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Forum Communications, Published September 24 2012

Beauty found amid blight

SPIRIT LAKE NATION – Walk along a dusty unpaved street in one of the little reservation towns here, and the stereotypes scream their half-truths.

Scruffy children play in and around abandoned or soon-to-be-abandoned cars, chased through yards of packed dirt by scruffy dogs. Some houses appear abandoned, too, with windows broken or boarded.

Broken toys and discarded shirts and flip flops lie about. Men, young and old, stand idle, watching as nothing happens, or they tinker with one of the junk cars, or they sit together in clumps of stoops and chairs, visiting or commiserating about life on the rez.

But look deeper.

Look past the inevitable detritus of chronic poverty, bigotry and unemployment.

There is great beauty at Spirit Lake:

Buffalo, cultural symbols as well as proud and hopeful signs of economic development, laze in the grass of hills outside Fort Totten. Beyond are isolated woods to get lost in, wind-swept meadows to roam, wetlands to crouch in and wait for ducks and geese.

Men and women of the tribe, bedecked in orange and yellow safety vests, work alongside men and women from elsewhere, raising and widening and paving the roads that skirt the waters of Devils Lake, links necessary if other plans for development are to bear fruit. Other men and women work to renovate and expand the tribe’s law enforcement center.

Children, well fed and treasured, laugh and giggle as they make their way home from school. A mother and daughter, walking together hand in hand at mid-afternoon, share notes on their day. At the Recreation Center, muscled young men work out in a fitness room as children take to the basketball court or play computer games. Some swing or climb on playground equipment outside.

The reservation was established in 1867 by treaty between the United States and two Sisseton Wahpeton bands of Sioux Indians, relocated from Minnesota following the 1862 Dakota War. It covers more than 400 square miles, mostly in Benson County. Devils Lake encroaches from the north, and for 50 miles the Sheyenne River forms the reservation’s southern boundary.

The tribe’s casino draws visitors. So do the Sullys Hill National Game Preserve and the Fort Totten State Historic Site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the tribal college, Cankdeska Cikana Community College.

But there are few privately owned businesses, few other options for employment. Housing is scarce, complicating efforts at economic development.


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