PINE RIDGE, S.D. -- When the president came to town, Geraldine Blue Bird was lucky enough to be living in a four-room shack with 28 other people.
Had she been better off, President Bill Clinton's 1999 summer "poverty tour" to the Oglala Lakota Sioux reservation might have overlooked her house among all the other cabins and trailers doing hard time in her neighborhood. But even in the poorest patch of the poorest place in the country, the Blue Bird residence stood out.
Children spilled out the doors, plywood covered the windows, and an outhouse stood near the wreck of a pop-up camper -- used as an extra bedroom -- in the back yard. When Clinton touched down here to point out that parts of the United States were as in need of help as developing countries, he called on Blue Bird. Soon after, she received a call from Ronald I. Dozoretz, a Washington psychiatrist and husband of a major Democratic Party fundraiser. He was buying her a four-bedroom double-wide mobile home -- what color did she want?
Now, Blue Bird's double-wide, baby blue with black shutters, is the biggest house on her block. It only looks small, since she still takes in about two dozen children and young people, along with her son, daughter and four grandchildren. Pick a day and kids are sprawling and roller-skating across the living room, running around the bald front yard and climbing on the pine ramp out front that Blue Bird, who is 48 and has congestive heart failure, needs for her wheelchair. Still, she and everyone else here will tell you that her house was the best thing to come out of the first presidential visit to a reservation in more than 60 years.
Many people say it was the only good thing. Five years after that visit, all the hopes Clinton stirred have amounted to very little. The house across the street from Blue Bird's still has no windows and no running water. Same goes for the one next to it, and the one next to that one. Beyond this neighborhood of brittle hovels one bad storm away from becoming firewood, the Pine Ridge Reservation is besieged by problems decades in the making and beyond its ability to fix.
More Lakotas who had left are returning to the Plains, preferring to live among their own people rather than in relative comfort on the outside. But failings of the federal government -- from mismanaging Indian money held in trust to shortchanging programs it is legally bound to fund -- continually undermine efforts here at self-help.
Things are not much better on some other reservations. The Navajos in the Southwest, the Crow tribe in Montana and the Comanches in Oklahoma are also very poor, while some other tribes -- even without casinos -- have seen their living standards rise in recent decades. But Native American poverty rarely makes the national political agenda, except during campaign season.
This year is no exception. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) visited Gallup, N.M., promising Navajos and Hopis that as president he would honor treaties and Native American sovereignty. Earlier, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson (R) visited the Navajo reservation and promised to do a better job of combating diabetes and other diseases ravaging the tribe.
But skepticism of campaign pledges runs deep in Indian country, given the government's history of broken promises. The federal government has acknowledged that it has grossly mishandled money it began collecting in the late 1880s, when it leased reservation land to oil, mining and timber interests and held the proceeds in trust for Indians.
The government owes Native Americans billions, but a class-action lawsuit filed eight years ago on behalf of nearly 500,000 Indians is still unresolved.
Meanwhile, on Pine Ridge, three and four families live in single-family houses, eight to nine out of 10 people are out of work, and more than half the population, helpless against disconnect notices, has no phone in any given month.
The Lakota can revel in a few hopeful signs. Tribal culture is undergoing a renaissance, after decades during which the federal government put Indian children into English-language-only boarding schools and banned sun dances. The Oglala Sioux Tribal College graduated 179 students this spring, its largest class since it was accredited in 1983. And the buffalo, nearly killed off during the Gold Rush and the westward expansion, are returning. In June, a seed herd of 15 yearlings was brought to the reservation in the hope that they will become multitudes.
But barely a week passes here without a fresh roadside cross going up for yet another car accident victim, or a cloud of black smoke rising from yet another trailer fire.
One afternoon, as the remains of two trailers simmered on the horizon -- propane fires, most likely -- Blue Bird was sitting in her kitchen, minding eight children, from 4 months to 12 years old, as they watched a "Scooby Doo" cartoon. The screen door kept banging open and shut, with kids going in and out, letting the flies inside. Fingerprints were all over the walls, footprints all over the floor. "Auntie Geraldine" was grateful the house was still in one piece.