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Quality of life of North Dakota and South Dakota Native American reservations Dana Williams



Native American reservations in the United States are some of the most impoverished areas in the country. In order to determine whether this is the case in the states of North Dakota and South Dakota, two different quality of life indices will be constructed. One method compares the reservations to each other based on "best" and "worst" values for a variety of different indicators-such as unemployment and highest grade of school completed-and the other calculates a score based on ordinal rank among the reservations. The reservations and the indicators selected appeared to have relatively normally distributed data. In comparing the reservations to each other, certain reservations returned "quality of life" scores well below those of other reservations. All reservations compared rather poorly to the states of North and South Dakota as well. Future research would incorporate additional social indicators of health, education, and environment, as well as attempts to correlate scores to sources of public funding per reservation.


Do large deficits in quality of life exist between Native American reservations in the states of North Dakota and South Dakota? If so, what does this suggest about conditions on those reservations and the types of lives that the residents are forced to lead? Then, what are the possible causes or contributing factors to these deficits?

It is suspected that large deficits do exist-not only between certain reservations-but also between the reservations and US society as a whole. It is further suspected that these deficits in quality of life exist in many different contexts, so that it will become evident in a variety of different indicators.

This research aims to explore the nature and the extent of these deficits in quality of life on reservations. It does so by using a standard comparison procedure. Such an approach is needed in order to compare locations-be they governmental units or communities-to create a protocol that will judge each location's qualities equally and fairly. This sort of research is often done when comparing cities to each other to rank them from "best" to "worse". A good example of such a ranking scheme is the ever-popular "Top 100 Best U.S. Cities to Live In", done by a number of groups. Money magazine, for example, names the "best" large and small U.S. cities to live in based upon a wide-variety of demographic data that matches their specific criteria and then publishes a list of these "best cities" in their publication (UPI, 1999). This procedure is widely used for comparing cities together, and every year newspapers carry stories covering reports of similar evaluations. That being the case, applying such a scheme of evaluation to Native American reservations could be used to reflect the quality (or any lack thereof) present on reservations.

Conditions on Native reservations remain very poor at the moment, and rival some of the worst and most impoverished inner-city conditions in the US. Education, health, housing conditions, crime, and a wide variety of indicators show that reservations are much more impoverished than the average American community (Matthiessen, 1992).

It has been repeatedly asserted in studies, that the amount of public funding an area, municipality, or demographic receives directly influences the quality of education, health, and economic stability that the region creates and sustains (Ross, 1996). Therefore, further research could involve exploring sources of public income to reservations, and correlate amounts and the kinds of funding to inequities between reservations.


History of Native peoples, tribes, and reservations

A. United States Native American history

Native American reservations exist within the US as special areas, somewhat autonomous in comparison to other civil divisions, such as states, counties, townships, or municipalities. As a result they do not fit into the standard hierarchy of governmental classification. The main explanation for this is that they were not originally designed to serve a public purpose, but rather were political formations made under treaty. Over the course of American history-or the time since the arrival of organized European-derived government in North America-the attitudes and policies of the colonists and later the US government towards the Native peoples has "fluctuated from extermination to paternalism to termination to toleration." (Glassner, 1996: 224)

Most Native reservations of any substantial size lie to the west of the Mississippi River. Reasons for this are clear once placed within a historical concept. At the time of European "discovery" of the Americas, indigenous tribes populated the entire continent. In Latin America, it is estimated that some 80 million lived there, with about 12 to 15 million more living north of the Rio Grande River. By the time the continental borders of the US had been formally established, only some 200,000 were left (Chomksy, 1987: 121-122).

This phenomenal drop in population can be explained in short by genocide. Most of the Native tribes were pushed beyond the Mississippi River, and thus the majority lies to the west of that river. When white settlers or colonists "expanded westward", they pushed the tribes out of their traditional lands, farther west. They were frequently evicted or pushed from their refugee lands, too. When the vast majority of the treaties were formally signed between the US government and Native tribes, it was only in the west that whites had not yet been expropriated. It was, therefore, in this region that reservations were predominantly established. The largest reservations in area are found in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Oklahoma also has a state reservation system (Churchill, 1996).

