Indigenous Lakota Women Face Harsh Winter Wrath Under Climate Change

Indigenous Lakota Women Face Harsh Winter Wrath Under Climate Change

Pine Ridge, South Dakota – U.S. Oglala Sioux Lakota Elder women and families suffering from severe poverty are bracing themselves to face a harsh winter season spurred on by climate change this year, according to NOAA – the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With poverty conditions that rival some global developing regions and the lowest life expectancy in the Western hemisphere, second only to Haiti, the average current lifespan for women on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is 52 years, for men it’s 48 years.

Death rates for members of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation suffering under severe poverty are shockingly 533% higher than their ‘non-Indian’ U.S. counterparts for tuberculosis, 249% higher for diabetes and 71% higher for pneumonia and influenza, says the U.S. Department of Health – Indian Health Services.

With conditions of extreme poverty inside the country, why are U.S. poverty statistics for Native American Indian reservations so often left out of global poverty studies made by international agencies? The answers are complex and tied to the ongoing curse of global indigenous invisibility.

Numerous Lakota Oglala Sioux women Elders, are now facing extreme poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They also face real danger with threats of hypothermia during the winter season. “An average of 689 (reported) deaths per year in the United States results from excessive environmental cold exposure,” says educational resource group, the (U.S.) College of American Pathologists.

While deaths from cold temperatures are hard to track accurately, each year hypothermia deaths are reported on the Reservation. “Each winter, reservation Elders are found dead from hypothermia,” says Brenda Alpin, founder of Laktoa Aid, in a 2004 report for UNPO – Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

Although many hypothermia deaths are related to alcohol abuse, conditions leading to hypothermia in Elder Lakota women often occur due to poor health, poverty and lack of resources.

“Climate change hits poor people hardest – especially poor women,” says Oxfam’s current 2010, ‘Sisters on the Planet’ initiative campaign.

With little to no winter heat, numerous mobile trailers, homes that are commonly used by the Lakota, don’t meet current building standards. Temperatures inside a thin walled trailer, with little to no heat, can drop to levels below freezing as outside winter temperatures reach 10 below zero (Fahrenheit) or colder. These cold winter temperatures can actually cause ice to appear on windows, walls and surfaces inside a home that has inadequate heat.

“The night of January 2 was a truly dreadful night for the Swift Hawk family. They had run out of propane to heat their house. They also had no wood for their wood stove, although they tried desperately to obtain some wood, but without any success… The house had only thin plastic sheeting covering two large openings where windows were supposed to be. As night fell and the temperature plummeted from 16 degrees zero to 45 degrees zero, Sarah’s daughter, and her son-in-law put two blankets on Sarah in an attempt to keep her warm. The mother then took the other two blankets they had and placed them on her six children who were all huddled together on the floor where she and her husband would also sleep. Since there was only one cot in the house, that bed was given to Sarah who was the grandmother in the family. Everyone else in the Swift Hawk family has to sleep on the floor because the family is too poor to buy any furniture. When the sun came up on Sunday morning, January 3rd, the daughter got up from the floor to check on her mother, and she found her mother had died during the night, frozen to death as a result of exposure to extreme cold. Fortunately, the body heat from the parents and the children, all huddled together on the floor, kept them alive that terrible night.”
– U.S. Senator Hon. Byron L. Dorgan from South Dakota,
Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, on the floor of the Senate
(Congressional Record, February 25, 1999)

Deaths from hypothermia, “occur equally as frequently indoors as outdoors,” explains the College of American Pathologists. “A debilitated Elder may become hypothermic at home (inside) in temperatures as high as 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (22- 24 degrees Celsius).”

Hypothermia is characterized by the unintentional drop in a core body temperature to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). “Mild hypothermia is often accompanied by confusion, progressing to impaired judgment, followed by apathy,” adds the College.

