What I Learnt From An Unexpected US Mid-West Adventure (3 min read)

Mongolia. Bolivia. Pine Ridge (South Dakota, US). What do these 3 places have in common? Well, the average income per person is around $3,500 per year. Yes, you read that correct – there are places in the US with the same income levels as a Third World country. I learnt that during a recent holiday in the US, where I first visited Las Vegas to see some family that live there. While Las Vegas has its own unique sense of aesthetics that seem to pop up in deserts, I did feel the need to have a time-out from Vegas. So I worked out which part of the US is the poorest, and decided to visit it. It turns out to be the aforementioned Pine Ridge in South Dakota.

Back to less glittering basics

As you’d expect there were no re-created pyramids, Eiffel Towers or Manhattans in Pine Ridge. Instead, it was sparsely populated with trailers serving as homes. There were no Starbucks or any of the usual chains. The best restaurant didn’t have any vegan, gluten-free or low GI items, think truckers cafe instead (see picture above for the coolest coffee place and below for the best restaurant). As for the local residents, they were Lakota Native Americans and Pine Ridge was a reservation.

Real America

Now, it may be easy to sub-consciously think that reservations or Native Americans somehow don’t count as “regular” America. But aside from the  irony of not treating Native Americans as true Americans, I learnt that they have disproportionately fought for the US in major wars (see picture).

I also learnt that the US government, not the tribe, owns the reservations. Locals live on the land as communal tenants. This means that individual can’t really own their property or land, hence the prevalence of mobile trailers as homes (see picture). It means that locals can’t get mortgages, which makes it very difficult to raise capital for investment in local ventures and has hindered the local economy for a long time.

Supporting yourself

My complaints then of the lack of almond milk, smashed avocado and strong WIFI signal felt a bit misguided. Thankfully, I didn’t vocalise these complaints and quickly switched to humble mode – that is a non-London/big city mode. What I learned was that the locals were keen to become as self-sufficient as possible.

One initiative called the Thunder Valley CDC was housing development that was using renewable energy sources, building chicken coups and underground green-houses (see picture). The idea was that if the national grid ever went down, they could still survive. This fits neatly with the American tradition of survivalists, preppers and doomers – all of whom are preparing for the Mad Max-style full system failure.

Tradition helps

Another lesson I learnt was how tradition was helping the locals. There was a real effort to revive some core principles of the Lakota tradition, especially for the youngsters. These included: woinila (silence), woicu (acceptance), wowicala (trust), wiiciglusna (to give of oneself), wacintanka (patience), wawoslolye (knowledge), wowahwa (peace, a quieting), and woksape (to be discerning).

These qualities definitely were reflected in many of elders, who exuded a calm that I would struggle with given their material circumstances. The principles seem to echo those of stoicism or taoism. Or in more pop culture terms: Bruce Lee’s “become like water, my friend” or the Matrix’s Morpheus “You have to let it go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind.”


So if you ever want to feel grounded and humbled I’d recommend visiting Pine Ridge (I’m happy to share logistics details). It will remind big-city dwellers how others in much poorer material circumstances live even in “rich countries”, it would give an opportunity to support others and it can provide some personal growth. Ticks all the boxes!