It is argued by some that Native nations were and are recognized as foreign powers and thus negotiated with as such, but others maintain that those nations were allowed to retain their land only when it suited the whim, policy, and feeling of the US government and populace (Churchill, 1996).

It was a slow process by which Natives came to gain recognition and rights within the US. In 1949, both the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission and South Dakota Office of Tribal Government Relations were established. (SDOTGR, 1997) The Indian Health Service (IHS) was formed in 1953 and five years later it was given the authority to construct hospitals in order to aid tribal patients. The Indian Sanitation Facilities and Services Act of 1959 expanded the responsibilities of IHS to ensure public health standards were met, at least in theory (NDIAC, 1999).

By 1968, a so-called "Self-Determination Era" was entered. It included a large amount of federal legislation that was intended to service Natives on reservations, such as Indian Civil Rights Act (1968), Indian Child Welfare Act (1973), Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1974), Indian Health Care Improvement Act (1976), and Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978). These acts were supposed to give reservations and their tribal governments more autonomy to manage their own affairs, endow their citizens with rights and power, and ensure social and health well being (NDIAC, 1999: History page). Some would argue that this was all window dressing and fundamental change is still required to fix fundamental problems (Churchill, 1996 and Mattheisen, 1992).

Also instrumental in the movement towards greater self-determination was the push of indigenous groups themselves, of which the American Indian Movement (AIM)-formed in 1968-was at the forefront. They renounced many of the federal government's initiatives as counter-productive and destructive towards Native secular and spiritual life. In 1972, they brought their own list of self-determination demands before the federal government in the "Trail of Broken Treaties - 20 Point Indian Manifesto". (AIM, 1999).

B. North Dakota and South Dakota history

Native American reservations were created to officially turn all traditionally Native-held lands into US private or public lands, by giving tribes land "all of their own". Many reservations in North and South Dakota were formed in the 1850's, in both arbitrary and authoritarian fashions. Living standards for Native Americans had been decreasing consistently since they were pushed off traditional lands, and those in North and South Dakota were no exception. With the removal of good farmland, and a shrinking area in which they were "allowed" to live, conditions gradually worsened for Natives (NDIAC, 2000).

Specifically in North and South Dakota, large reservations such as Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock are prominent in size. They occupy quite a bit of land-primarily in South Dakota-and represent about half of the Natives who live on reservations in those two states. In comparison to the reservations in the east-of which many are state reservations as opposed to federal reservation-these reservations are overwhelming in size.


General overview of reservation characteristics

Reservations are unique political units, and often vary from each other in a number of different ways. They can be federal reservations, state reservations, or completely independent reservations, as is the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota (Glassner, 1996: 224).

The reservations in North and South Dakota share many similar qualities. A large number of those who live on reservations in these two states are considered to be "Sioux"1. Although this is a superimposed term, it aggregates a variety of different nations: Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. These terms are often further specified by those on reservations-especially by traditional Natives-in the form of indigenous labels or "bands" like Ogalala, Sicangu, or Teton. (White, 2000 and South Dakota, 2000) There are other ethnicities on reservations in the Dakotas, such as the "Cheyenne" or "Crow". Some of the major similarities between reservations are cultural attitudes, economics, and-unfortunately-low education levels and high poverty levels.


Analysis of the quality of life of reservations

A. Creating a "quality of life" index

To gauge the quality of life that exists on Native reservations, certain things must be taken into consideration. Measures of "quality" must be utilized, but not before they are judged to ascertain what they truly represent and explain about the population. If they adequately "say something" about that population, then they can be weighted with other factors, in order to create a measure of overall "quality of life".

Some of the main factors that contribute to "quality of life" are social, health, educational, economical, and environmental. When certain statistics from each of these areas are aggregated, they form a prevailing evaluation of what it is like to live in that reservation.

The Native reservations considered in this "quality of life" analysis are Fort Berthold (a.k.a. the Three Affiliated Tribes: Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara), Spirit Lake2, Standing Rock (which also overlaps into South Dakota), and Turtle Mountain in North Dakota and Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Flandreau, Lake Traverse (Sisseton), Lower Brule, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Yankton in South Dakota. These reservations are evaluated using various criteria of judgment that are available for each reservation. The states of North Dakota and South Dakota are also judged on the same criteria, in order to gather a balance between the realities on the reservations and the states as a whole.

