ZIEBACH COUNTY, S.D. – In the barren grasslands of Ziebach County, there's almost nothing harder to find in winter than a job. This is America's poorest county, where more than 60 percent of people live at or below the poverty line.
At a time when the weak economy is squeezing communities across the nation, recently released census figures show that nowhere are the numbers as bad as here — a county with 2,500 residents, most of them Cheyenne River Sioux Indians living on a reservation.
In the coldest months of the year, when seasonal construction work disappears and the South Dakota prairie freezes, unemployment among the Sioux can hit 90 percent.
Poverty has loomed over this land for generations. Repeated attempts to create jobs have run into stubborn obstacles: the isolated location, the area's crumbling infrastructure, a poorly trained population and a tribe that struggles to work with businesses or attract investors.
Now the tribe — joined by a few entrepreneurs, a development group and a nonprofit — is renewing efforts to create jobs and encourage a downtrodden population to start its own businesses.
"Many, many people make these grand generalizations about our communities and poverty and 'Why don't people just do something, and how come they can't?'" said Eileen Briggs, executive director of Tribal Ventures, a development group started by the tribe. "It's much more complicated than that."
The Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, created in 1889, consists almost entirely of agricultural land in Ziebach and neighboring Dewey County. It has no casino and no oil reserves or available natural resources.
Most towns in Ziebach County are just clusters of homes between cattle ranches. Families live in dilapidated houses or run-down trailers. Multicolored patches of siding show where repairs were made as cheaply as possible.
Families fortunate enough to have leases to tribal land can make money by raising cattle. Opportunities are scarce for almost everyone else.
The few people who have jobs usually have to drive up to 80 miles to tribal headquarters. The nearest major population centers are Rapid City and Bismarck, each a trip of 150 miles or more.
Basic services can be vulnerable. The tribe's primary health clinic doesn't have a CT scanner or a maternity ward. An ice storm last year knocked out power and water in places for weeks. And in winter, the gravel roads that connect much of the reservation can become impassable with snow and ice.
Nearly six decades after the reservation was created, the federal government began building a dam on the Missouri River, but the project caused flooding that washed away more than 100,000 acres of Indian land. After the flooding, the small town of Eagle Butte became home to the tribal headquarters and the center of the reservation's economy.
"There are things that have happened to us over many, many generations that you just can't fix in three or four years," said Kevin Keckler, the tribe's chairman. "We were put here by the government, and we had a little piece of land and basically told to succeed here."
But prosperity never came. The county has been at or near the top of the poverty rankings for at least a decade. In 2009, the census defined poverty as a single person making less than $11,000 a year or a family of four making less than $22,000 a year.