Bill Meets Blue Bird: Nation’s poorest play host to President Clinton

The Seattle Times
July 8, 1999
By Alex Tizon

PINE RIDGE, South Dakota – It may now be said that “BILL WAS HERE.” Not just here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the most destitute people in the United States, but here on Geraldine Blue Bird’s front porch.

It happened the way Blue Bird imagined it. The president emerged from a sea of people, ambled down her street and climbed the eight creaky steps onto her porch. From the top step, Bill Clinton saw what Blue Bird sees every day: 13 shoe-box homes, a dozen broken-down cars, two dozen unemployed adults and 82 children in varying degrees of raggedness. If Pine Ridge is a ghetto, this no-name street is its slum, and the 44-year-old Blue Bird its matriarch.

For 20 minutes yesterday, under the shade of an elm tree, the matriarch and the president visited. She talked about what her tribe needed, which, in a word, is everything. And at the end, he looked her in the eye and said, “I will not forget you. I will do everything I can to help you and your people.”

Blue Bird said she believed him. But more cynical members of the Lakota Sioux Tribe say many politicians have blown through “the rez” with heartfelt promises and no follow-through. The final judgment, they say, will depend on what happens after the mile-long motorcade is long gone. Said Wilbur Between Lodges, vice president of the tribe: “The aftermath is everything.”

Pine Ridge was the fourth stop on Clinton’s four-day tour of the country’s most economically depressed areas, from Appalachia to Watts. Traveling with him, promoting his “New Markets Initiative,” are Cabinet secretaries, politicians and business executives.

The basic message: Corporations should treat neglected parts of America as untapped markets and invest in them just as they invest in foreign countries in the developing world. The White House says America’s depressed places make up an $80 billion untapped market. After Pine Ridge, the president flew to South Phoenix and then to Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood.

*

His visit to Pine Ridge, which aides said was the most dramatic stop of the tour so far, was big news in Indian country. The last president to visit the reservation was Calvin Coolidge 72 years ago, and he did it as a stopover while vacationing in the Black Hills. The last president to visit a reservation was Franklin Roosevelt, who passed through the Cherokees’ land in Oklahoma more than 60 years ago.

So when news spread that Clinton was coming to Pine Ridge, more than 100 tribes, including four from Washington, sent representatives. For many, it was the first visit to this storied reservation, home of the descendants of Crazy Horse and Chief Red Cloud and site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, which formally ended the Indian wars. The Lakota Sioux were the last to fall, and in many ways, they have remained fallen ever since.

Nearly 40,000 people live on this rolling, barren swatch of land that the U.S. Census Bureau has labeled as the poorest place in the country for the past two decades. The per-capita income hovers at $11,000, unemployment soars to 85 percent, and the average home houses 17 people. Life expectancy for Sioux men is 56 years — for Sioux women, 66 — the lowest anywhere in this hemisphere except Haiti.

Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, accompanying Clinton on the tour, said of Pine Ridge: “No matter how good you are with words, you could not describe this.” The word “emptiness” might work. Unlike poverty in the inner cities, where struggle is intensified by density, the poverty here gets lost in the vast distances between places. You have to look for it in the back roads and hollows of this 2 million-acre reservation that is roughly the size of Connecticut. Many people live where no roads exist, and those who live along roads often don’t have cars. One-fifth of the homes don’t have electricity or running water.

Between Lodges said it succinctly: “As you can see, we don’t have anything.”

There’s no public transportation, no banks, no movie theaters, no bowling alleys, no recreation centers, no nursing homes. Going to town in Pine Ridge means going to a 24-hour Texaco station/convenience store/fast-food restaurant called Big Bat’s. It is the only community center of sorts, and it bustles round-the-clock. It began to bustle even more when the Secret Service started coming about three weeks ago.

