Courage tested for Oglala Sioux

BY SUSAN KIM | OGLALA, S.D. | July 22, 1999


OGLALA, S.D. (July 22, 1999) -- Courage, a traditional trait of the Oglala

Sioux Native American tribe, was tested when tornadoes wiped out several

villages on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation June 4-5, killing one,

injuring 40, and leaving more than 1,044 people homeless or living in

damaged dwellings.

Chief Oliver Red Cloud, already fighting to improve the standard of living

on the reservation, now faces an even bigger challenge. Nellie Two Bulls, a

tribal elder known for her traditional stories and songs, finds herself

comforting her neighbors.

Stanley Looking Elk, vice chairman for his Oglala district, remembers

planning the current recovery effort hours after the tornado struck. John

Black Bear spends his days serving as an interpreter and guide, helping

people understand how to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

aid.

One of the worst natural disasters to ever strike this community, the

tornadoes swept away keepsakes from past generations and made more

difficult lives that weren't easy in the first place. Small villages in

Shannon County -- Oglala, Wounded Knee, Porcupine - were hit hardest.

Providing temporary housing remains the biggest challenge. Usually FEMA and

other disaster response organizations help people relocate to hotels or

apartments until their homes are repaired. But there is no rental property

on the reservation, and damaged water and electrical lines have made it

difficult to repair existing homes.

About 150 residents are currently moving from dormitories in schools on the

reservation into temporary FEMA trailers. A groundbreaking was held July 14

for a 200-unit manufactured home park in Oglala. Those units will be

winterized, but families living in tents, camping trailers, and with

friends and family are worried about the onset of winter.

Cash donations are the best way to help survivors, since the money employs

local contractors who can build foundations to secure mobile homes,

reinforce basements, and build tornado shelters, all with locally purchased

supplies.

A survivors' fund has been established at the First National Bank in

Gordon, Neb., about 18 miles from the South Dakota state line, and the

depository for most of the tribe's accounts. "We're still receiving

donations every day," said Staci Meeks, bank spokesperson. "We're

encouraging churches to take a special donation on Sundays."

The tribal government, FEMA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health

Services, South Dakota Department of Human Services, faith-based disaster

response organizations, Salvation Army, and American Red Cross are working

together with local volunteers to make residents aware of FEMA aid and

other resources.

Working through language barriers and cultural differences can be a

challenge, and it means policies that don't work have to change, said

Shirley Conrad, a caseworker associated with Lutheran Social Services.

"For instance, when people came in to get a tent from the Red Cross, they

would put down their name and address. Then someone else would come in and

put the same address. The policy was one tent per household. But then we

realized that, in many cases, three or four families - maybe 17 people --

live in a 950-square-foot house. Obviously 17 people can't fit in one tent

so we quickly adapted and changed that policy."

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the poorest areas in the U.S.,

has a 75 percent unemployment rate. The average family income is $3,700 a

year. Life expectancy for men is 48 years for men, 52 for women. The

reservation has the highest infant mortality rate in the United States.

But local people are optimistic at the Seventh Day Adventist Church, where

food, water, kitchen supplies, and furniture are being distributed. "We're

at capacity," said Nancy Wolcott, a church member. "We're literally up to

the roof in clothes. But we could really use kitchen utensils, furniture,

and beds."

Last month the Adventist Community Service dispatched disaster response

vans to meet emergency needs. Catholic Social Services and the Dakotas

United Methodist Conference are also assisting with response, and the

Salvation Army is distributing infant formula, personal hygiene items,

transportation aid, and groceries.

But connecting survivors with what they need can be a challenge, said

Conrad. "I commonly travel more than 200 miles a day doing casework," she

said. "The vastness of the land is a definite factor here."

Most residents have no street addresses, only a post office box. "Also,

most people don't have telephones," she added. "Plus, they don't have

transportation to get to the Disaster Recovery Center, or if they do,

they're afraid to leave their homes."

After free shuttle service from the reservation to the center was provided,

more people have visited -- nearly 800 to date. But caseworkers also travel

to survivors, taking water, food, blankets - and a local interpreter.

"People are starting to look at their emotions now," said Conrad, who said

she is also concerned about the winter. "It doesn't get all that cold here,

but we can have 100 mph winds whipping across here on any given winter day."

The Rev. Larry Peterson, a Lutheran pastor who helps lead an interfaith

congregation at the Pine Ridge Presbyterian Church, said that, just because

emergency needs have been met doesn't mean people's needs stay the same.

"It's still changing week by week," he said.

Posted July 22, 1999


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