The US Census Bureau offers the best measure and analysis on the state of those residing in the United States. The US Census Bureau collects and compiles a wide-variety of data relating to nearly all aspects of people's lives. It is one of the first and foremost sources for information relating to Americans. Through an on-line research tool called American FactFinder, data for individual reservations was gathered. The variables gathered included: general population, and housing characteristics, social characteristics, labor force status, employment characteristics, income, and poverty status. Missing in this collection is information related to health and environmental measures. The two institutions that handle these issues for Native peoples and reservations-the Indian Health Service (IHS), and either the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the voluntary National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC) respectively-do not have reservation-level aggregated data available on health and environmental indicators and quality.

In a more standardized (and more thorough) quality of life analysis, the indicators would likely be: infant mortality, life expectancy, prevalence of cancer, or drug abuse for social and health statistics. Hours of poor air quality and access to sanitation and clean water would be useful as environmental statistics. Also, students to teacher ratios and literacy rates would be used as educational statistics. Yet, in the absence of these valuable statistics, others are used which, unfortunately, weight the analysis towards a heavily economical-evaluated end. (Community Development Council of Quinte, Inc., 2000)

The primary indicators that are used for generating a quality of life index, rely heavily upon economic and education statistics. Although these indicators may not get at the core of a quality of life index, they do offer an evaluative insight into conditions on reservations and suggest how life is for those who live there. Poverty and education have been heavily correlated together in the past, and is suspected that the same will be shown by the analysis of poverty and education statistics for Native reservations.

B. Formulation of the index

The specific indicators that have been chosen to contribute to the quality of life index are the median income per household (1989), unemployment rate (1990), percentage of those living below the poverty level (1989), and highest level of education reached (1990). The indicators-which are present for all 12 reservations-calculate individual indices by the use of ranked-order scores. The following formula for ranked-order scores is used:

X score = (X - X w) / (X b - X w)

where X w = "worst" X value for given indicator and X b = "best" X value for given indicator.

This formula compares all the values of a given indicator to each other, within the range of the "best" and "worst" values available. Thus, the "best" value is going to receive a score of 100 and the "worst" value is going to receive a score of 0. Since it may be assumed that some of the values are going to inherently be larger or smaller than others, this formula will exaggerate the differences.

There are two potential drawbacks to using this formula, both of which are related to the variance for each indicator statistic. When there is small variance for a certain statistic, the index score will over-exaggerate any variance that exists, making it appear that the difference is bigger and more important than it really is. Conversely, statistics that have values with high variance can be misleading, especially if it is only a small number of extreme values. These outlying values tend to throw off the score in a way similar to how a mean is thrown off by extreme values.

This formula creates a score for each reservation with a value between (or equal to) zero and one. It bases individual values upon the "best" and "worst" values of a certain indicator statistic. For each indicator, the researcher has subjectively applied judgment for what is "desirable" and what is "not desirable". The following are the desirable results for the indicators used (respectively): high median household incomes, low unemployment rates, low percentage of persons below poverty level, and high percentage with high school diploma or higher.

To counter drawbacks inherent in the formula used, a simple rank-ordered score is also generated, thus not considering which are "better" with ratio/interval-based data, but purely based upon their rank-relation to other reservations. Assigning a rank to each reservation for the indicator statistics used accomplishes this. The "best" value will get the highest rank possible: 12-since there are 12 possible reservations. The "worst" value will get the lowest rank possible: 1. Then the ranks for each reservation are added together and compared to each other. In instances where indicators are identical, they are given the same rank-a higher rank if they are on the upper-half of the ranks and a lower rank if they fall on the lower half of the ranks. Identical values only occurred once in this analysis.

Drawbacks aside, reservations with high scores found in both the formulaic and ranked-ordered techniques will become obvious when contrasted with those with low scores. This contrast facilitates discussion based upon which reservations have a higher "quality of life". It is not by any means an all-inclusive or completely satisfying measure of which reservations enjoy better quality of life, but it points the way to further analysis.


Comparisons between reservations-how they rank

Even with a relatively small number of indicators used in generating an index, the "best" and "worst" reservations easily sort themselves out. Even at first glance, all that is required is a small bit of general history of Dakota reservations to hypothesize why such differences exist. In addition to comparing the reservations to each other, the "best" and "worst" reservations are also contrasted against the indicators for North Dakota and South Dakota themselves, in order to show the huge differences that still exist.

