Diane Sawyer Reporting: “A Hidden America: Children of the Plains” on Friday, October 14

By David Ford

Oct 11, 2011 3:41pm

Diane Sawyer Takes an In-Depth look at the Young Dreamers and Survivors of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Fighting Against Decades of Neglect Airing Friday, October 14, 10 pm ET on ABC

Diane Sawyer travels to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where some of the proudest Americans, living in unthinkable conditions, refuse to be defeated: a young girl filled with “American Idol” dreams, yet facing a life-changing reality; a high school quarterback whose strength and spirit knows no bounds; a magical little girl filled with hope. For over a year, as she has done with the poverty-stricken children from parts of Appalachia and Camden, New Jersey, Sawyer and her team followed young fighters and dreamers, this time from the Lakota Indian Tribe in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, living in the shadows of Mount Rushmore. A once-mighty people desperately trying to hold on, Sawyer finds that even with all of its grinding poverty and alcoholism, it’s a place from which warriors can still rise. Diane Sawyer Investigates – “A Hidden America: Children of the Plains” airs on “20/20″, FRIDAY, OCTOBER 14 (10:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network.

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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, is one of the 565 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States. It is home to an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people, most of whom identify as Oglala Lakota Sioux. The reservation is 2.2 million acres, roughly the size of Connecticut, and the residents boast a rich cultural history and deep-seeded spirituality.

Unfortunately, the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge now live amidst levels of poverty that rival that of the third world. 47% of individuals on Pine Ridge are living below the federal poverty level, 65%-80% of the adults are unemployed, and rampant alcoholism and an obesity epidemic combine with underfunded schools to help make it a rough place to grow up.

But in the midst of such economic despair, there are youth across the reservation who are breaking through the hopelessness with huge dreams and powerful stories. Twelve-year-old Robert Looks Twice is captain of his middle school football team, a prize-winning traditional dancer at pow-wows, president of the student council, with the biggest dream of all: to be the first Native American president. He lives with his grandmother, uncle and eight cousins, helps feed his family with his pow-wow prize money.

Alaina Clifford is a bright, well-spoken 18-year-old cheerleader, singer, and actress, known for having the best singing voice at Little Wound High School. Alaina is dating athlete and star student Montana Sierra, who graduated from the only private school on the reservation, Red Cloud Indian School, with a free ride to college from the prestigious Millennium Gates Scholarship and a dream to be an architect. But the two face a harsh reality when Alaina unexpectedly becomes pregnant only four months after they begin dating. Now Alaina has to face tough choices about her next steps, unsure of whether or not she can follow her dreams.

Twelve-year-old Louise Clifford loves reading and math, and is learning how to speak Lakota. Her spirituality is very important to her, as is her horse, Glory Bee. But Louise struggles with an extremely unstable home life – her alcoholic mother Sissy struggles to hold down a job and keep the power and heat on throughout a harsh winter. Louise tried to commit suicide when she was just 11 years old and now her teachers and counselors are rallying around her.

Little Tashina Iron Horse is only five years old but has a huge personality – chatty and vivacious, a bubbly student in her kindergarten class, and a tiny but talented pow-wow dancer. Tashina lives in government housing with her grandmother, parents, siblings and uncles – sometimes 19 people live in the three bedroom house together. Tashina wants to grow up to be a cop, a career choice inspired by her mother, who works long hours as a security guard at the reservation’s casino 45 minutes away. Her father DJ is getting his GED and applying for a position in the tribe’s fire department when tragedy strikes the family.

“A Hidden America: Children of the Plains” also profiles law enforcement officials, schools, individuals and businesses that are helping to change Pine Ridge for the better.

“A Hidden America: Children of the Plains” continues Diane Sawyer’s commitment to award-winning reporting on places on the margins. In January 2007, Ms. Sawyer delivered an eye-opening report on poverty in America, “Waiting on the World to Change,” which gave viewers insight into the lives of families in Camden, New Jersey – the poorest city in America.  The report was honored with several awards including a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, an Emmy Award, and the 2008 Casey Medal from the Journalism Center on Children & Families.  Ms. Sawyer and her team of producers then spent two years in the hills of Appalachia reporting the February 2009 special “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains,” which won a Peabody Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

David Sloan is executive producer.

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