Of Tea Parties, Poverty Tours, and Tammany Pow-wows; or, How Mr. Clinton Distanced Us All from Pine Ridge
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Of Tea Parties, Poverty Tours, and Tammany Pow-wows; or, How Mr. Clinton Distanced Us All from Pine Ridge
Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

The week I sit down to read Philip J. Deloria’s Playing Indian (which Yale UP plans to re-issue in paperback in September), President Clinton takes a “poverty tour.” He stops in rural areas of Kentucky’s Appalachia and Mississippi’s Delta, as well as urban areas like East St. Louis and the Arizona-Mexico border.

He also stops at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He is the first president to visit any Indian reservation since Calvin Coolidge.

The tour is designed to bring attention to the rural poverty that frequently goes unremarked in United States culture—sort of a “Boyz in the Wood” to counteract the more commonly mythologized, and demonized, “Boyz in the ‘Hood.” Clinton also wishes to introduce his new poverty-fighting program, known as “new markets.” At each stop, he recites the mantra of third-world-type entrepreneurial aid: tax credits for businesses investing in poor areas; debt guarantees for businesses investing equity in those areas; and enhanced funding for non-profit organizations that make small loans in poor areas. These investments will benefit both rich and poor, Clinton notes: “The only way you can keep the economic recovery going is to have new people working and new people buying” (23). The poor—considered “under-consumers”—are needed fuel for continuing the economic burn.

It’s the same logic applied by global villagers to the developing world. The aid program is analogous to the sort offered poor countries, even as the tour itself is analogous to Clinton’s trip to Africa. But, as The Economist warns from the distance of its London offices, the tour may serve primarily to divert public discussion of exactly how it is that eight years of economic growth have failed to affect certain regions. Indeed, it doesn’t help much to throw cash (as President Johnson did in the 60s) or private-sector guarantees (as Clinton proposes) at areas that lack infrastructure and educational institutions, especially in an age when Wall Street craves high-tech goodies with fat rates of return.

And especially at Pine Ridge, which The Economist titles “The Hardest Case” (24). The Economist, which frequently indulges an impulse to critique American society, provided in its July 10 issue a separate article to discuss the profound economic challenges that face Pine Ridge, the poorest county in the United States. Their coverage is remarkable because none of the major network broadcasts provided much footage or information about the visit to Pine Ridge—an appalling failure, since in the days prior to Clinton’s visit, American Indian Movement members had been staging demonstrations in the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska. Two men had died; those deaths weren’t being investigated; and Russell Means was behind bars again.

Sounds like news. But the networks flashed the requisite photo-op of Clinton being feted by ceremonial drummers (The Economist couldn’t help but print it too), and covered instead the visit to East St. Louis, where celeb Magic Johnson was on hand to crow about potential profits in the inner city.

Clearly then, what’s been going on in recent weeks at the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Reservation paints a picture of Indianness—and whiteness—unpalatable to the media and their primary consumers. In June, Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk were killed in Whiteclay, a town with a population of only 22 people—all of whom must be brilliant entrepreneurs, since they somehow manage to post annual liquor sales of $3 million. The sale of alcohol is illegal on the reservation, where—in The Economist’s white, econometric terms—3 in 4 people are unemployed, 2 in 3 live below the poverty line, 1 in 3 is homeless, and alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome are rampant. Lakota leaders have long wanted the Whiteclay booze supply shut down; when Nebraska officials claimed jurisdictional problems and failed to investigate the deaths, activist tempers flared. Two days of marches to Whiteclay were staged just prior to Clinton’s visit...