Freezing to Death in the Land of Greed and Plenty

Laura Waterman Wittstock

Debbie Dogskin froze to death in Fort Yates, North Dakota on February 4 while housesitting a trailer for a friend. The propane tank that supplied fuel to heat the residence went dry sometime while she was there and she apparently fell asleep, unable to help herself find warmth within the thin walls of the trailer. Her kindness toward her friend led to her own untimely death and it was felt throughout the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s communities. Her mother, Sara Dogskin, noted how kind and caring her 61 year-old daughter was, but it was a kindness that killed her. Why had the tank run dry and why had Debbie’s friends not said anything about that possibility? Or, why didn’t she leave when it got freezing cold. The temperature was around zero that night.

Freezing to death is never far from the minds of our fellow Natives who live on the Plains. The Wounded Knee Massacre happened in South Dakota near Wounded Knee Creek and the Pine Ridge Reservation. The U.S. Army shot down unarmed Native men, women, and children. They died outright or lay wounded and froze to death. December 29, 1890 is a day all Natives and Americans of conscience remember.

Sitting Bull, who was shot and killed the same year on June 15, has a memorial monument in Fort Yates. He, too, is remembered and people go to the monument, sadly sometimes to defame the site with drinking parties and to make it a place where dumping old refrigerators is the norm. Loss inflicts many wounds on those who survive.

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse took their people to this far northern country to get away from bacon, coffee and whiskey, and to once again live free before the greedy white man came with his lust for gold and land. Crazy Horse voluntarily went to Red Cloud Indian Agency, believing the Army’s word that he could talk with a general and come to a settled peace. But instead he was taken to Fort Robinson where he was stabbed through his kidneys and spent the better part of a night in agony before dying on September 5, 1877. Today instead of gold, the Northern Plains are desired for oil and gas.

In 2012, the Bakken oil deposits, North Dakota’s largest, produced 88.9 percent of all the state’s output at 215,490,552 barrels. The Bakken oil patch lies just northwest of Standing Rock Sioux reservation and it sprawls west to Montana. Grant County off the west shoulder of the Sioux territory touches the Stark County part of the patch.

It seems outrageous that anyone should die in a land glutted with oil, especially when we remember that the objective of pumping all that oil out of the once-free Plains of Debbie Dogskin’s ancestors is to raise the price of oil as high as it will go. The chart on the North Dakota State Government’s web page predicts an expected selling price of $315 per barrel by 2020. (http://tinyurl.com/89qn3g5)

Propane is a liquefied byproduct of natural gas; compressed to be transported. It is not a direct product from oil but it is easily manipulated from natural gas and North Dakota has plenty of that, too. Total output in 2012 for the state was 259 million cubic feet (MCF). Even with greater U.S. output, the cost of propane has been skyrocketing at the home consumer level. It was reported to be $4.65 a gallon in Sioux territory, where up to 5,000 homes depend on propane. Last year the average price was $1.59.

Now, suppliers have been promised a waiver of 7.5 cents per barrel charge on excess propane storage so the delivery system can move the product without added costs. The suppliers say farmers used a lot of propane last fall to dry crops. And what of the pipelines? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has had to step in on that, too. The National Propane Gas Association requested 81,000 barrels a day of space on the Enterprise TE Products Pipeline out of Mount Belvieu, Texas. The pipeline is typically reserved to ship dilutant, a thinning agent, instead. The Washington-based trade group also asked the agency to order the reversal of Enterprise’s ATEX pipeline so that it sends propane north instead of ethane south. The complicated system is normally in the hands of the owners and suppliers. Without FERC, there was little chance of new propane headed for the Midwest and Plains.

When the propane gets to the reservation and homes that have nearly exhausted their heating and cooking supplies, it comes at a high price. Depleted budgets and limited incomes combined with the very high demand for fuel in this frigid winter have made for a deadly formula.

To help, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota immediately announced a donation of $500,000 for propane. Shakopee Mdewakanton is also donating $300,000 to the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and $70,000 to the Santee Sioux Nation in Nebraska for propane.

Meanwhile, the Dogskin family is saying its farewells to Debbie. There will be relatives, food for all, and at the end, a loving mother who knew her daughter was too kind to say no to a friend.

Laura Waterman Wittstock’s book with Dick Bancroft’s photographs, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement, will be released in May, 2013.

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chahta ohoyo's picture
this reads like it was written by a high-schooler too many 'aside' subjects every native person living on a reservation with short monetary resources realizes close up and personal what the dangers of running out of heat are...yes, it is shameful that our people die every winter because of energy policy here in the u s...however, this problem does not just affect native peoples....it affects people in poverty all over this country
chahta ohoyo