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Lakota Women Work to Fend Off South Dakota’s Epic Drought

Long years of drought in South Dakota have made it difficult for the soil to absorb water. A group led by indigenous women hopes to change that through an ambitious dam-building project.

Lakota women, from left, Karen Ducheneaux with her daughter Tatiye Ducheneaux, Candace Ducheneaux, Kyanne Dillabaugh. (Photo: Kristin Moe)

My GPS went berserk when I crossed the Missouri River near Lake Oahe in South Dakota. It kept telling me to make U-turns, tying me up in knots.

This is the Cheyenne River Reservation, home to the Lakota tribe of the same name, about half of whose members live here. It’s also home to Ziebach County, one of the poorest in the United States. I had come to Cheyenne River to meet the organizers of a small grassroots group called Mni, which means “water” in Lakota. They were in the middle of two weeks of ambitious water conservation work, constructing a series of small dams with help from two dozen or so volunteers from around the county. I had been told to look for a campsite, but I wasn’t sure where it was or what to expect.

Bright green hills stretched on uninterrupted to the horizon. I was alone on a muddy dirt road, hoping my little Volkswagon wouldn’t get stuck. Once in a while I passed a mobile home with a few junked cars parked outside or cattle grazing nearby, but the only sounds were crickets and the wind in the grass.

After 10 miles, I crossed a rushing creek and saw a cluster of tents by the side of the road. This had to be it—yet the camp was not only deserted but flooded under several inches of water. The creek had overflowed and the people had left. But where had they gone?

I decided to head back to the highway to find cellphone service and began the bumpy ride that would take me there. It was then that I encountered an incongruous sight: a van parked by the side of the road, and a small film crew with a camera pointed at a petite woman in her sixties with long gray hair and cutoff jeans. I recognized her as Candace Ducheneaux, one of Mni’s leaders and an organizer of the water project. I pulled over and watched as she spoke to the camera.

The green of the hills was deceptive, she said. The appearance of lushness was only on the surface. People here had begun to notice the changing climate; after a drought that had persisted in the region on and off for 15 years, this summer’s heavy rains had inundated the South Dakota plains. But the dry ground, she said, was unable to absorb the large quantities of rain, which ran off into flooded creeks down the Missouri River, without ever replenishing the aquifer.

Mni’s goal, she explained to the camera, is to bring Cheyenne River’s water table back into balance. It’s an ambitious one: By constructing thousands of small dams in creeks and gulleys all over the reservation—essentially beaver dams built by humans—organizers hope to slow storm runoff long enough to enable the absorption of water back into the ground.

True to its Lakota roots, Mni is rooted in the tiospaye—the Lakota word for extended family—and comprises Candace, her daughters Karen Ducheneaux and Kyanne Dillabaugh, her son Luke, his wife Linda, and nearly all of their children. Standing on a hill with Candace, looking out over the hills that seemed to go on forever, I couldn’t imagine how they’d do it. But Mni is starting small, with a pilot project on a small parcel of family-owned land. If it’s successful, the Ducheneaux’s plan is to build similar dams all over Cheyenne River and train workers from the other reservations in South Dakota, creating a model of water restoration that can be replicated anywhere.

“We have a million acres of tribal land here,” Candace says. “If we could convince the indigenous nations to begin water restoration—to unite in it—not only could we have a huge impact on the hydrologic cycle, but we could also set an example for the rest of the world.”

“But,” she says, “we understand it’s going to be a fight.”

Origins of a drought

Ducheneaux has a big vision for this project. For her, South Dakota’s depleted aquifer is just one small part in a global problem of water cycles interrupted by human industry. “It isn’t just this one little micro project,” she says. “It’s all the land in the world that has to be put into water restoration.”

The family has brought in specialists to help convince the tribal council to implement sustainable water programs, including Goldman Environmental Prize-winning hydrologist Michal Kravcik, who spearheaded a visionary water restoration program in his native Slovakia. They’ve studied the work of the rancher Valer Austin, who created a similar dam infrastructure on her land in Mexico and restored fertility to a place where once only mesquite could grow.

From June 22 to July 4, Mni brought volunteers, teachers, and students to Cheyenne River and began putting their ideas into practice. The project was funded in part by a grant from Colorado State University’s Center for Collaborative Conservation and was conducted in partnership with the school’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Over the course of two weeks, the group surveyed, designed, and constructed 19 small dams, or water catchments, made of 8 to 12 foot logs filled in with rocks and twigs. It’s all held together by South Dakota’s infamous “gumbo” mud, so sticky it dries like cement; I was intimately familiar with the stuff, having already spent a few hours digging it out of my tires. At the campsite by the creek, they also built a shade structure for workshops and planted a garden.

