Wednesday, December 2, 2020

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Small town development in a rapidly changing world keeps the challenge of change alive and well

Big things often obscure small things. Our eyes are captured by what we see first and what we see clearly.

Take a picture for example. If you look at the photo on the right side of this text, you may first notice the earth, then the sign. If you keep looking, you see the buildings on the horizon, and then the poles and further back, the new radio tower.

Those familiar with the image will notice that this is a photo taken from the powwow grounds on Highway 212 looking northwest at the streetlamps that will soon become Badger Park, a new housing development fostered under the CRST Housing Authority.

Small towns on the American landscape are often like the poles in the background of this picture — people do not notice them or think about them until they are pointed out, or until you run into them.

Yet, small towns are as essential to the nation as the street lamps and electric and water hookups are to the creation of a new neighborhood in today’s high-tech society. Small towns are as much as source of innovation as any large city.

Innovation rather than growth has been found to be the key for small communities in a study conducted by Swedish reserachers titled “What is Smart Rural Development?”

Small towns like those located on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation are no strangers to innovation, where learning to fix your own equipment and vehicles is often the only way that something will get fixed because either there is no extra money to have someone else fix it, or because it needs to be done now, and there is no time to wait until you get to Pierre or Rapid city, 90 or more miles away.

Given the resourcefulness of the what Dupree City Council person Unalee Howe calls the single most valuable and plentiful resource our communities have — human beings — our small towns are limited only by the imaginations and grit of the people who live here.

As we move through the second decade of the 21st Century, a time when the Lakota people look to the seventh generation to begin repairing the injuries from the “kill the Indian, save the man” era,  a time of continued technological advancement, a time of economic uncertainty as tax laws change and terrifs potentially threaten local economic progress or even sustainability, local community members look to eachother the leaders to figure out how to improve the quality of life in their communities.

In interviews with tribal and municipal leaders, there are several challenges that face CRST commununties.

Top on the list of challenges for everyone is communication and collaboration.

“Economic development works better if the city and tribe work together,” saif John Bachman, Eagle Butte city council member.

“People have to talk. A lot of wars are started because people do not talk,” said CRST Chairman Harold Frazier.

“Our little towns need to coperate a bit more with one another and with their own people,” said Dupree Financial Officer Maurice Lemke.

“We need to come together as a people if we are going to improve the quality of life on our reservation,” said City of Eagle Butte Mayor Verzella LaPlante, who is also a CRST member.

Relationships between community members in small towns are strong. Like any family, there are people who fight like their lives depend on it with one another, but band together when an outside entity strikes.

Storms tend to bring community members and entities together, such as the recent storm that hit on July 4, calling individuals, tribal programs and municipal maintenance workers out on the holiday to clear debris blocking home entryways, streets and damaging barns, grain bins and roofing on homes and businesses.

Disputes over land rights and use tends to tear people apart.

Change can happen in the blink of an eye, but not all change is swift. One factor of human intiated change that is always true is that the idea a change is needed must first be conceived. If no one thinks about it, it will not happen.

Ideas to improve communication between different entities seem to be in the idea stage for many people.

Frazier said one thing the tribe should and could do is get all of the tribal laws and codes online and accessible to the public for easier access.

This would make it easier for city officials, entreprenuers, educators and tribal members to research information they need to know before taking action in one form or another.

“Being on the reservation is more unqiue because of the different entities invovled,” said Dupree Mayor Jim Veit.

Veit said navigating the different codes, laws and jurisdictions makes running a business, enforcing the laws, conducting city projects and other public services more challenging than they already are based on the nature of their roles in society.

LaPlante said she is running for tribal council after having worked with the city for nearly 20 years in an effort to better understand how tribal council functions.

Another challenge for the cities of Dupree and Eagle Butte, but not so much the tribe at this time is the access to revenue for maintenance, let alone development.

Dupree has an aging population, and young people are not staying because there are limited job opportunities in the area, said Lemke.

Not only are there limited jobs, there is not a lot for people to do, young and old alike.

Eagle Butte in the 1980s and 1990s had more for both adults and youth to do explained Ryman LeBeau, council member and member of the tribes Economic Development Committee.

There was a bowling alley, arcade, restaraunts, the movie theater — and “right now, we don’t have those things — there is a void of things to do,” LeBeau said.

So, not only are there limited jobs, there are also limited activities that help to keep the people in Dupree and Eagle Butte, spending money here to feed into the tax base that goes to the cities and the tribes.

Sales taxes in the cities of Dupree and Eagle Butte are sent to the State.

According to city and tribal leaders, the tribe receives 4.5 percent of those sales tax revenues minus a fee from the state. The City of Dupree receives 1 percent and the City of Eagle Butte receives 2 percent of the sales tex revenues minus the fee from the state.

