Heating the Rez

Ruth Hopkins

Living in the Dakotas isn’t for everyone, primarily because of the weather. In the summer, it gets hot and sticky. Thunderheads appear on the horizon, hail stones rain down, and tornadoes materialize from on high to rage across the prairie.

In the winter, it gets cold. Now, I realize "cold: is subjective. To many, an air temperature of 32 degrees is cold. That’s when water begins to freeze. Well, how about 50-below wind chill? I’m not talking about the kind of cold that makes us uncomfortable, where adding a scarf or drinking a hot cup of wakhályapi (coffee) will make it all better. I’m talking about the kind of cold that kills.

The Northern Plains, called the "Sioux Empire" by the settlers who invaded, is my homeland. Dakota and Lakota have lived here on the prairie for millennia. This is where our dead are buried. We’re a strong people adapted to this climate, and for centuries we had our own means of living with the elements and seasons. When winter came, no matter how harsh, we would survive – because we were able to prepare and knew where to go. That was before we were made to give up the nomadic life and forced to live in concentration camps called reservations. Today, packing up a travois and moving my band of relatives to a valley in the Black Hills for the winter is no longer feasible. I suppose we could camp out under Mount Rushmore, but we’d probably be arrested for loitering or squatting. Not to mention that today, staying alive is expensive, and money isn’t something my people have a lot of.

Cut to February 2014. Dakota and Lakota are living on reservations with high unemployment rates, in government built homes, shacks, or recycled FEMA trailers not meant for long term living, especially in an environment comparable to the Arctic. Most of these homes are on propane heating. Most of the people living in these dwellings didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Like the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where I was born, the reservation I live on, Lake Traverse, straddles the North and South Dakota border. Thanks to climate change, we’ve been bombarded by polar vortices. We’re accustomed to cold, but not deep freezes like this. Last fall, farmers burned through a lot of propane to dry out a late, wet harvest. This caused a shortage, and skyrocketing propane prices. A harsh winter compounded with a propane shortage has caused a heating crisis unlike any I’ve seen during my lifetime.

If there’s no money for propane, you go without heat. Some areas have given tribal members the option to leave their home and go to an emergency shelter, others could stay with relatives — but not everyone wants to leave their home unattended. People worry about freezing pipes or their home being burglarized.

The public didn’t realize how dire the heating crisis was until a few weeks ago, when Debbie Dogskin, a resident of the Standing Rock Reservation, froze to death. It was just as cold inside the home she was in as it was outside. The propane tank was empty.

Much has been made of the generous donation the Shakopee community has made to Standing Rock to buy propane. It’s sincerely appreciated. Yet such aid, governmental or otherwise, is a temporary solution to a problem that will only get worse. Even now, there are Natives choosing between buying groceries or medicine, and propane. Friends of mine are heating their home with conventional ovens, by leaving the stove door open. Others are using space heaters, or even burning clothes to keep warm. Such heating methods can be dangerous. In 2005, four Native foster children on my reservation died in a house fire ignited by a blanket on a heater.

Tribes need to implement inexpensive, alternative methods of heating. Propane is a byproduct of natural gas processing and petroleum refining. Dependency on fossil fuels is unwise. They will run out, that’s a scientific fact. Before then, there will be more shortages, and it will cost even more to obtain.

After Debbie’s passing, Lastrealindians.com started a new campaign designed to provide a permanent solution to the heating crisis. “Heating the Rez” is a pilot project that will place multilevel stoves in 20 reservation homes to start. These stoves burn pellets made from natural materials like wood, grass, and corn, all of which can be found or grown on the reservation. This method of heating is safe, green, and much cheaper than propane.

LRI set an initial goal of $50,000 to fund “Heating the Rez.” Thanks to the tremendous, heartfelt support of both Natives and non-Natives from around the globe, that goal has already been surpassed. Personally, I’m touched by everyone’s generosity. It’s renewed my faith in mankind. There are a lot of good hearts left in this world.

I’d like to encourage all of you to continue sharing word of “Heating the Rez” and to continue to give.

Just as Lastrealindians.com did when they raised money to save the sacred site Pe’Sla from the auction block, every dollar contributed will be used towards the project. We keep nothing.

In the meantime, another storm approaches. I better go check the propane tank, and my Dad’s too.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and LastRealIndians.com.


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