Guest Column: A Block off Main Street

American Indian activist James Cadwell submits this essay on the decline of white Chamberlain and that border town’s opportunity to recover by embracing its only growing demographic, the Lakota people:

The term reservation border town has always brought up the worst remembrances for me. As a child and later as an adult I always lived in close proximity to one such town, Chamberlain, South Dakota.

As I was growing up, I witnessed many less than desirable incidences that have left scars both physically and emotionally. As I visited another reservation border town last week I couldn’t help but notice the number of houses boarded up or in need of repair just a block off main street. In addition, I saw a large number on businesses on Main Street that are just a memory today of this once thriving community. I could not imagine that this was the reality/fate that the generation before had planned. This community refused to acknowledge the changing demographic of its community, loss of youth and the tremendous growth of the Native American population. What once appeared to them as detriment was now their attribute for the future economic growth of that community.

For many years the reservations of Lower Brule and Crow Creek have been treated as a burden by the city of Chamberlain. It is now apparent that just the opposite is in place. Many Native youth are moving to Chamberlain in an effort to create some independence for themselves and their new families. Chamberlain is losing its non-native youth at an alarming rate. Many have left for work, school or because of the often racist mentality (millennials for the most part refuse to participate in this type of behavior) of some of the city’s members. The median age of Chamberlain is now somewhere around 47 years of age with a newest percentage of that population being native youth that have moved into Chamberlain for jobs.  The median age of Fort Thompson and Lower Brule, home to Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations, is just slightly over 21 years of age.

Sadly, Chamberlain has been in a state of denial that they are in fact dependent of both of these reservations for:

1. Economic development—Current expansion of businesses is totally dependent on the youth, this is only growing on the reservations.  Housing development is based on native youth and young native families moving to Chamberlain.  Many could argue that the Native youth are not buying the new houses as a result your statistics are wrong. I would agree, however the houses that are left when a family builds a new house or upgrades are now being utilized by this new urban native population.

2. Entry level employees—While Natives make up less than 10% of the population in Chamberlain, they now fill nearly 1/3 of all the entry level jobs.

3. School expansion—nearly 1/3 of the school budget comes from Federal Impact Aid dollars and taxes now being paid by Native Americans living there.

The Governor’s 2010 initiative, a study done several years ago, was meant to help Chamberlain identify what needs to be in place to further the economic development and stabilize the current down dwindling economy. Requested by the powers that be in Chamberlain in 2007, the report clearly identified Crow Creek and Lower Brule as major contributors to the future existence of Chamberlain. The report has all but disappeared from the record and memories of the people who denied that there should be any type of effort to work with the reservations for the future of the city of Chamberlain. As a participant in the discussion about future economic development, I noticed the now mayor, bank executive, city council members, county commissioners, business owners, school board members and the general public all hearing the same recommendations from the report. As the quote from the report says: “You need to include both Crow Creek and Lower Brule in your plan” (Governor’s 2010 Initiative, South Dakota Rural Development Council). I would challenge you to ask those people involved from Chamberlain, so what happened to the recommendations?

Are Chamberlain’s leaders contributing to the mass exodus of your youth population by their own inactivity or are they contributing to the fundamental ideas shared in the report that would helping a positive way to perpetuate the future economic growth of Chamberlain?

Educationally things are changing in South Dakota. Within the next three years every school will be required to include the Oceti Sakowin (standards that relate to Native American history, culture, and language) into their curriculum. This is a direct result of Governor Daugaard’s sharing his concern with the deficiencies in academic success for educating Native children in the state’s public schools. Three pilot schools will be given the first chance at incorporating this changes with a grant during Fiscal Year 2017. A small group of parents of Native children in Chamberlain schools tried unsuccessfully for the past seven years to implement this soon to be mandatory change. Now without the assistance of any school administration or school board input, it will become a reality for all schools by the year 2020. I can only imagine how much further the school, educational staff, and students could be if this would have happened years ago. It is a proven fact that these changes in curriculum will decrease the low test scores that plague these students and the high dropout rate among Native youth in Chamberlain and across the rest of South Dakota. In addition, it will create a better understanding for Non-native students, administration and school board about the positive contributions of Native people in South Dakota.  Lastly, it will finally create a positive view for Native students about those positive contributions their own people made in this state we call home.

As I mentioned earlier the term reservation border town has a negative connotation in most instances. I took the liberty to give both positive and negative examples that can result from this title.

So what are some of the advantages to being a reservation border town?

1. You have one of the youngest work forces in the state at your disposal.

2. The work force will be around for the next twenty or so years.

3. The need for additional housing will create a constant need for new homes, resulting in economic development.

4. Your school system can continually expand with the native median age contributing as the newest students for years to come. The result is less tax burden on a limited population and still attainment of a quality education.

5. Your largest employers are dependent on Native people for their success. The Saint Joseph Indian school has a 50-plus-million-dollar annual budget. At Chamberlain’s Sanford Health 80 to 90 percent of the births at the hospital are Native. Indian patients contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the hospital through Indian Health Service dollars. Native enrollment in the public school system has grown by nearly 40 percent in the last eight years; those students contribute through Impact Aid funding between $800,000 and $1,000,000 annually to the schools budget.

6. Increased cultural awareness in the community is a great way to start breaking down barriers that have been in place for years between the communities.

7.  Many tourists to Chamberlain area ask about the nine tribes that make their home in South Dakota. Tourism provides South Dakota many financial rewards.

8.  Being a good neighbor and making the first move to build the bridge goes much further than maintaining the current wall of resistance to mutual cultural respect.

9. Chamberlain is in the right place at the right time to enter cooperative change that will benefit all three communities.

