roads that lead to the communities scattered over the reservation wash out with the rains. And a staggering 88% of the population is unemployed.

Tribal Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty, 37, said the biggest issue for his tribe was to get more funding from the federal government for everything from infrastructure on the reservation to healthcare.

He is proud that his community has become more politically active in recent years, and proud that his generation has been able to reinstate tribal traditions that their parents, many of whom were sent away to boarding schools, were forced to give up.

But that is overwhelmed, in many ways, by his worries for the residents, half of whom are under 18, growing up with little to do and little hope for their futures.

Even with a curfew of 10 p.m, alcoholism and methamphetamine use are rampant, and the rate of teen suicide is more than twice as high as in the general population.

"A lot of people I grew up with are either dead or in prison," Brings Plenty said. "A lot of kids are growing up with no father figures."

In Eagle Butte, the main street has just a post office, a hardware store and a tanning salon run out of a trailer home. The Dairy Queen at the gas station is one of only two eateries in town. The convenience store attached to it sells cans of Red Bull, with signs on the cases proclaiming that one cannot purchase them using food stamps.

The administrative offices in town all have signs warning that only those who are sober need enter. Inside, posters warn of what meth can do to you.

And the farther one drives across the reservation, bumping along roads that are reminiscent of travels in Afghanistan, the more achingly apparent the problems become.

The residents of Cherry Creek, mourning the loss of the two children, live more than a two-hour drive from Eagle Butte. Some blame the deaths on the fact that there was not enough water pressure for the fire hydrants to be used.

But mostly they just grieve.

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