The four indicators selected are relatively normally distributed. Figure 1 shows that this can be determined by seeing if the mean and median are close in value to each other. This is true for all four variables used. Also, certain tests, such as the Shapiro-Wilk test can suggest normality. The Shapiro-Wilk test is used if a sample size is less than 50. A high value (for variable W-of which the highest value is 1.0) is more likely normally distributed; the closer it is to 0.0, the less likely it is normally distributed. (EPA, 1999: Appendix D - Statistical Methods, D2.0) Thus, the indicators are fairly normally distributed, especially the statistics for poverty levels. However, many statisticians would perhaps distrust the results for high school diploma levels due to its slightly lower W value.

  Median household income Unemployment rate Below poverty level HS diploma or higher
Mean 15,026 0.187483 0.438717 0.643272  
Median 14,908 0.171941 0.455678 0.647713
Standard deviation 2,559 0.082371 0.113972 0.063641
Kurtosis -1 -1.1233 -0.12529 1.145007
Skewness 0 0.08828 -0.40614 0.980838
Shapiro-Wilk (W) 0.959 0.944 0.975 0.896

Figure 1: Descriptive statistics for social indicators

After the indicators were gathered, they were compared to each other, as in Figure 2. For comparisons to states, jump ahead to Figure 4.

Reservations Median household income Unemployment rate Below poverty level HS diploma or higher
Spirit Lake $15,394 28.94% 43.37% 58.28%
Standing Rock $14,541 18.66% 44.81% 65.49%
Yankton $15,275 7.53% 37.30% 64.43%
Cheyenne River $14,489 15.69% 46.32% 65.82%
Fort Berthold $16,786 15.73% 35.08% 71.72%
Lake Traverse $16,654 6.91% 28.43% 62.37%
Lower Brule $19,250 15.63% 49.58% 66.74%
Crow Creek $14,103 22.68% 48.83% 58.03%
Flandreau $18,636 10.79% 22.50% 78.77%
Turtle Mountain $11,304 31.10% 54.00% 56.81%
Pine Ridge $11,260 28.94% 62.64% 58.36%
Rosebud $12,618 22.37% 53.58% 65.11%

Figure 2: Social indicators for all North Dakota and South Dakota reservations and trust lands.

The different evaluation methods are collected in Figure 3, and show a wide variety of differences between reservations on the "best" end and on the "worst" end. Pine Ridge and Turtle Mountain stand out as some of the worst reservations in nearly every single indicator, as is clearly shown by their total ranks score. Their total index scores are also incredibly low. The Flandreau reservation comes out extremely well in both evaluation methods, clearly showing that its quality of life index exceeds all other reservations by a high order. The middle range, since normally distributed, becomes more difficult to tell which reservations exceed others in "quality", but more data and indicators would help to codify this analysis.


Reservations Rank Score Rank Score Rank Score Rank Score Total ranks Total score
Spirit Lake 8 0.5174 2 0.0891 8 0.4800 3 0.0673 21 0.2884
Standing Rock 6 0.4106 6 0.5142 7 0.4441 8 0.3955 27 0.4411
Yankton 7 0.5025 11 0.9743 9 0.6312 6 0.3474 33 0.6139
Cheyenne River 5 0.4041 8 0.6369 6 0.4066 9 0.4107 28 0.4646
Fort Berthold 10 0.6916 7 0.6355 10 0.6865 11 0.6792 38 0.6732
Lake Traverse 9 0.6751 12 1.0000 11 0.8522 5 0.2535 37 0.6952
Lower Brule 12 1.0000 9 0.6395 4 0.3253 10 0.4523 35 0.6043
Crow Creek 4 0.3558 4 0.3483 5 0.3442 2 0.0556 15 0.2760
Flandreau 11 0.9232 10 0.8396 12 1.0000 12 1.0000 45 0.9407
Turtle Mountain 2 0.0055 1 0.0000 2 0.2152 1 0.0000 6 0.0552
Pine Ridge 1 0.0000 2 0.0891 1 0.0000 4 0.0706 8 0.0399
Rosebud 3 0.1700 5 0.3610 3 0.2258 7 0.3781 18 0.2837

Figure 3: Rank-orders and index scores for social indicators of all North Dakota and South Dakota reservations.