10. Chamberlainis close to a community college at Lower Brule that continues to provide post-educational options for citizens from Chamberlain area. Many of the youth require post-secondary education as one of the reasons to stay at home. Imagine what cooperative opportunities could be developed between these two entities.

We must still contend with the disadvantages of remaining a reservation border town:

1. The town’s economic development remains stagnant with the exception of Native contribution.

2. The town follows suit as many small towns do in South Dakota one by one businesses close as youth continue to leave, leading to a ghost town effect.

3. Failure to begin a dialogue with the reservations and their needs and ideas for success will result in a limited future for any type of development for Chamberlain.

4. Failure to recognize the positive contributions that the reservation make to the community will further add to the community’s own bias about what economic reality really is.

5. Failure to acknowledge the contributions that a joint venture between Chamberlain and the Crow Creek and Lower Brule tribes will only result in potential customers taking their business to larger more diverse communities, just as the non-native youth has done.

6. The image portrayed across South Dakota is negative when it comes to openness with regards to acceptance of cultural diversity.

7. As the newest generation (millennials) start to assume their role as future leaders, they will not tolerate bias toward different culture and races often displayed by border towns.

So what does this all mean for the future of Chamberlain? It would appear to me that the city’s options are very limited due to the mass exodus of its youth. Failure to identify with these above-mentioned statistical changes in your town Chamberlain will result in a slow death “TO A BLOCK OFF MAIN STREET” and eventually Main Street itself.

James Cadwell

Demographic note: Chamberlain’s population peaked in the 1970 Census at 2,626. Sitting right on I-90 and the Missouri River, with easy access to transportation and recreation, its population has hung around 2,400 for the last two and a half decades. As a gateway to walleyes and the West, Chamberlain ought to be growing. Cadwell sees the student and worker base just north of Chamberlain that should boost that growth.


12 Responses to Guest Column: A Block off Main Street

  1. Thanks Jim, well said…growing up been through all that negative going to Chamberlain. It’s 2016 and still difficult to accept us. Some have, with a good heart, Bless them. We put millions of dollars toward this town, we come with a good heart too. What have they been taught? About us? We can only met them halfway……..

  2. Paul Seamans

    The Chamberlain School Board refused to allow an honoring song at last years graduation. An honoring song instead was held afterwards in the parking lot. From video on the internet it appeared that many non-native people participated in the ceremony. Maybe there is hope.

  3. Roger Nehring

    As I walked to the dentist this morning I noticed three buildings/businesses with for sale sign in their windows, Froggy B’s Antiques, Indulgence Bistro and the taxidermy/antique place. The Derby is almost never open anymore and these sales are indicative of trends in small towns throughout the Midwest. You make great points Jim, I wonder who may pay attention.

  4. Don Coyote

    I believe with the opening of the I90 Lewis and Clark Bridge in 1974, Chamberlain started it’s decline. Before, all of I90 traffic took a detour on US 16 through Chamberlain. Not anymore. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in Chamberlain. I just blow by on I90 and if I stop it’s usually at Al’s Oasis across the river.

  5. Fighting tooth n nail against the natives by the school board and by the community over building a casino in Oacoma just relives and perpetuates racial disparity that existed for years in “border towns” . Even tho many grew as a result of rez business.

    Wow a nice casino on I-90? I think everyone in South Dakota would benefit from that.

    Very well written article by Mr Cadwell. Poignant.

    Paul Seamans just likes to visit with us natives cause he knows we will have soup n frybread…even out in the middle of the Prairie somewhere.

    Just kidding Paul. We really appreciate you.

  6. Wanda Blacksmith Peacock

    I was bussed off the reservation to a white high school. I have scars and emotions with feelings of not being quite good enough. Some of us were ‘sort of’ accepted but it was an obvious division with faltering acceptance of our culture and color. I have positive feelings of our educators. Most were very fair and accepting but not all. I feel I have much to contribute to this topic but want to be certain that I myself am fair.

  7. Matt Rankin

    By 2035, the Lakota will outnumber the wasicun is SD. Don’t meet them in the middle, let Karma run it’s full and brutal course.

  8. Thanks for publishing this letter Cory. Our state is at a point where progress depends on openness to other people and ideas. The old ways of doing things aren’t working today. Perhaps they never did. Let’s change things up in the legislation next year.

  9. 2035? Holy cow, Matt! We’d better make more babies! ;-)

  10. Don C addresses geography and urban planning, not the deep cultural divide, but his point about the new I-90 crossing is well taken. How many people go to downtown Chamberlain for lunch on their way across the state, and how many go no further than the Taco John’s and Pizza Hut at the Exit 263, or just stop in Oacoma at Burger King or Al’s Oasis? Chamberlain may still get revenue from I-90 traffic, but Main Street takes a hit when the Interstate runs elsewhere.

  11. Wade Brandis

    When it comes to going past Chamberlain/Oacoma for our travels, we usually just stop at the Dakota Shell for snacks and restroom break. Oacoma no longer has a Burger King as it was converted into an Arby’s about 10+ years ago. There used to be Casey’s Drug and Jewelry and cafe on the hill next to Pizza Hut and Taco John’s, but it closed down and it became the Gateway West sports bar and restaurant.

    There are billboards on the Interstate advertising motels that are located in downtown Chamberlain and they also advertise some area attractions like the Akta Lakota Museum. Strangely, the McDonald’s is located downtown, and not near I-90, so the downtown restaurants have had to compete with a fast food joint for years.

    I wonder how many people read those little visitor guide magazines that you find in motel rooms or sitting on a rack in the entrance of a truck stop? There is a Chamberlain/Oacoma visitors guide that does list restaurants and downtown businesses that most people driving by on I-90 usually don’t know about.

  12. Arby’s! Of course—I’ve eaten there several times. I should have remembered.

    Downtown Chamberlain is a nice break from the Interstate/Exit vibe.