The reasons for Cheyenne River’s water crisis are complex: The long years of drought have made it difficult for soil to absorb water. The disappearance of bison has drastically altered the ecosystem as a whole. The Oahe Dam—one of four dams built on native land in South Dakota during the 1950s and ’60s—has permanently interrupted the Missouri River’s natural flow.

Ducheneaux was just a child when her family was forced to move because of the Oahe Dam construction, and she remembers the experience well. Since then, she’s spent a great deal of time observing the changing terrain of her homeland—how the drought has changed the landscape, and where the water goes when it rains. These are the minute observations that inform her ideas about restoring fertility to the land.

Building beaver dams by hand

During construction of the Oahe Dam the river’s bottomlands were flooded, the people who lived there forced to relocate, and the cottonwood trees used by beavers to make dams nearly disappeared. According to Michael Brydge, an instructor of cultural anthropology at Colorado State University who participated in the camp, those beaver dams served to slow the pace of water running through creeks, facilitating absorption into the ground. Without these, he says, water runs right off the hills and into gulleys that carry it to the Missouri and out to the Gulf of Mexico.

Brydge, who came to Cheyenne River with a group of students from Colorado State, brings with him 18 years of construction experience he acquired before going into academia. But since none of them are dam experts, he and the Mni team are looking to the creatures that are: beavers.

Before the construction of the Oahe Dam, beavers would have built countless dams in places all over the reservation. Now, Brydge and his students are interested in seeing if human-made dams can play a similar role to the beaver dams of the past. They looked at the construction of old ones nearby, analyzing the materials they were made from and the details of their placement. Then they built a pilot dam in a creek near the campsite.

Kyanne Dillabaugh and her son Cody Livermont place logs in a water catchment on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Photo by Ryan Reese.

When the storm came and the creek overflowed, they got a chance to test it out—and realized that it was in the wrong place. The dam was overwhelmed by the rising waters.

For Brydge, the flash flood was a gift, demonstrating how water behaves during storms that he believes will only become more frequent. Armed with these observations, he and his students built dams in new locations. They realized that the campsite was too easily flooded and any future structures would have to be built elsewhere. “Now we know,” Brydge says.

The partnership between Mni and Colorado State is new, and tentative. But for Brydge, it’s an important step toward changing a pattern of projects that fail because they are directed by outsiders—people who aren’t part of the communities they’re trying to help.

He’s observed a dozen similar projects on reservations, he says, with “outsiders coming in with an idea, with the materials that they want to test in this community. They wouldn’t do it in their own neighborhood or even in their own county, but they’re going to test it here. And it fails, and they never came back.”

What’s important here, he says, is that the project is family-based, rooted in Lakota tradition and culture, and that all decisions are made by the family—not by funders.

“The dream is with them,” says Brydge. “It ebbs and flows, but it’s their dream. It doesn’t come in with an outsider and leave with an outsider.”

Making it home

As the sun went down, we drove back to Ducheneaux’s house in a cluster of small, boxy residences on a hill, called Swiftbird. It’s one of about 20 such clusters on the reservation. The front yard was flooded from the rain. Inside, about 15 volunteers were crowded into the living room, eating sloppy Joes with three little kids, a few dogs, and the film crew, which had come all the way from France.

The campsite still wasn’t dry enough to return to, so for now the little house was serving as headquarters, dormitory, and mess hall for the Mni project. Normally, Karen Ducheneaux lives there with Candace and four children. They’re used to overcrowding here, she assured me. It’s normal to cram three or four families into a single house.

Overcrowding is just one strand in a dense web of deeply entrenched problems that plague reservations all over North America: inadequate housing, job scarcity, high rates of illness, and corrupt and ineffective tribal governments. Nearly everyone is on some form of public assistance. Houses are poorly constructed and plagued with problems: In Swiftbird, Karen tells me, many of the bathrooms stink of black mold that makes people sick.

Here on Cheyenne River Reservation, where unemployment among tribal members can run as high as 88 percent and where suicide and depression are endemic, the Ducheneaux often find themselves swimming against a tide of hopelessness.

