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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

The Grave Situation in South Dakota


"Not too many people die of old age here," Clarence Broken Rope said, standing in front of a friend's grave. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

ALLEN, SD--A 23-year-old man named Clarence stood in front of a fresh grave, held an imaginary shotgun to his chin and recalled the first time he tried to kill himself.

He was15, half drunk and listening to the radio in his bedroom when the song Life is Beautiful came on, breaking the early morning quietude of his house. He took of a swig of a 40-ounce bottle of beer and reached for the buckskin-colored .22 caliber gun his father had given him. He was crying.

“I was going to put my finger on the trigger and then the door opened,” Clarence Broken Rope said. “It was my mom.”

Michael and I met Clarence in Allen, S.D., which sits on part of an Indian reservation and was designated the poorest place in the U.S during the last census because of its per capita income of $1,539. We went there to see how a place that had struggled even during bright financial times was fairing now that the economy had darkened.

What we found was that many of the jobs residents once sought off the reservation in larger nearby communities were no longer available, and the feeling of hopelessness behind deep-rooted problems such as alcoholism, drugs and suicide was not at simmer. It was at a boil.

Clarence had agreed to show us a cemetery not far from the blue-paneled house where he grew up and where his mother still lives with his sister, her husband and their baby. When we got there, he walked slowly through the graves.


Clarence Broken Rope walks infront of the house where he grew up in Allen, SD. He now lives with an aunt not far away. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“This guy, he killed himself in a car accident,” Clarence said, pointing to the grave of a 25-year-old next to the grave of a 21-year-old who also died in that accident. “He was drunk.”

“This is Desmond Poor Bear, the one who got shot by police,” he said of a mound of fresh dirt with a marker: 4-17-82 to 7-29-09. “He was drunk, and he had a knife.”

“Not too many people die of old age here,” he said. “I have a cousin who is in the process of crossing over. He was just telling us, ‘I’m going to go out. I’m going to kill myself.’”

And he did, in the slowest way possible, Clarence said.

“He stayed drunk for months on end, week after week,” he said. “He never did eat. He didn’t care to shower. Now he’s got full blown cirrhosis. His body is all orange. We’re preparing ourselves now for his journey.”

“How old is he?” I asked.

“He’s 30” he said.

“I never thought I’d actually live to be 23,” he added.

“And now that you have? Do you think you’ll live to be 50, 60, maybe 80?"

“I wouldn’t say 50. My guess 40,” he said.

Just that morning, Michael and I had been in a very different place. We were in Belle Fourche, SD, watching a mom and dad unload their children from a minivan and race toward an American flag in the middle of a field. It marks the exact center of the nation and tourists flock to the spot, from near and far, just to say they did it.


Michael and Nicole Mach lift 1-year-old Bejamin over a barbwire fence that separates the road from a spot marking the center of the nation. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“We had to wait till soccer ended,” Michael Mach said of the timing of the trip.

“And hockey ended and before school started,” his wife Nicole Mach added.

Their three children, ages 1, 3 and 9, ran through the yellowed grass around the flag, laughing. “It’s hard to count the stars when they’re moving,” the oldest, Allison, told her father, out of breath.


The Mach family stand at the center of the nation in Belle Fourche, SD. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

That was only four hours away from Allen, just enough time for morning to turn into the afternoon, but it so felt so distant by the time Michael and I arrived on the reservation. The streets were empty and houses were quiet. Many buildings were tattooed with the word, “A-town,” the mark of a local gang.

Nancy Broken Rope was one of the few residents we saw outside. She sat in her backyard rocking her 10-month old grandson and watching Clarence spray her garden for grasshoppers. When she found out why we were there, she invited us to sit with her.

“Everyday I worry. Everyday,” she said. “The only thing that helps is a little prayer.”


Nancy Broken Rope rocks her grandson LeAndre Williams. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

To find work in the past, she’s had to leave the area because there are no jobs locally, she said. Just last year, she and Clarence both worked in Rapid City, cleaning a Days Inn for $2.50 a room. He also worked part-time at a grocery store and deli, sleeping four hours a night between jobs. But in the current economy, mother and son are doubtful that even those low-wage positions are available. (They were likely right. Michael and I didn’t see any “now hiring” signs when we drove through there or surrounding areas).

Besides, both said they had come back to Allen because it’s their home, it is the life they know best. Nancy couldn't afford a house anywhere else and didn't want to lose the one she already had. Clarence said he came back in part because he is his mother’s “only bull,” meaning only son, and that it's his responsibility to take care of her. But, he said, he knows the risk of staying.


