Residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota are no strangers to extreme weather. Every winter carries the risk of a major blizzard, and spring temperatures can dip as low as minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit and reach as high as 86 F.
But in March 2019, this region saw a new extreme: a huge snowstorm immediately followed by rapid melting that resulted in major flooding. According to Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesperson for the Oglala Lakota Nation (the tribal government based in Pine Ridge), “Nearly every creek or river was flooding on some level.”
The spring flood highlighted both the importance of preparation for extreme weather and the need for effective recovery strategies. People living on the reservation are acutely aware of how the current state of affairs leaves them vulnerable to weather events. They’re working to decrease the potential for future disasters to cause even more damage by increasing access to locally grown food, advocating for sufficient government support, and, though it might seem less relevant, revitalizing the Lakota language.
First, you need to understand a little bit about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The reservation, which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, is made up of several small communities that are in “constant disaster mode” due to widespread poverty, limited housing, and health concerns, according to Iron Eyes. More than 50 percent of reservation residents live in poverty, often in overcrowded homes, and food insecurity is prevalent. “Our community is already financially vulnerable, so when a disaster hits, it upsets the entire balance even more.” Oglala Lakota people have been forced to find ways to cope with hardship before, and this flood recovery (and climate change more broadly) is no different.
One of the most immediate problems is food security. Oglala Lakota County recently scored an 0.2 out of 10 in the County Health Rankings food environment index, meaning that it is very unlikely for residents to afford and consistently access healthy food. Tatewin Means knows this well, as the executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC), an indigenous-led nonprofit focused on improving conditions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Means grew up on the reservation and now lives in Rapid City, S. Dak., the nearest urban center—more than 90 miles from tribal headquarters.
Means says that “99 percent” of food available on the reservation is shipped in from elsewhere, or people drive all the way to Rapid City just to buy food. Because of the reservation’s rural location, Pine Ridge residents have always been vulnerable to disruptions when travel is difficult. Even during an average winter, snow-covered or flooded roads can prevent food from reaching hungry residents who can’t just walk to a nearby grocery store.
But this spring’s flood was larger and more extreme than anyone can remember. “Something is definitely going on. People who have lived here their whole lives have never seen White Clay Creek flooded at this level,” says Iron Eyes, referring to a typically calm creek in the western part of the reservation.
Many of the tribal government vehicles were damaged during the historic storm, making it difficult or impossible to deliver aid throughout the huge reservation. Many residents live in houses only accessible by dirt roads, which require heavy-duty vehicles when the weather is poor. In response, community members shared food to ensure that people isolated by washed out roads still had enough to eat, according to Ernest Weston Jr., a Pine Ridge resident who also works for TVCDC.
Food independence can make or break a community’s ability to thrive after a disaster. For example, before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico imported 85 percent of its food—much like Pine Ridge. When the hurricane came through, the normal supply chain was disrupted. It took days or longer for aid to arrive in some communities. Now, there’s a movement to source more food from the island, reducing dependence on outside sources and vulnerability to disruption.
That’s why TVCDC has implemented several projects that aim to improve the reservation’s independence. They have been fighting for increased food sovereignty for years by building community gardens and a demonstration farm. In addition to the practical considerations of easier access to healthy, low-cost food, Means sees independence as an inherently valuable tool for the whole community. These programs make it possible for Pine Ridge residents to produce culturally appropriate food.
“Self-sufficiency is a fundamental building block of self-determination and true sovereignty,” Means says. “It’s hard to exist in a liberated state of mind when it feels like our communities are always in crisis mode. That’s more apparent when things like this happen,” she continued, referring to March’s flooding.
That said, no amount of food sovereignty can eliminate the need for aid during a major storm or crisis. No matter the size of the disaster, government resources can only be stretched so far. The Lakota Times reported that 13 members of the South Dakota National Guard came to Pine Ridge to distribute water this March. Each of the 13 guardsmen would need to cover an area about the size of Chicago to serve the whole reservation (which encompasses 3,400 square miles spread over nine districts). The tribal council’s office argued that the Oglala Lakota Nation is “economically, politically and legally disadvantaged,” making it difficult to request and receive outside assistance when necessary.
In April, Julian Bear Runner, president of the Oglala Lakota Nation, wrote a public letter to San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. He expressed solidarity with Puerto Rico, given how slowly both Pine Ridge and Puerto Rico received aid from their neighbors, writing, “Our mutual situation makes you wonder: Why does President Trump refuse to send needed aid to poor communities of color in the aftermath of natural disasters?”
But even when requesting aid, the Oglala Lakota Nation maintained its sovereignty: officials elected to pursue aid from FEMA separately from the state of South Dakota. “Seeking this declaration is an expression of the inherent sovereign status of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” Iron Eyes told KSFY. Although it wasn’t granted until June, this year was the tribe’s first time receiving a federal disaster declaration independently from the state.
As winter begins again, Pine Ridge has a long road ahead: between 75 and 100 buildings were damaged or destroyed in the spring, displacing around 100 families and causing an estimated $10 million in damages. Both nonprofit organizations like TVCDC and the tribal government hope that efforts to strengthen the local economy and culture and exist more as a self-contained ecosystem will make the community more resilient to future weather events, both this coming winter and for years to come.
“There are an immense number of our people suffering and we are still able to survive it,” Iron Eyes says. “We’re still happy. People still smile. We still have our ceremonies. We know we’ll never go extinct.” Part of the reason for this strength is the a deep sense of culture and pride in Pine Ridge. The reservation is not just a place to live; there’s a rich shared history, despite existing adversity. A similar sense of community has helped people in other places come together after disasters, both natural and otherwise.
But one of the potential impacts of climate change is language loss: as people are forced to migrate away from their home communities, small linguistic communities might switch to more popular languages. Languages provide much more than just a communication method; they are also sources of culture and history.
But there are already only 6,000 fluent Lakota speakers, according to the Lakota Language Project, making Lakota even more vulnerable to future language loss. In Pine Ridge, communities are establishing Lakota language immersion schools and programs. The main goal of these programs is to encourage youth to speak Lakota, but they also teach Lakota traditions and philosophy. Pine Ridge’s only grocery store now has signs in both Lakota and English. Taking these steps now could help ensure that there will be more Lakota speakers at the end of the century, not fewer.
Although preparation is important, there will be an even greater need for effective methods for recovering from disaster in the coming decades. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has published hazard predictions for every state; in South Dakota, NOAA predicts that winter and spring precipitation will increase, making spring flooding even more likely. How will current models of disaster relief need to change in the next decade or century, both in South Dakota and globally? Oglala Lakota people in Pine Ridge seem to already have some of the answers: community strength, in the form of culture, food and politics.
Regardless of how this winter goes, Iron Eyes made it clear that he’s not worried about whether the community will bounce back after a disaster. “Our language, this land and our indomitable spirit give people the encouragement and the energy that they need to keep going.”