CENSUS 2000: In Indian country, high numbers of young, single mothers

Saturday, June 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) _ Amid the exodus of youth from the Plains are four Dakota counties with sobering similarities: They are among the nation's youngest, they have startlingly high numbers of single mothers and all are on American Indian reservations.

Shannon County, on the Pine Ridge reservation, had the highest percentage of children under 18 living with single mothers in the United States last year _ 21.4 percent, more than double the statewide average.

Nearby Todd County was second and Buffalo County was fifth. North Dakota's Sioux County was ranked fourth, with 19 percent of its households headed by single moms.

``Seems low to me,'' said Jeff Sheets, who lives on the Standing Rock reservation and serves as Sioux County's prosecutor.

He said there are many reasons for the situation, including ``almost zero'' employment opportunities on the reservation and religious prohibitions against birth control.

All the counties include or border reservations for the Sioux, the tribe known for Wounded Knee and legendary leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

But many Sioux are mired in poverty and battles with alcohol; Shannon County is the nation's poorest, with unemployed estimated at 80 percent.

In the town of Pine Ridge, Alma Brewer runs Flowering Tree, a drug and alcohol treatment program for mothers and pregnant women. She sees young women who don't have the self-confidence to say no and blames young men who don't take responsibility for their children.

She also said Indian culture does not consider abortion an option.

``It's not part of our culture because some family member will raise that child and take care of it. We don't believe in abortion, so the extended family steps in,'' Brewer said.

Nancy Nelson, director of the State Data Center at the University of South Dakota, said Shannon, Todd and Buffalo counties have larger-than-average households. Shannon County led the way with 4.72 people per household, compared with a statewide figure of 3.16.

The birth rates are also much higher than the rest of the state. In 1999, the latest year for which numbers are available, there were 34.1 births per 1,000 people in Shannon County, 27.2 in Todd and 22.7 in Buffalo. The statewide birth rate was 15.1.

The boom helped the number of Indians in South Dakota increase 23 percent in the past decade. They comprise the state's largest minority group.

``As birth rates have stayed high, they're a larger and larger part of the state population,'' said James Satterlee of the Census Data Center at South Dakota State University.

And it's a young population. Shannon County had the second-lowest median age nationwide, at 20.6 years. Todd County was fourth-lowest and Buffalo County the eighth-lowest.

Besides birth rates, Satterlee said, the figures are partly explained by lower life expectancy on Indian reservations.

At Flowering Tree, some of the women talk about young love when asked about single motherhood.

``The glamour about love when you think you're in love,'' explained Donna, a 32-year-old mother of six, including three children born out of wedlock.

She got pregnant at 16 and gave up her first child for adoption without anyone knowing. She described herself and her parents as alcoholics at the time.

``I was afraid to tell my mother I was pregnant. I knew I couldn't tell my dad because he would kill me,'' said Donna, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used.

She later got the baby back and raised the child. She said she had two other babies and had two abortions before she married. As a wife, she had three children but gave one up for adoption _ taboo in some Indian cultures.

``I get a lot of flak from my family to this day,'' Donna said.

Tricia, a mother of two, got pregnant at 18 because she, too, thought she was in love. She's in her 30s.

``For me, at home, I didn't get the love I needed,'' Tricia said. ``To the young girls: Do not become a single mother at an early age.''

Both women echoed Brewer's comments about the responsibility of men.

``It's usually an older man after a teen-age girl and having a baby and leaving her and going on to another woman. It's got to stop,'' Donna said.

Brewer, who also is a board member at Red Cloud Indian School, said mothers in her treatment program occasionally talk to girls about the responsibilities of motherhood. She said she is seeing fewer babies in school.

``Maybe they're hearing something,'' Brewer said. ``Maybe the fad's over.''