May 13, 2007

Half the Top 20 Poorest Counties in America are included in Indian reservations


In lieu of a mailbag question this week, we are featuring non-profit organizations which work with and seek volunteers to work on impoverished Indian reservations. Nearly a third of all American Indian and Alaska Native children live in poverty. Of the top 100 poorest counties in the US, four of the Top 5 and ten of the Top 20 are on indian reservations. In all, 24 counties with high Indian populations made the Top 100 Poorest Counties list based on the 2000 Census.

Living conditions on many Indian reservations are so poor that they are comparable to conditions in Third World countries. Many families don’t have adequate food, clothing, or access to modern health care. Many homes lack indoor plumbing, heating systems, and electricity.

For the best part of the last two decades Shannon County, South Dakota, which lies entirely inside the Pine Ridge reservation, was the poorest county in the United States. When it finally moved down on the poverty list, it was only because conditions worsened on another Indian reservation.

The new poorest county in the United States is Buffalo County, northeast of Pine Ridge in central South Dakota and home to the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

Ziebach County, which covers the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and part of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, has become the third poorest county in the USA. How is it that the poster child for American poverty may change, but seemingly must remain an Indian child?

Learn which reservations are the poorest and what you can do to help.

Poorest Indian Reservations in the United States

Buffalo County, South Dakota has the distinction of being the poorest county in the United States. The Crow Creek Indian Reservation inhabited by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe makes up the majority of Buffalo County. The racial makeup of the county is 81.59% Native American. Living conditions here are comparable to those in Third World countries.

Second ranked Shannon County, South Dakota, which held the distinction of being the poorest county in the US for most of the last twenty years, is entirely within Pine Ridge Reservation. Shannon County has the highest percentage of Native American population and the lowest percentage White population of any county in the United States. The racial makeup of the county is 94.20% Native American.

The third poorest county in the USA, Ziebach, South Dakota, lies mostly within the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. The balance of the county is within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. It is one of five South Dakota counties that lie entirely within Indian reservations. (The others are Corson, Dewey, Shannon, and Todd.) The unnemployment rate there is 70%. Many homes lack indoor plumbing, heating systems, and electricity. Many more families don’t have adequate food and clothing. The racial makeup of this county is 72.29% Native American.

Fifth ranked Todd County, South Dakota is all within the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. The racial makeup of the county is 85.60% Native American.

Sioux County, North Dakota, is the sixth poorest county in the US, and lies entirely within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, forming the northernmost 30 percent of the reservation. (The balance of the reservation is in South Dakota.) It is the only county in North Dakota that is entirely within an Indian reservation. The racial makeup of the county is 84.59% Native American.

Corson County, South Dakota, ranks seventh. The entire county lies within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The racial makeup of the county is 60.80% Native American.

Wade Hampton, Alaska is the eighth poorest county in the United States. The racial makeup of this county is 92.53% Alaskan Native. Most people here live at least partly off subsistence hunting and fishing.

Ranking tenth, Apache County, Arizona contains parts of the Navajo Indian Reservation, and all of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. The racial makeup of the county is 76.88% Native American. The poorest counties in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah all fall within the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the USA. Apache County is the poorest county in Arizona. Apache County is one of only 38 county-level census divisions of the United States where the most spoken language is not English and one of only 3 where it is neither English or Spanish. 58.32% of the population speak Navajo at home.

Dewey County, South Dakota is the 11th poorest county in the US. Almost the entire county lies in the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. The balance of the county, along its extreme northern county line, lies in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The racial makeup of the county is 74.16% Native American.

McKinley County, New Mexico is the 20th poorest county in the US. The racial makeup of the county is 74.72% Native American. McKinley County is one of only 38 county-level census divisions of the United States where the most spoken language is not English and one of only 3 where it is neither English nor Spanish. 45.75% of the population speak Navajo at home.

Jackson County, South Dakota ranked as the 23rd poorest county. About 57 percent of its land, the portion south of the White River, is on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. 47.85% of this county is Native American.

Bennett County, South Dakota ranked 25th poorest. Bennett County, was once part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. 52.07% of the people here are Native American and 6.38% are from two or more races.

San Juan County, Utah ranked 29th. It is the largest county in Utah. 55.69% of the population is Native American.

Mellette County, South Dakota, ranking 32, has a population that is 52.42% Native American.

Menominee County, Wisconsin, ranked 38th, was created on July 3, 1959 in anticipation of the termination of the Menominee Indian Reservation in 1961. The reservation was recreated in 1973, and is now co-extensive with the county and with the town of Menominee. 87.26% of Menominee County’s population consists of Menominee Indians.

Big Horn County, Montana, ranking 48th, is home to the Crow and Cheyenne Indians. Most of the county’s land area is comprised of Indian reservations: The Crow Indian Reservation covers 64.2 percent of its area, while the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation covers another 6.37 percent. 59.66% of the population in this county is Native American. This is the county where Custer took his last stand and met his demise in the last big battle of the Indian Wars.