A neighbor on horseback rides up to Nancy Broken Rope's garden. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“I wanted to be somebody at one time but it didn’t happen for me because I stayed around here,” he said. “I had big dreams. I wanted to go as afar as my legs would take me.”

“He’s pretty good at algebra,” his mother said.

He also draws and writes poetry. I asked to see one of his poems and he pulled a folded piece of paper from a pocket of his baggy jeans. It was titled: Finding a Way.

Days only grew longer
Every night it got cold
This hell that I conquered
It toughened my soul
A man without hope
Is a man without dreams
Having nothing to show
For all that I’ve seen

After his first suicide attempt, Clarence said he sobered up and sold the gun for $250. But a year later, he tried again. After a girlfriend broke up with him, he said he swallowed half a container of pills and had to be taken to the hospital by a friend.

“This type of life, you got to be strong to live it,” he said. "It’s different from the city because out here there ain’t no mobility, no income really…Around here, it’s basically not having a job that’s driving us crazy.”


A contributing cause of poverty on the reservations are the lack of commercial businesses, which limits the number of local available jobs. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

He said we would find the same story across the other reservations and if anything, Allen was doing better than some. Michael and I decided to see for ourselves and spent the rest of the afternoon driving through other reservations. At one, we found a group of boys, ranging in age from 11 to 15, swimming in a watering hole. They jumped and laughed and threw rocks at teenage girls who tried to approach.

It was a picture of innocence, until we talked to them. Most had started drinking when they were 9 years old and had started smoking marijuana not long after that. Several told of having problems in school or not caring about it at all. One boy asked if we had food stamps to give him.


A group of boys swim at the Rosebud Dam. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“You know what these are?” a 14-year-old asked me, holding up a pair of brass knuckles. He wasn’t saying it in a threatening manner, just showing that he could protect himself and the other boys if he needed to.

“One of our friends just passed away a few days ago,” one of the boys said. “He stole an SUV and lost control.”

He was 11 years old.

“That’s why it sucks over here,” the boy said.

They pointed us in the direction of a dirt road that they would pass on their way home and where a small white cross was surrounded by white roses, a toy truck, two apples and four cigarettes.


A memorial for an 11-year-old who died on the dirt road that his friends have to pass on their way home from the Rosebud Dam. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  August 25, 2009; 7:39 AM ET
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Next: Striking a Balance Amid the Recession


Who is teaching Entrepreneurialism to the Native Tribes?

Posted by: bbcrock | August 25, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

The need for employment opportunities on the reservations is overwhelming. I'd like to see at least as much stimulus money go to tribes as was given to banks and insurance companies.

Posted by: jonesey1 | August 26, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Theresa and Michael,

This is great American storytelling at its finest. I spent the 40 days before I deployed to Iraq driving around the country. In the 10,000 miles I drove, I saw places like this. In DC, in cities, it's easy to forget that vast expanse. Thanks.

Posted by: RobJC | September 1, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

How profoundly sad this is. It is a portrait of a culture still destabilized by colonialism, even a hundred years after the fact. The irony is that if they still lived off the land like they have done as a people for thousands of years, they would not need the money we think they need and would have the activity and purpose needed for human self worth. And it wouldn't it be eco-friendly too. I question that work for money is the only key to success and happiness.

Posted by: sara9 | September 1, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

sara9, have you ever been to Allen, SD or other areas near there? I have. Unfortunately there is no way you can live off that land (unless you have a ranch of 10s of thousands of acres), it is quite barren. There are no resources there, no water, no trees, it is miles from anything. These people were thrown off decent land into a "wasteland" that no one cared about and promptly forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind, sadly. The only way out is to move (far) away.

Posted by: iwont | September 1, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

"Don't need the money we think they need"...? who in this world DOESN'T need money??? are you serious? If we as natives still lived off the land as we did for thousands of years...then we'd be fighting you and everyone else to stay off of it so that we could sustain our livelihood...makes about as much sense as your ironic comment huh? I'm happy you guys wrote this article, it shows that there are so many places in our country that need help, assistance, HERE. We should build and invest in our cultures...many of the stereotypes regarding natives are so incorrect. We don't all have casinos, receive large per capita checks or farm, our communities are effected just like everyone else...

Posted by: GetDOE | September 1, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

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