This story was produced by Indian Country Today and Public Research Associates. It was written as part of the “Reporting Vulnerable Children in Care” programme, a journalism skills development programme run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in partnership with UBS’s Optimus Foundation. Content is the sole responsibility of author and publisher.
Davidica Little Spotted Horse has handed out flyers on the Pine Ridge reservation since 2014. It’s a seasonal thing. The weather is warmer and there’s another influx of Christian missionaries and charity groups.
The flyer warns tribal citizens about their rights to access information about charities and missionaries’ names and their intentions, as well as how to report mistreatment or problems experienced during their evangelizing.
As Little Spotted Horse notes in her flyer, every year there is another wave of missionaries, voluntourists, and charity workers who descend on the Oglala Lakota Nation, also known as the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Little Spotted Horse and others who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals from church supporters described incidents of aggressive proselytizing and demeaning treatment of Lakota spirituality and language, baptizing children without parental permission, use of humiliating poverty porn to fundraise, and of forwarding a colonial agenda that privileges non-Native values and goals. Some members have made allegations of sexual abuse and financial misdeeds and point to the failure of most organizations to conduct background searches for their workers and volunteers.
Although many on Pine Ridge eagerly accept the donations of food, school supplies, toys and other goods, some people wonder about the motivations behind the seemingly uncoordinated charitable work that is seldom based on community need or any public assessment.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Pine Ridge has become one of the leading destinations for philanthropic work in Indian Country, especially among evangelical Christian churches and charities.
Indeed, poverty and unemployment rates among Native Americans in general are high; Native Americans make up the primary populations in the 27 poorest counties in the United States, according to a 2016 Bloomberg News report. Although rates are high in Oglala Lakota County, they are not the highest in Indian Country. Oglala Lakota County is located within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation. For instance, unemployment in three counties in Alaska with high Native American and Alaska Native populations are higher than those on Pine Ridge.
Pine Ridge, however, has the unfortunate, inexplicable distinction of being a poster child for Native American poverty.
“Many other tribes share our problems, such as high unemployment and poverty, so I’m not sure why philanthropists and churches are so drawn to Pine Ridge,” said Bryan Brewer, former tribal chairman. “Maybe we have greater name recognition because of our history of activism and presence in the media.”
Tribal council member Robin Tapio says there are at least 36 churches located on Pine Ridge, many of which operate charities. She said that doesn’t even include the nonprofit organizations operating on or serving the reservation.
Pine Ridge has one church for every 388 people, second only to Indianapolis with one church for every 289 people.
There is no official source verifying Pine Ridge as the location of choice for charities serving Indian Country; however, a casual internet search including terms such as “Native Americans, charity and voluntourism” produces results inevitably listing Pine Ridge as a destination.
Tribal citizens and leadership are expressing concern about the lack of oversight, transparency and intentions of the organizations that have proliferated in size and numbers in the past few years. Tribal members share stories that the primary goal of the evangelical charities is conversion to Christianity and elimination of traditional Oglala Lakota spirituality. Since most of the charities and nonprofits are actively engaged in fundraising, citizens of Pine Ridge, where per capita income is about $9300, also want to know what happens to the money raised in their names.
In response, the Oglala Sioux Tribe began publishing a notice last year regarding donations on its official website asking that charitable donations be made directly to the tribe’s treasurer’s office in order “to address accountability and ensure that donations are routed directly to where the donation is intended.”
Charities and philanthropic organizations purporting to raise money or provide services and items for the people of the Pine Ridge reservation are too numerous for tribal authorities to authenticate or tally, say tribal council leaders. So, in 2011 the tribe created Ordinance 11-23 requiring non-profits and charities claiming to serve the Oglala Lakota Nation to register with the tribe, provide information about finances mission and intent. The ordinance includes a process under which the tribe can exact a financial penalty against organizations operating in violation of the law. A handful of organizations have provided information in keeping with the law, according to tribal revenue director Bob Palmer.
Palmer would not provide details about the number or names of organizations that have complied.
Scott James, the tribe’s attorney general, said no one has yet been charged under the ordinance that was created prior to his tenure; he was not aware of its history but noted that some tribal ordinances are enacted in response to an emergency situation but end up being disregarded later on.
Last year, however, council members voted to use Ordinance 11-23 to hold the nonprofit True Sioux Hope Foundation accountable for failing to honor commitments to fund an emergency shelter for children, The Safe Home.
Opened in February 2017, the Safe Home provides emergency placement for children removed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s protective services from unsafe home situations, according to director Barbara Dullknife.
“The Home has capacity for ten children and is always full,” Dullknife said.
According to the tribe’s former protective services director Jerrod Weston, there is a tremendous need. In 2018, however, funding from the True Sioux Hope Foundation began to dwindle. Dullknife was sometimes unable to meet the Safe Home’s staff payroll or pay for basic needs. The foundation’s executive director Twila True stopped taking her phone calls, according to Dullknife.