Mon, February 14, 2011
World > Americas

A look inside America's poorest county(2)

2011-02-14 06:25:43 GMT2011-02-14 14:25:43(Beijing Time)  SINA.com

In this Jan. 18, 2011, photo Nicky White Eyes arranges flowers in her flower shop in Eagle Butte, S.D. Nicky says there are days when she doesn't sell a single flower. In the barren grasslands of Ziebach County, there's almost nothing harder to find in winter than a job. (AP Photo/Doug Dreyer)

Eagle Butte has few businesses and the handful that do exist struggle to stay afloat. The town has just one major grocery store, the Lakota Thrifty Mart, which is owned by the tribe. There's also a Dairy Queen, a Taco John's and a handful of small cafes. There's no bowling alley, no movie theatre.

But a few entrepreneurs are trying to break the cycle of failure, with mixed results.

Stephanie Davidson and her husband, Gerald, started a plumbing-and-heating business in 2000 with a single pickup truck. Eventually, D&D Plumbing started to grow, and they hired several employees.

But the reservation economy, which was never strong, has been hit hard by the economic slump. Many customers don't have the money to pay for work upfront, and the Davidsons have struggled to get contracts in new construction, such as a nearly $85 million federal hospital being built to replace the aging clinic.

They've laid off employees and filled empty space in their building by adding a bait shop and then a deli. Nothing has worked.

"People think you're a pillar of the community because you have a business, and that part of it is good," Stephanie Davidson said. "We don't feel that way right now because we're having such a tough time."

Nicky White Eyes, who owns a flower shop on Main Street, says there are days when she doesn't sell a single flower. Most of her business comes from families who get help from the tribe to buy flowers for a relative's funeral.

"We're getting by with nothing extra," said White Eyes, who said she hasn't taken any salary in the months since she quit another job to run the shop full-time. "But no, I have too much heart in it to let it go quite yet."

The nonprofit Four Bands Community Fund has invested in both businesses and people in Eagle Butte. The group teaches residents basic financial skills — how to open a checking account, how to save money on a budget and how to develop credit.

"You have the most complicated little world here," said Tanya Fiddler, Four Bands' executive director.

Without a viable private sector, federal money permeates every part of life here. The federal government pays for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Indian Health Service, three of the reservation's largest employers. Businesses rely on the federal money that comes into the reservation.

Federal stimulus dollars are paying for the new hospital, which will create about 150 permanent jobs when it opens this year. Other federal contracts bring sporadic jobs, too.

One tribal success story is Lakota Technologies, which has attracted call-center and data-processing work and trained hundreds of young people since it started more than a decade ago. The company now employs a handful of tribal members on a State Department sub-contract, even though most of its cubicles remain empty.

But other businesses owned by the tribe have run into trouble. Last year, a buffalo-meat processing company was sued by a rancher in federal court. The lawsuit accused the company, Pte Hca Ka Inc., of not delivering on contracts. A federal judge ruled against Pte Hca Ka for $1.1 million when it did not respond to the lawsuit.

Keckler, the newly elected tribal chairman and a former business owner, has pledged to try to fix the problems. He said previous officials have rejected overtures from outside investors because they feared the loss of tribal control or the risk of losing their positions.

"It's difficult for us to get people to come here and have faith in us as a government," he said. "We just had a new election, and there was discussion about, 'Oh, people want to give away things.' Those are kind of the issues that we have."

Still, there are small reasons to hope.

Later this year, the tribe will start to receive payments from a $290 million settlement with Congress related to the farmland that was lost to the Missouri River flooding. The tribe will receive annual interest on the settlement money starting this fall. This year's payment could be as much as $75 million, according to one tribal estimate. A Department of Treasury spokeswoman says the final amount hasn't been determined yet.

That money can be used for infrastructure improvements, economic development and education.

Raymond Uses The Knife, a rancher and tribal councilman, wants the reservation to be "accessible for other companies to come in and invest their money right here."

"We have to attract business. Regardless of how much money we have, we can't set up our own businesses," he said. "We also have to realize that we're all not experts."

Meanwhile, groups like Tribal Ventures and Four Bands continue to look for ways to bring in jobs and help those who are fighting the decades-old obstacles here.

"You can have all the heart you want, but you have to have actual cash and resources," said Briggs, of Tribal Ventures. "All those things play a part in our being able to basically use our greatest asset, which is our people."

(Agencies)

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