The revenue from the sales tax for the cities goes into infrastructure maintenance, but is not enough to sustain the needs of the local infrastructure.

The cities also earn revenue from the water service, and get a percentage of the property tax the county collects. Dupree requests an amount from Ziebach County and Eagle Butte from Dewey County, and both base their requests on the amounts granted the previous year, and no more than the percentage established by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which, according to the Ziebach County auditor Cindy Longbrake.

The City of Eagle Butte used to earn revenue from liquor sales, but was not granted a renewed liquor license from the tribe and so lost a major source of income and halted plans to improve Shupick Park by adding a paved and winding path, developing both softball diamonds to adult size and adding a volleyball court and horse shoe pit, said City of Eagle Butte Finance Officer Sheila Ganje.

Small cities and towns like Eagle Butte and Dupree can apply for and have applied for grants to help pay for various projects, particulalarly water and sewage projects.

The problem with grants, explained both  Ganje and Veit is that most of them are matching grants that require the cities to match a percentage of the funds awarded.

Veit said that many times, cities have to take out a loan to match the funds, as did Dupree to have their water and sewage project completed, and are then strapped with a 30-year loan that needs to be paid back.

Ganje said that the City of Eagle Butte has been able to win some grants on an economic hardship, but even those grants are difficult to win.

Both Dupree and Eagle Butte are in a self-sustaining mode, and so progress and growth, while desireable, just does not seem possible given their limited revenue.

The tribe has access to different funding sources, and has made concerted efforts to develop businesses in both Eagle Butte and Dupree, but also in smaller outlying communities such as Takini and LaPlant with the development of the LTM convenient stores.

According to LeBeau, the Economic Development Committee created the Cheyenne River Economic Development Corporation (CREDCO),  whose Executive Director is Jessica Four Bear.

CREDCO was formed to separate tribal politics from tribal businesses. People on the board of the corporation have business and law degrees and have business experience, said LeBeau.

The movie theater, LTM and its satelite stores, the bingo hall and the new radio staion will all be under the leadership of CREDCO.

The tribe’s long-term goal is to create jobs, LeBeau said, and CREDCO is one step in the direction of that goal.

LeBeau said that at this point, the tribal businesses under CREDCO are not returning a dividend for the tribe, but much of that is due to the fact that the movie theater just opened, and the LTM covenience stories or “c-stores”and radio station have yet to open, and the main LTM stores suffered a loss in the transition of management when former manager Bernie LaPlante passed into the spirit world.

According to LeBeau, the CRST Telephone Authority is the only tribal business currently paying the tribe a dividend.

In some cases, LeBeau said program funding that comes from grants have not been won for various reasons. One example is the USDA grant that communities have gotten for building  community  buildings.

When an entity receiving a grant does not keep financial audits up-to-date, or fails to file reports on time, then future grant rewards are put in jeopardy, which is the case with the USDA grants that would fund more community buildings, LeBeau said.

However, LeBeau also said that the Green Grass was able to win a grant form TECA for its community building, and those grants can be awarded up to $750,000.

Community buildings can help with the concerns eveyone seems to have about providing things for people to do, as it acts as a place for people to join together for social events close to home.

Knowing that there is a place where people can gather motivates them to plan gatherings which give community members a chance to get out of the house without having to drive into town.

The revenues earned by tribal and municipal governments help to maintain roads, law enforcement, fire protection services and provide other city and tribal services, which are supplemented with grants for indiviual projects and programs.

As the tribal and city leaders work to maintain infrastructure, clear delapidated buildings through projects such as the Beautification Project headed by Art Rave to allow for building space, there are social issues everyone is trying to address.

The two issues that nearly of most concern are drug and alcohol addictions and a wavering work ethic.

“We don’t have a workforce that wants to work, and even entry-level jobs are not being filled,” said Veit.

“Kids don’t know who they are,” said LaPlante, “that’s why we have drug addiction issues. They need to know who they are as Lakota people.”

Others see that education is part of the problem.

Howe said that is seems students come out of school and look at life like a picture that has already been painted. Even if they do not like it, they think, I can’t paint, I can’t draw, so I can’t change it.  

This sense of powerlessness and lack of confidence can lead students to refuse to try a job requiring previously unlearned skills, or could lead them to make poor choices as modeled for them by relatives or friends.

Without money, and/or without chances to socialize outside of a party or bar, addictions grow, depression increases and change is harder to imagine.

City and tribal leaders have their work cut out for them in their efforts to improve coordinating and colloborating projects, generating revenue not just to maintain infrastructure and services but to improve and advance them, job opportunties and address some serious shifts in behavior habits and trends.

Everyone interviewed seemed to be open for ideas about how to improve the quality of life for everyone living on CRST.

The seed for change has been planted, and it will take a village to help it grow.   

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