PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) — The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota has for years attracted journalists and activists eager to tell the stories and share the plight of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
The allure for journalists, community activists and gawkers is simple: The Connecticut-sized reservation is home to some of the poorest counties in America, one in four children born on the reservation suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and the average life expectancy for tribal members is estimated between 45 and 52 years — the shortest in North America except for Haiti.
The statistics on Pine Ridge make for powerful, heart-wrenching stories, but some Oglala Sioux tribal members both on and off the reservation think it's exploitative, with too little emphasis on the people who are working every day to try to make a difference.
"For more than 30 years I have greeted reporters from around the world who came to Pine Ridge to do the ultimate story on 'Indians' and I cringe when I see some of the articles after they have been published," said Tim Giago, a tribal member and longtime journalist who has founded several Native American newspapers.
A $500 million lawsuit the tribe filed in February against several beer makers and beer stores in the nearby town of Whiteclay, Neb., led to a barrage of media coverage. Alcohol is banned at the reservation, but stores in the Nebraska town that has about a dozen residents and that's just two miles away sold the equivalent of 4.3 million, 12-ounce cans of beer.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit Monday, saying the case belonged in state court. The judge did not rule on the merits of the suit, which blames beer makers and the stores for chronic alcoholism on the reservation.
Before the lawsuit, an ABC documentary titled "A Hidden America: Children of the Plains" that aired last year drew both appreciation and consternation among tribal members because it focused on poverty, alcoholism and violence on the reservation.
More recently, Oprah Winfrey's OWN aired "Life on the Rez" part of its "Our America" series hosted by journalist Lisa Ling, in July. Rapper Lupe Fiasco mentioned Pine Ridge in his hit single "Around My Way" and tweeted photos from an impromptu visit to the reservation. And in August, National Geographic Magazine featured a 36-page spread documenting the history of the Lakota people, the poverty that has become entwined in their lives and efforts to overcome it.
Arriving to cover a story with a narrative already decided before the first interview is conducted isn't new in journalism. It's happened in Detroit with reporters writing about empty schools, skyscrapers and factories after the city's economy faltered. There's even a term for it: ruin porn. In Brazil, shantytowns known as favelas and the associated poverty and gang activity is a common thread that sees a lot of newspaper ink.
Giago has blasted "beer-sniffing reporters" who swoop in to Pine Ridge to report a story about alcoholism on the reservation without fully appreciating why the reservation has the statistics it does. Reporters often miss the people who are running the anti-alcohol programs or the schools trying to educate tribal members so they can get a job, he said.
Yet that media coverage on poverty and alcoholism has drawn many people from outside the reservation to donate their time and money to travel to Pine Ridge to try to help.
"It's the sort of story that Al Jazeera does. It fits very much with our mission," said Brian Wheeler, a producer with Al Jazeera English based in Washington, D.C., who traveled to Pine Ridge in May with two others to report on the alcohol lawsuit. It was Wheeler's first time to South Dakota and the reservation, he said.
"The level of poverty here is striking," he said outside the tribal headquarters as he set up an interview with Oglala Sioux Vice President Tom Poor Bear.
Poor Bear asked the Al Jazeera reporters why they were coming to Pine Ridge just to report about the issue of alcoholism.
"Why don't you guys write anything good about us," he asked?
Still, some tribal members said they are grateful for any media coverage.
Helen Red Feather, who lives in the Wounded Knee district of the reservation, said a few select people in power tend to keep the rest of the tribe down.
"I want people to see what's going on in this reservation," the 57-year-old said as she hawked beaded jewelry near the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where hundreds of men, women and children were killed by the 7th Cavalry in 1890. "We have nothing."
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