*

Geraldine Blue Bird is a large woman with a round face and missing front teeth. She wears T-shirts and sweat pants and is as gentle as she is needy. Disabled by a heart and lung condition, she spends most of her time on her front porch, watching over her street. Her voice has a slight rasp. Friends call her Bird, as in Big Bird with all her little minions. She lives in a tiny clapboard house and adjoining trailer with 27 people, 20 of them children — two of her own, the others cousins, nieces and nephews — whom she helps support, along with a few other adults in the house, on $827 a month in government aid.

Her street is called “the Igloo neighborhood” because the homes came from a shut-down Army base in Igloo, S.D., and because the houses are as small as igloos.

Blue Bird recalled when White House staff members and Secret Service agents first visited her house three weeks ago (someone at the tribal center directed them to the Igloo neighborhood). Blue Bird was washing dishes. A woman said, “The president is coming to your street. Would it be all right if he came up to your porch and visited with you?”

“I said, `Sure.’ They left and I sat on the porch for three hours thinking. Then I said, `What did she say?’ I walked across the street to my sister’s house to use her phone. I called Vashti and said, `Help.’ ”

Vashti Apostol-Hurst, 49, is one-half of a husband-wife team from Seattle who have spent seven years providing humanitarian help to the people of Pine Ridge. Vashti and her husband, Andy, one of two full-time permanent physicians in the tribe’s medical clinic, acquired the trailer for Blue Bird and installed electricity and plumbing in her house. The couple have become Blue Bird’s patron saints, and for the past three weeks, Vashti has been helping Blue Bird prepare for the visit.

The entire village of Pine Ridge got ready in a frenzy of cleanup, even though the White House emphatically asked residents to leave things as they were. What Clinton saw yesterday was a fixed-up version of the street. Weeds had been whacked, garbage hauled away and porches, including Blue Bird’s, were cleared.

The only thing the Secret Service asked was that the many dogs on the street be cleared out for the visit, especially Blue Bird’s big mastiff-hound mix named Blue. For days, Blue Bird had nightmares that Blue would chase Clinton down the street. Secret Service personnel would ask, “Is Blue around?” when checking in the days before the visit.

The president arrived wearing a dark-gray suit and cowboy boots. He went to three igloo houses across the street first, past a group of kids in dusty clothes shooting baskets at a broken-down rim, then over to Blue Bird’s, where she greeted him and led him to his chair on the porch. Blue Bird’s lips trembled as she spoke of the tribe’s need for new homes. She fought back tears as she described how she must buy shoes on layaway starting in June so her children — the few who were getting new shoes — could have them by the time school started in September.

At one point, Clinton took her hand and told her: “What you have said in the past five minutes has been the most helpful to me of anything. I sit around in Washington and try to imagine how in the world you make ends meet when nobody has a job. How in the world do you actually pay these bills?”

Blue Bird and her brood live not just day to day, but hour to hour, and Clinton’s rhetorical question was met only with a polite silence.

*

When the president bid his farewells, Blue Bird gave him a hand-sewn star quilt — the colors of the sunset, she said. She told him it was for his first grandchild. Then he walked off the porch and back down the eight creaky steps, up the street, past the dusty basketball game that didn’t stop once for his visit, and back to his caravan.

“All my life nothing good has happened to me,” Blue Bird said when he was gone. “This is about the only great thing that has ever happened to me.”

On another part of the reservation, in a sacred place, elder Elaine Quiver, 65, and Lakota Sioux grandmothers prayed to the Great Spirit that Clinton’s visit would bring relief to the tribe. Tribal dancers danced and drummers drummed, summoning spirits to bless the visit.

But many people, though excited about the passing presidential presence, remained cautious. Some sat around Big Bat’s smoking — and waiting for words to turn into deeds.

“There’s been a long line of politicians come through here,” said Everett Gabby Brewer, 61, sitting at a table. “They come and they promise and they leave and you never see anything. Nothing’s ever made a difference here. Let’s see what Bill Clinton will do.”