Storm Takes Steep Toll on Destitute Tribe
Thousands of Downed Power Poles Leave South Dakota Sioux Reservation Without Heat, Water; Melting Snow to Use in Toilets.
By JOEL MILLMAN, Wall Street Journal
28 Jan 2010
A tiny tribe of Lakota Sioux has been battling wind, rain and subzero temperatures this week as ice storms lash one of the U.S.'s poorest communities and leave thousands without electricity, heat or drinking water.
"There's been winters this bad before, but not with rain so bad it freezes the power lines and snaps the poles," said Joseph Brings Plenty, the 38-year old chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, whose reservation lies about 200 miles northeast of Rapid City, S.D. The tribal chairman said 500 power lines were brought down in a blizzard in November, and that between 2,000 and 3,000 more have been lost since Friday from ice storms.
The Cheyenne River tribe is made up of four of the seven bands of Lakota Sioux Indians in the Dakotas, whose reservations also include the Pine Ridge, Standing Rock and Rosebud bands. Power-line damage across all reservations may exceed 5,000 downed poles, which tribal authorities said may take weeks or months for utility companies to repair.
"These events are showing just how painfully inadequate our emergency response capabilities are. Because of one ice storm, we had over 3,000 downed electrical lines and mass power outages," said Tracey Fischer, chief executive and president of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a national nonprofit working on economic development in Indian country.
"There has been looting of homes and businesses by people desperate for food and water. Schools have been out of session for a week and will likely be unable to open their doors for at least another week," said Ms. Fischer, a member of the Cheyenne River tribe.
With just 10,000 residents spread across 2.8 million acres, many Cheyenne River families depend on electricity transmitted across hundreds of empty miles to run pumps for drinking water, or to power the ignition modules on natural-gas and propane heaters.
The Cheyenne River tribe set up emergency shelters across the reservation in tiny towns with names like Eagle Butte, Cherry Creek, Swiftbird and Whitehorse.
Last year the tribe earned $175,000 leasing land to nontribal ranchers and deposited the money in an emergency fund. That fund is now exhausted, the tribal chairman said. A special Wells Fargo account established to help raise funds to evacuate tribal members with medical needs brought in just $450 in donations on its first day, said Eileen Briggs, a Cheyenne River Tribal executive.
Like most U.S. tribes, the Cheyenne River Sioux function as a sovereign nation on their reservation of 10,000 residents. An additional 8,000 Cheyenne River Sioux live off the reservation, mostly in Rapid City. The tribe manages its internal affairs and runs its own police force and court, but receives grants and subsidies from the federal U.S. government, as virtually all American Indian tribes do
Just 11 tribal police patrol an area the size of Connecticut. They have been warning residents who remained in their homes to ventilate frequently lest carbon-monoxide fumes build up from gas stoves, a potentially fatal hazard.
"We've had 20-degree-below days; some people are burning wood in their homes," said Mr. Brings Plenty.
The tribe also evacuated more than 40 elderly members to motels in Rapid City and Aberdeen, mainly so they could have access to thrice-weekly kidney dialysis treatments that had been provided on the reservation. Nearly 20 kidney patients were evacuated to the Oglala Sioux band's Pine Ridge reservation, where another dialysis station was still functioning. Those evacuees were staying at their sister tribe's Prairie Wind Casino.
"Normally family members take care of these patients, but with no gas or electricity, and blizzard conditions, we needed a caravan to get them out," said Ms. Briggs. The first van caravan traveled on icy roads, finally reaching Rapid City last Thursday. More patients came on Sunday.
Kidney patient Lennie Granados, 59, left his home after its water supply ran out, and is now at the Super 8 motel in Rapid City. "I get reports from my family," he said. "They're out there melting snow and keeping a look out for any water they can use, you know, to flush toilets and stuff."
The Cheyenne River tribe has for years asked Congress for funds to restore its ancient water system, which Mr. Brings Plenty said was decades overdue for an upgrade. The total cost would be about $65 million, which may be hard to raise in Washington in the current budget-cutting atmosphere. Some tribal members lamented the chaos, and how hard the current generation of Sioux was finding life on their native ground.
"A long time ago there were tough Lakota people who knew how to survive. Their teepees were pretty warm, too," said Mr. Brings Plenty. "Times have changed, and the people have changed, too."