Rolette County, North Dakota ranked #53. 73.01% of the county population is Native American. Belcourt, the largest city in the county, is operated by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Thurston County, Nebraska ranked #58. The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska (Ho-Chunk) and the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska have reservations in Thurston County. Together, these two reservations comprise the entire land area of the county. 52.03% of the population is Native American.

Adair County, Oklahoma, ranked #64, was named after the Adair family of the Cherokee tribe. This county is 42.49% Native American.

Roosevelt County, Montana ranks #71. Over 74 percent of the county’s land area lies within the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. 55.75% of the population is Native American.

Benson County, North Dakota is 48.05% native american. It ranked #81. Sullys Hill National Game Preserve and much of the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation are located within the county.

Glacier County, Montana, #84, is home to the Blackfeet Nation. The Blackfeet once controlled the land that is now Glacier National Park. About 70.85 percent of the county’s land area lies within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Another 20.58 percent lies within Glacier National Park at the county’s extreme west. The balance of the county, the extreme eastern section, is centered around its largest city, Cut Bank. 61.80% of this county is Native American.

Navajo County, Arizona, #85, contains parts of the Hopi Indian reservation, the Navajo Indian Reservation and Fort Apache Indian Reservation. 47.74% of the population is Native American.

Cibola County, New Mexico, #86, is 40.32% Native American.

Organizations recruiting volunteers and donations to help people on reservations

Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge Volunteer / Donation Programs

Pine Ridge Reservation is in need in many areas. Learn about their most pressing needs and what you can do to help here.

RE-MEMBER, works with the Oglala Lakota Indians on Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, the second poorest reservation in the US. This reservation has the lowest life expectancy rate in the U.S. and the second highest in the Western hemisphere. People here often live 20 or more people crammed into houses as small as 400 sq. feet. One third of the houses are without electricity, running water, or sewer. 97 percent of the population on the Pine Ridge Reservation lives below the federal poverty level on an average annual income of $3,700. And without public transportation or industry, the unemployment rate is 85 percent.

RE-MEMBER sponsors week long work-vacations for volunteers from March to October. They take a unique approach in that they take the time to introduce volunteers to Lakota cultural and spiritual life. In addition to their work projects, volunteers tour the reservation, with stops at the Red Cloud Museum and cemetery, the Wounded Knee Memorial, Singing Horse Trading Post, and the badlands. However, the most important portion of the sightseeing trips consists of spending time visiting with the Lakota people and learning about their culture and spirituality. They believe this cultural exchange establishes relationships over time that gives the Lakota people some hope in their lives, because they know someone cares about them personally. Work trips cost $325.00 per person. This covers food and a place to stay on the reservation, and some transportation costs while on the reservation.

RE-MEMBER’s main projects include building bunk beds for children who don’t have a bed, and repairing roofs.

If you can’t join a work party, cash donations for materials are also accepted. RE-MEMBER is a non-profit tax exempt organization, which means your donations to them are tax deductible. You can send your contribution to:


P.O. Box 5054

Pine Ridge, SD 57770

Toll Free Phone: 877-205-2105

Email –

Red Feather Development Group works on the Cheyenne and Hopi reservations. They address the severe housing crisis within reservation communities by training tribal members how to build inexpensive houses out of mainly straw bales. These non-traditional houses are warm and cost 60% less than a standard house to build. The tribal member receiving the house must obtain financing (with Red Feather’s help) for the materials, and Red Feather Development Group provides the know-how and volunteers to help with the labor.

Of the 2.5 million tribal members living on American Indian reservations, more than 300,000 are homeless or living in life-threatening conditions. Thousands more live in substandard, over-crowded conditions.

Red Feather Development Group welcomes the support of individuals, foundations, corporations and others whose generosity makes possible their efforts. Your tax-deductible gift directly supports Red Feather and the American Indian Sustainable Housing Initiative. There are several ways to give to this organization. You can purchase an annual membership for $25.00. They also accept gifts of of stock, mutual funds or other securities, or you can leave them something through your will or a trust.

For more information, contact:

Red Feather Development Group

P. O. Box 907

Bozeman, MT 59771-0907

Phone(406) 585-7188

Fax(406) 585-7187


Volunteer Information:

Indigenous Builders Exchange Information:

Northern Cheyenne or Hopi Programming:

General Information:

Native American Aid programs (NAA) serve thousands of Indian people suffering from hunger, isolation, and poverty on reservations in South Dakota and surrounding states. In these remote areas unemployment often exceeds 85 percent, and average annual income may be as low as $2,600.

Lack of public health infrastructure and services are contributing factors to the inadequate health care that many Native Americans living on reservations receive. The federal government spends half as much on health programs per tribal member as it does on health programs for other Americans.

