President Clinton came to the poorest spot in the nation today, vowing to improve housing and create jobs for Native Americans, many of whom treasure their past but face deeply uncertain futures.
In contrast to the first three stops on his four-day, six-state tour of impoverished areas, Clinton could not talk about bringing significant retail and manufacturing jobs. First, the Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation here must remedy far more basic problems: repairing or replacing the dilapidated shacks and trailers that house several thousand residents and bringing running water and telephones to the many who lack it on this expanse of 2 million acres, 38,000 people and not a single bank.
Clinton is the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to visit an Indian reservation, and in Pine Ridge, he selected the hardest-hit of all. Even as national unemployment is about 4.2 percent, it stands at 72 percent here. Life expectancy--45 years--is the nation's lowest.
After comforting a woman who oversees a 28-member extended family in a small house and mobile home, Clinton addressed several hundred reservation residents, some of them wearing traditional feather headdresses under a brilliant sun. The president, who wore a dark suit and cowboy boots, told them it was "wrong" that no president since FDR had made a such trip, and he pledged to draw greater attention to the Indians' plight.
Unemployment nationally is below 5 percent, but "the unemployment rate on this hallowed reservation is nearly 75 percent. That is appalling, and we can do better," he said.
Aides portrayed today's stop as the highlight of Clinton's "new markets initiative" tour, which trumpets new government tax credits, loan guarantees and other subsidies to entice companies to invest in economically distressed regions. As in earlier stops, the president announced public and private steps designed to bring some of the nation's good economic fortune to places such as Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and Indian reservations.
They include a new government partnership with private lenders to issue enough mortgages to create "1,000 additional homeowners on reservations around the nation," according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Also, municipal securities underwriters have agreed to back $1.5 billion in bonds that also will help Native Americans buy homes.
Today featured the most pageantry and pathos yet on the tour, which ends Thursday in Los Angeles. Clinton was met by tribal chiefs, some of them wearing traditional costumes and singing chants in the Lakota language.
The president responded by greeting the crowd in Lakota: "Mita oyasni"--"We are all related."
Stressing the need to improve conditions on the reservations, Clinton said, "If we can't do this now, we will never get around to doing it. So let us give ourselves a gift for the 21st century--an America where no one is left behind and everyone has a chance."
Clinton encouraged cultivation of the Internet on the reservation as a way to bring in jobs. "The explosion of computer technology and the Internet--if you know how to use it and you know how to deliver for others with it--has literally made the distance barrier almost insignificant for many kinds of economic activity.
"So I want to implore you to use your tribal college and work with these companies and make the most of the skills they are offering, and we can get the jobs to come here once you can do them," the president said.
Earlier, he toured some of the most run-down homes in Pine Ridge, including that of Geraldine Blue Bird, 44. In her small clapboard house and an adjacent trailer, she and 27 relatives live, heavily reliant on public assistance. The woman fought back tears as she told the president that she struggles to buy shoes for her children and that 80 percent of the people on her block live on government welfare programs.
"If you brought jobs here, that's the first step to helping us out," Blue Bird told Clinton.
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 they make ends meet when nobody has a job. How in the world do you actually pay these bills?"
In a nearby house, Oglala Sioux President Harold Salway escorted Clinton through two bedrooms and a living room that featured cardboard boxes for garbage cans and holes in the walls as big as cantaloupes. "This is commonplace on the reservation," Salway said. "A lot of people live like this."
Clinton folded his arms and nodded grimly.
CAPTION: President Clinton toured Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota with Oglala Sioux President Harold Salway.