In concluding analysis of the two different methods, only the Lower Brule reservation moved more than one place in the rankings-4th by the pure rank method and 7th by index scores method-which shows that the relative ordering and placement of the reservations is a rather accurate ranking. Figure 4 compares the "best" and "worst" reservations to the states of North and South Dakota.

Reservation / state Median household income Unemployment rate Below poverty level H.S. diploma or higher
Pine Ridge $11,260 28.9% 62.6% 58.4%
Flandreau $18,636 10.8% 22.5% 78.8%
North Dakota $23,213 5.1% 14.4% 76.7%
South Dakota $22,503 4.1% 15.9% 77.1%

Figure 4: Social indicators for "best" and "worst" reservation in North Dakota and South Dakota compared to the indicators for those entire two states.



Even with a small number of indicators used to evaluate conditions on Native reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota, there is quite obviously a deficit in quality of life compared to the two states, overall. The deficit can be seen via each separate indicator that has been figured in, and the differences can be seen between the reservations themselves. Although great differences do exist between the "best" quality of life reservation, Flandreau and the "worst" quality of life reservation, Pine Ridge, Flandreau itself still does not even remotely measure up to the levels of North Dakota and South Dakota. If this were not bad enough, it must be remembered that many of the indicators for these two states are themselves comparatively low by US standards, with high levels of rural poverty.

The initial hypothesis that there was a difference between reservations has been shown, and a similar intensity of differences would likely be shown with more indicators. It was suggested that many indicators would show this difference, but not that many statistics were discovered to actually explore how extensive these differences may be. As previously mentioned, the indicators are primarily economic in nature along with one educational statistic; these tend to show that there are differences between reservations and between reservations and the greater U.S. Yet, it has not been quantifiably proven that these differences can be extended to other kinds of indicators, such as social, health, and environmental. They remain only suspected links.

Future research would expand the number and breadth of indicators used in evaluation, in addition to a look into actual public funding sources, quantities, and distributions. If additional indicator data becomes available at some point, it could contribute to a deeper understanding of how thorough the differences are and how good or bad quality of life is on certain reservations. Investigating the multiple sources of public funding for reservations would be a daunting task, yet any strong associations could suggest a cause and effect relationship between funding and quality of life. Once the US Census Bureau publishes 2000 demographic data, it would be interesting to compare the current quality of life on reservations with the results of this study, which originate from data that is ten years old.



1 "Sioux" is a derogatory French word for "[little] snake".

2 Formerly called "Devil's Lake", in reference to the white notion that anything to do with Native spirituality was "evil". A recent trend has been to revert geographical names from "devil" to "spirit" for many traditional Native lands.


References Cited

American Indian Movement (AIM). (1999). A brief history of the American Indian Movement. Retrieved October 29, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Bureau of Indian Affairs. Retrieved October 29, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Chomsky, Noam. (1987). Chomsky reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Churchill, Ward. (1996). From a native son: selected essays in indigenism, 1985-1995. Boston: South End Press.

Community Development Council of Quinte, Inc. (2000). Quality of life index: report summary. Retrieved October 25, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Environmental Protection Agency (1999). Appendix D: statistical methods. Retrieved November 4, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Glassner, Martin Ira. (1996). Political geography. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Matthiessen, Peter. (1992). In the spirit of Crazy Horse. New York: Penguin.

North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission (NDIAC). History lesson: American Indians. Retrieved October 29, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Ross, David. (1996) Measuring social progress, starting with the well-being of Canada's children, youth and families. CCSD Conference notes. Retrieved October 25, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

South Dakota. A guide to the great Sioux Nation. Retrieved October 30, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

South Dakota Office of Tribal Government Relations (SDOTGR). History. Retrieved October 29, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

South Dakota Office of Tribal Government Relations (SDOTGR). Information on the nine tribes in South Dakota. Retrieved October 29, 2000 from the World Wide Web: Governments

United Press International. (1999). Best U.S. cities to live in. Retrieved November 5, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder. Data from 1990 Census.

White, Alvin. (2000). Regarding: "Fight on Sioux". Retrieved November 6, 2000 from the World Wide Web:


Research Methods