Substandard living conditions, poor nutrition, and lack of health care take a heavy toll on the very young and the very old. The average age for Native Americans as a whole is 55, which is younger than for residents of Bangladesh. If your family has beds for sleeping, fruit for snacking, and soap for washing, then you are wealthy beyond belief compared to most Native Americans in the northern plains states.

It is not uncommon for as many as 25 people to live in a two-bedroom home in this area. The situation is compounded by the fact that much of the existing housing is substandard, and in desperate need of repair. Many people go to bed hungry at the end of every month.

Native American Aid (NAA) depends on the generosity of private donors to fund programs that benefit Native Americans throughout the Northern Plains. They supply emergency clothing and comfort items for children who must be removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect, assist impoverished seniors by providing toiletry items, under clothes, blankets, and other necessities, and deliver nutritious fruits and vegetables to struggling Indian families in dozens of reservation communities.

Donations to Native American Aid are tax deductible. To make a donation by mail, send to:

Native American Aid

PO Box 5500

Spearfish, SD 57783

To donate via wills and bequests, contact Suzi Smith in Donor Relations at (877) 825-2983.

To donate items such as new toys, clothing, school supplies, or other needed items, please call Donor Relations (877) 825-2983.

Call Suzi Smith in Donor Relations at (877) 825-2983 if your company would like to set up a Gift Matching Program.

To make a donation with a credit card, call Suzi Smith in Donor Relations at (877) 825-2983, or donate online here.

Red Cloud Indian School actually includes Red Cloud Elementary School, grades pre-K-4, Red Cloud Middle School, grades 5-8, Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School, grades K-8,and Red Cloud High School, grades 9-12, which collectively serve 600 Lakota students from the 5,000 square mile Pine Ridge Reservation. Children ride school buses as far as 100 miles each day to attend school. The school provides a nutritious meal each day, which for some children, is their only meal of the day.

The Red Cloud Indian School, Inc., is a non-profit corporation (501C3) operating as an accredited private school. Private donations support 97% of Red Cloud Indian School. They receive no Federal, State, or Tribal funds. A nominal enrollment fee of $100 per student is charged, with a family cap of $200. The rest of their operating costs are provided by donations. Many of their teachers are volunteers, who receive only a small stipend for personal expenses during their commitment of one to three years. Volunteer positions are also available for teacher’s aides, librarians, and bus drivers. Several volunteer positions are still open for the 2007-08 school year.

On a reservation where the alcoholism rate runs about 73%, the Red Cloud Indian School system attempts to give Lakota students the skills and pride in themselves they need to compete in the larger society while retaining the traditional values and culture of the Lakota heritage. Course work includes a basic educational curriculum (Math, Science, History, etc.) as well as courses in ethics, religion, Lakota culture, Lakota religion, and Lakota language.

There are a number of ways you can give to the Red Cloud Indian School. They are also collecting Campbell’s Soup labels, which they can exchange for needed school equipment. For example, for 102,000 soup labels, they can get a LCD projector. If you wish to send soup labels or make a donation by mail, send them to:

Red Cloud Indian School

100 Mission Drive

Pine Ridge, SD 57770

Phone (605) 867-5491, extension 201

Other Volunteer Opportunities

Cherokee Community, Oklahoma needs volunteers to help lay the Ballou water pipeline during Summer 2007

Wear work clothes and gloves and bring plenty of bug/chigger repelant.

Contact Billy Hix 918-822-2914

Houma Reservation continuing work after hurricanes. Work is in the area of DuLac, Louisiana.

Sign up at the United Methodist Church website

For more information:

Phone 877-345-5193 or 225-346-5193

Bannock Youth Foundation (serving Bannock Tribal Youth)

Needs help with general maintenance, painting, repairs. Need adult & senior high volunteers, RV hookups nearby.

Contact: Harmony Talbot

620 W. Fremont

Pocatello, ID 83204

Phone 208-234-2244

Heart Butte UM Church serving Blackfeet reservation.

Needs leaders for VBS, sports camp, general repairs for elders’ homes, electrical & plumbing repairs.

Overnight in the church, prepare own meals. May – Sept.

Nearest airport – Great Falls, MT.

Families, adults, senior & junior high groups & individuals welcome. RV hookups nearby.

Contact: Jody & Suellyn Campbell

P O BOX 87

Heart Butte, MT 59448

Phone 406-338-3900


Coalition for the Upper South Platte (near Lake George, CO)

Hayman fire recovery: seeding, planting bushes, mulching, help elders create a fire break around homes by clearing underbrush.

Group opportunities available.

Contact Bonnie at 800-420-9110 or

Four Corners Native American Ministry, Shiprock, NM

Volunteer opportunities for adults, families, senior highs.

Home rehab for elderly poor, complete church hall, build new church and day care facility, work with VBS.

Contact Rev. Curtis Miner

Phone 505-368-4414


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