Native Americans Who Can\'t Afford Heat Take Desperate Measures To Stay Warm

Attendance is near-perfect during the winter at the Wounded Knee District School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation when low-income children are desperate for a respite from the cold. At school, they're guaranteed warmth and hot meals. (Facebook/Wounded Knee School District)

Wounded Knee is working on building a “safe house,” a place where up to 10 children in need of a place to stay for the night can come, whether because of abuse at home or not having heat or other critical resources. The building is basically complete, but Phelps is working on hiring a staff member to run it.

But even those on the reservation who can afford to buy propane to heat their homes typically can’t afford as much as it takes to keep a house livable when temperatures are drop below zero, said Bob Claussen, owner of Bob’s Gas, a company in Martin, South Dakota, that makes the 45-mile trek to the reservation when it’s able. Claussen said he typically gets around 15 “small” orders for propane ― about $150 worth of propane at a time. But that can last only about three weeks, he said.  

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Children who live in overcrowded homes without sufficient heat often have trouble sleeping at night and then can't concentrate in school, said Alice Phelps, principal of the Wounded Knee School District. The school works to provide the resources it can to help support these students.

A number of nonprofits work with fuel companies to get propane to households in need. Lakota Kidz, an organization that donates supplies like books and clothes to the reservation,  is one of the groups that works with Bob’s Gas. Lakota Kidz donates enough to cover two months’ worth of fuel for about 30 families on the reservation.

Last year, the Oglala Sioux Tribe received $1.2 million in funding from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal program that helps underserved families with their energy bills and other needs. Those funds will drop slightly this year. 

In addition to struggling to afford heat, many residents also live in run-down homes that simply aren’t built for the brutal winters.

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Many of the homes on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are nothing more than one room and aren't equipped to withstand freezing temperatures. (Jeri Baker/One Spirit)

Some of these homes have only one room. In more than half the homes, anywhere from three to four families are packed under one roof.

Faced with few alternatives, residents take desperate measures to stay warm. Some keep their ovens on. Others take refuge in their cars, which also raises the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Residents will wrap plastic around their windows to help insulate the interior, said Jeri Baker, founder of One Spirit, a nonprofit that provides firewood to people in need.

The organization pays five workers to collect wood and deliver it to struggling households. The workers get $100 to $150 per job. The nonprofit spent about $11,000 last year on salaries and equipment, Baker said.

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The nonprofit One Spirit hires five local residents to cut wood and deliver it to people in need on the reservation. The employees earn $100 to $150 per delivery. (Jeri Baker/One Spirit)

Jimmy Two Bulls, who’s employed by One Spirit, grew up on the reservation and still chokes up when he talks about the conditions he’s seen. He’s been to homes that have gaping holes in the floor. He recently visited an elderly woman who didn’t have a handle on her front door and used a rag to keep it shut.

Outside of his work with the nonprofit, Two Bulls donates what he can, when he’s able.

An older woman recently approached Two Bulls with a Mason jar filled with $67 in coins. She asked him how much the loose change could buy her. Two Bulls handed over a load of wood, free of charge.

“All around,” he said, “it’s a hard thing to witness.”

The reservation is preparing for a cold front this weekend and potential storm. Temperatures are expected to drop to -5 with a wind chill of -19. Advocates and educators are taking necessary precautions. Janis and DeCory said they are monitoring Facebook to see if there are any children in distress, and they are giving their numbers to as many people as possible. Others in the community are checking in on older residents.

“Everyone’s in survival mode,” Phelps said. “Out here, it feels like we’re in our own world. It doesn’t feel like the U.S. It feels like a third world country.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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