If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.
I was not in Colorado Springs, but that doesn’t matter. To me it’s outrageous there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of American families who still rely on outhouses.
I reacted so strongly because I see outhouses as an ugly symbol of poverty. And poverty isn’t a condition routinely associated with the U.S. — the richest broke nation on the planet.
But that’s what I found when I drove onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
I came face-to-face with Third World poverty.
My family went to Pine Ridge to volunteer for RE-MEMBER, a nonprofit group devoted to providing housing and helping the elderly and disabled on the reservation, which is the size of Connecticut and home to about 25,000 Oglala Sioux known collectively as Lakota Indians.
The nonprofit group builds bunk beds, insulates and skirts mobile homes, installs roofs, builds wheelchair ramps and, yes, builds outhouses for the reservation’s poor, which describes just about everyone.
In 15 years, it has installed 700 outhouses on Pine Ridge. Last week was no exception. My wife, Cary, was on a crew that installed one outhouse for a blind Vietnam veteran and his wife, who dug their own pit. Then the crew went to another trailer, dug a pit and installed a second outhouse.
Actually, outhouses rank among the less-serious problems on Pine Ridge, one of the poorest counties in the U.S.
The reservation is battling severe unemployment — 80 percent and higher — a plague of alcohol and drug addition among its residents and an alarming suicide rate even among its middle-school children.
I arrived ready to help. I left disillusioned by the magnitude of the problems.
For example, I learned one-third of the dozen bunk beds we built last weekly likely will be burned to heat trailers next winter.
It felt like we were putting Band-Aids on a hemorrhaging amputation.
I don’t pretend to know how to solve the problems at Pine Ridge. I believe it is too remote and unstable to attract industry or businesses of enough size to help.
But I have a suggestion.
Every Lakota should pack up, put all the broken treaties behind them, and leave Pine Ridge.
Leave the Wounded Knee Massacre site. Forget reclaiming the Black Hills. Focus on overcoming all the poverty and addictions.
Just as I left my decaying, crime-ridden hometown of Kansas City, Kan., got a college education and pursued a life elsewhere, the Lakota need to leave Pine Ridge.
Education and a fresh beginning, I believe, are the Lakotas’ best hope.