What’s more, Karen says, because of the poverty—a legacy of colonization that is very much alive—people try not to stick their necks out. They play by the rules. “It’s hard to be anything other than a conformist,” she says. “And even then, it’s hard to get along because we’re so poor here, and there are so few resources that we’re all trying to make use of.”

The Ducheneaux are known for not playing by the rules—they have a reputation, they tell me, of being an outspoken bunch. So rather than continue to fight an unresponsive tribal government that fails to repair inadequate public housing, a few years ago they began to ask themselves how they could build a different life. In the words of Candace’s daughter Kyanne Dillabaugh, “What can we do that’s really going to make a difference, for us, our family, our tiospaye, for our people as a whole?”

So they came up with a vision for a lifestyle that’s radically different—or radically traditional, depending on how you look at it. Where Mni’s water restoration will benefit everyone who lives in the area as well as the larger ecosystem, this parallel project is just for the family. Within the next few years, they hope to build a few small houses for themselves, made of natural materials and just big enough for their families, powered by solar energy. This vision of a new home—away from the black mold, the flooded basements, the crowded bedrooms, the barking dogs—is always present for these women. A place out on the land, where they can grow their own vegetables and not rely so much on public assistance.

They call this vision of a new home “Tatanka Wakpala,” or Buffalo Creek, after the sacred buffalo that once roamed these hills.

The family is very definite in its commitment to its ancestral homeland—and unusual, since less than half of the Cheyenne River tribe’s enrolled members choose to live on the reservation. The Ducheneaux women know what it’s like to live elsewhere—they’ve all tried it at one time or another, for school or work or because of their partners. But they feel bound to this place, and even more strongly bound to each other, to the support of the tiospaye.

Away from the reservation, “You’re just completely on your own, you know?” says Dillabaugh, who moved to Rapid City, S.D., for a time to go to college. “You’re barely able to scrape by, with no family to fall back on, no relative down the street to help you with your kids.” It becomes overwhelming. “So you get tired of that and you go back to your community.”

“Being here, you have your people with you. And this is our place, this is our home … At this point in my life, I don’t really want to be anywhere else.”

Dual dreams

But in order to build Tatanka Wakpala, the family needs time and money. And the longer they wait, the further into the future their dream of a real home recedes. “We tried to quit our jobs once and just work on this project,” Karen says as her youngest child crawls up into her lap. “But soon we ran out of funds. It wasn’t sustainable.”

Between working their jobs, raising children, and battling the frustrating bureaucracy of the tribal government, each woman has a role in building both Mni and Tatanka Wakpala: Candace is the visionary and talks expansively about the global hydrologic cycle. Kyanne has been studying sustainable technology for several years, whenever she has the time—solar water heaters, straw bale houses. Karen is the writer and is in charge of most of the grant applications and paperwork. Linda—who married into the family just after the camp finished—is an ethnobotanist with a trove of knowledge about regional ecology.

In some ways, they are part of a Lakota tradition that honors women as both participants in tribal politics and as creators of life, guardians of the home. In this family, with many of the men absent, it is the mothers and sisters who have stepped up to fill the roles of both activists and caregivers. The Ducheneaux women don’t see those things in opposition; in their efforts to protect land and water, they also believe they’re protecting the lives of their own children, generations down the road.

What’s more, they won’t be doing the work alone. There’s a larger trend at play here, a movement of grassroots development projects that’s catching on in indigenous communities across South Dakota. I visited a few of them on my trip through the state: a solar energy business on Pine Ridge; a women’s organization that initiates teenage girls into their first Lakota ceremonies; a family of caretakers for a herd of sacred buffalo; activists working to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

These projects may be small—or isolated, or underfunded—but they are led by people who are not just Native American but native to the communities in which they work. They haven’t necessarily grown up steeped in Lakota culture, but they’re picking up the pieces of it and preserving what they can.

As with Mni, the visions for these projects are themselves indigenous, rooted in traditional views of family, community, and land. But there’s a forward momentum at work here too; an embrace of affordable, sustainable technology as a way of balancing past and present.

For the time being, the dual dreams of Tatanka Wakpala and Mni are still in the future. Progress is slow, and it may be that Candace Ducheneaux’s 13 grandchildren are the ones who actually see them through. But there’s something significant in the fact that the Ducheneaux family continues its dogged pursuit of this vision after so many centuries of colonization.

Rehabilitating land is, for them, a way of rehabilitating a culture that’s rooted in land; this isn’t just about water, or housing; as Candace says, it’s about “the fate and destiny of our people.”

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