In mid-March, a hurricane-strength bomb cyclone, Winter Storm Ulmer, tore through the middle of the nation, slamming Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota with record amounts of rain. Rivers overflowed and low-lying communities were suddenly flooded, leaving hundreds stranded. Chances are you’ve already heard about these floods from your choice of mainstream media outlets—CBS and NBC featured general overviews of the regional crisis, while both the New York Times and the New Yorker offered write-ups delving into the issues faced by tribal nations within the states.
But nearly a month later, with Winter Storm Wesley set to sweep through the Dakotas, the Oglala Sioux people that call the Pine Ridge Reservation home are still waiting for state and federal assistance to deal with the effects of Ulmer.
The Oglala declared a state of emergency as early as the third week of March; other South Dakota tribes, including the Cheyenne River Sioux, followed suit, as the flooding from Ulmer left dozens across the land trapped in their houses and thousands without power or clean water. Last week, Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner issued a petition to the Oglala Sioux’s relief website, calling for support for quick state and federal relief, complete with a video outlining the drastic tolls Ulmer took on the reservation.
“Our emergency management director, Steve Wilson, is still reeling, and we’re going through the channels right now to properly appeal to FEMA,” Chase Iron Eyes, the tribe’s PR director, said in the video. “But that process could take months. We don’t have months.”
While tribal nations are sovereign entities, the treaties signed with the United States and subsequent legislation around America’s responsibility to the continent’s first people ensures federal assistance in times of emergency, following a declaration from the president of the United States insisting the aid is necessary, per FEMA. Splinter reached out to FEMA for comment, and will update if and when they respond.
Getting the president to issue the emergency declaration is where the people of Pine Ridge run into issues.
The administration of President Donald Trump has not wholly ignored the recent bouts of extreme weather that plagued the Midwest and western portions of the country. Trump issued federal emergency declarations for the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians in late March and another for the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians on Monday—both are located in southern California. Likewise, Trump issued the same declaration for the entire state of Nebraska, which includes the Santee Sioux Nation, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, the Sac and Fox Nation, and the Winnebago Tribe. Additionally, citizens of the Santee Sioux were included among those made eligible to apply for food assistance in a ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services issued last week.
But Trump has yet to speak a word about the flooding’s catastrophic effects on the Dakota tribes. This is a major problem, as the ills of colonialism and abject abdication of treaty rights by the federal government have left communities on the Pine Ridge reservation among the poorest and most vulnerable in the entire nation. Splinter reached out to the White House for comment, and will update if and when they respond.
Instead, in early April, he found the time to issue an executive order calling for the re-opening of construction on the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, supported by the conservative South Dakota legislature, is adamantly opposed by Native nations, including the Oglala. Trump followed that executive order with another on Wednesday that will prevent states from blocking pipeline construction under the Clean Water Act.
It is presently unclear why the Oglala’s calls for an emergency declaration have been ignored while others have been answered. Possibly of note is the fact that the tribal nation has been one of several that have voiced their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Much like when the Poarch Band of Creek Indians donated $184,000 to pay for the funerals of 23 victims of a lethal tornado that tore through Alabama in early March, other tribal nations have taken matters into their own hands while the federal government stumbles. The Muscogee Creek, for example, are currently sending an eight-member crew of emergency responders on the 13-hour drive north to provide the affected tribes with support.
Meanwhile, the people of Pine Ridge will continue to be failed by the same federal government that has had little more to offer them than apathy and a cold shoulder.