As symptoms arise in precursors to hypothermia, Elder women can face critical emergencies. Recognizing these symptoms is not always easy. Elder Lakota women “often struggle to survive the bitter winters,” says a September 2008 report by the Tribal Lands Renewable Project.

Women and children “are more likely to die than men during disasters,” outlines the Oxfam, ‘Sisters on the Planet’ 2010 report.

Current climate change with El Niño conditions are now predicted to cause unusual excursions of Arctic air into the central northern regions of the U.S. The NOAA – National Weather Service predicts a cold episode winter this year. The weather “favors the build-up of colder than normal air over Alaska and western Canada, which often penetrates into the northern Great Plains and the western United States,” states this winter’s report.

With 97% of the population at the Reservation living under conditions that fall beneath the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services definition of poverty, many Oglala Sioux Lakota households cannot afford to pay for home maintenance in the structural upkeep of their homes.

Poverty income levels as low as $5-10 (USD) dollars per day can cause many safety limitations as fixing housing problems becomes impossible. Common problems with inadequate insulation, exterior doors and windows with broken glass or seals, roofs and floors with open gaps to the exterior contribute greatly to unsafe crisis conditions in winter months.

Ranging from 30 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) in the winter to a sweltering 100 plus degrees in the summer, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation suffers most from what ‘compassion in action,’ The Seva Foundation, calls “the worst conditions of poverty existing in the United States today.”

“Now I have a three-bedroom home. I don’t have much. I have running water, but it isn’t very good,” says Lakota Oglala Sioux Grandmother, Beatrice Long Visitor Holy Dance, an honored member of The International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers.

“I have mold growing there, and it’s getting pretty bad,” adds Beatrice. “I’ve been trying to get the housing authority to help me, but nobody helps me.”

Many of the households on the reservation are so below sub-standard that electricity and plumbing is not functional. In addition to this, up to 40% of homes are plagued with Black Mold, stachybotrys chartarum, known to cause serious life threatening health risks with prolonged exposure.

Even in times of need, many Lakota Elder women have been taught ‘not to complain much.’ Learning from their own mothers and grandmothers that they must accept life ‘as it is,’ without complaining, Elder women often risk their lives by staying ‘too quiet’ in the face of many needs.

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“Fortitude is grandmother’s road,” says Sicunga Lakota Sioux author, Joseph Marshall.

During the winter months, women also face specific problems because of their gender. “When winter comes, I’ll just get me a fat woman and let her sleep on the windy side,” said Oglala Sioux, Le War Lance, in the 1999 Atlantic Monthly article, ‘On the Rez,’ by Ian Fraiser. Hard winter storms often do include high winds that top 60 mph.

Oglala Sioux Lakota grandmother, Alice Four Horns, at home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, U.S. – 2007. Image: Svetlana Bachevanova / WNN
AIHF – American Indian Humanitarian Foundation figures now show that 24,000 households on the Pine Ridge reservation are substandard, placing their occupants in possible critical danger. Without electricity, wood or propane gas to cook, conditions of malnutrition for Lakota Elders does rise in the winter.

“At least 60% of the homes are severely substandard, without water, electricity, adequate insulation, and sewage systems,” says AIHF.

With the current price of propane on the Reservation rising, monthly costs now exceed $400+ (USD); a price that is twice as high as the average monthly cost to heat many standard American homes across the U.S.

Even though it’s illegal in the State of South Dakota to shut off heat during the winter months, some small propane companies have been known to pressure those who cannot pay their bills by shutting off propane deliveries to their homes, leaving them to face bitter storms without access to propane heat.

“Bitter winters force many families to spend up to 70% of their total income to heat their homes,” says the U.S. environmental organization, ‘Land, Water and People,’ that also manages the TWP – Tribal Lands Renewable Energy Program.

In 2003, the TWP launched an award winning program, created in partnership with Lakota Solar Enterprises, to help communities use solar energy as a supplemental, and renewable, form of energy to heat their homes, but current needs still greatly surpass the program’s construction outreach.

“Our housing needs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are so severe that I have had some trouble figuring out where to start my presentation,” said former President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Honorable John Yellow Bird Steele, before the March 2007, U.S. Senate Oversight Hearing on Indian Housing.

Working in combination with HUD – the Department of Housing and Urban Development and The Department of Energy, the recent 2009 U.S. federal economic incentive program, The U.S. Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has pushed for specific programs to help bring better housing to the people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. To date, $173,756,330 (USD) has been slated for contracts in an effort to improve conditions. Additional monies have been made available also to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in form of grant programs.

The hope is that the new federal monies can reach on-the-ground programs and needs, as tribal members learn how to apply for grants and follow up correctly for other initiatives.

“I was raised by my grandmother Nellie Two Bulls who was an educator herself,” says 27 year old Lakota activist and blogger, Autumn TwoBulls. “She taught me about the values of the Lakota people. And what it means to be Lakota,” she shares. “We as Lakotas help each other. That is how we survive.”

“For Lakotas, one of our common mantras is “Mitakuye Oyasin – We are all related,” says Mary Black Bonnet of the Sincangu Lakota Nation. “No one is better than anyone else,” she emphasizes.

A group of Lakota women leaders on the Pine Ridge Reservation, made up of health workers, teachers and social workers, are also working together to improve conditions for women and children as they gather books, winter coats, kitchen items, children’s toys, personal hygiene products, bedding, pens and pencils, sewing supplies, furniture and shoes for those in their community; all items that are hard to find on the Reservation.

“We’re the foreign country suffering under (extreme) poverty in your (U.S.) back yard,” reminds the current Oglala Sioux Tribe President, Theresa Two Bulls, honestly. “I have never quite understood people who travel oversees and put forth so much effort to help those in under developed countries, when we have a place right here in the U.S. that has third world conditions.”


The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation blizzard of 22 January, 2010 hit the Reservation with extreme fierce winds. This region in South Dakota lies north of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. During the snowstorm over 2,000 telephone poles snapped due to the severity of the high winds as 14,000 families ‘waited the weather out’ for days. Snowstorms like this obviously would leave an Indian woman Elder, with little to no adequate heat, in grave danger. This 1:13 min, 27 January, 2010 video has been produced by NewSpeak Productions. To see more information on this 2009 weather crisis go to: CRST Disaster Relief

Naomi Sitting Bear, 29, lives in a 30 year old mobile trailer home that is falling apart from severe sub-standard conditions. As a single mom with kids, who also works as an emergency dispatcher, Sitting Bear has an income that is too low to enable her to adequately pay for the cost of home repairs. Like many other women, Naomi and her family want desperately to see safe adequate housing, as well as other services, improve and expand on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This 5:33 min, May 2009, video has been produced by Marisol Bello and René Alston/USA TODAY.

For more information on this topic:

“Testimony of The Honorable John Yellow Bird Steele, (former) President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Oversight Hearing on Indian Housing,” U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, March 2007

See website: International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers

“Fact Sheet | Climate Change and Women, ” Oxfam America, January 2009

“ Honor the Grandmothers – Dakota and Lakota women tell their stories,” by author, Sarah Penman, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000

“Small Scale Renewable Energy for Tribal Families and Communities,” Tribal Lands Renewable Energy Project, September 2008

Bulgarian photojournalist for WNN and National Geographic (Bulgaria) award winning photographer, Svetlana Bachevanova, has exhibited her work in Europe and the United States in galleries and museums and has been published by numerous major newspapers, agencies and magazines including the l’Humanitie, Soar, Biography, Reuters, National Geographic and Associated Press.

2007 Pushcart Prize nominee and human rights journalist, Lys Anzia, has Tsalagi Echota Deer Clan (Chickamauga Cherokee) heritage. She is also editor-at-large for Women News Network – WNN.

©2010 Women News Network – WNN