Too Little, Too Late? President Obama Approves Disaster Declaration For Storm Ravaged South Dakota

CRST Tribal Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty presenting Senator Obama with the tribal resolution. The CRST was the first American Indian tribe to endorse Obama for the office of United States President.  

March 10th, 2010, seventy-five days after being struck by the first of two major storms that crippled the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) reservation, President Barack Obama issued a disaster declaration for the state of South Dakota.

Although tribal chairman Joseph Brings Plenty issued a state of emergency for the tribe on January 27th, it would take Obama nearly two months to hear the desperate pleas of the Native nation that first endorsed him for President of the United States.  While millions of American dollars poured into Haiti and Chile’, America’s first peoples struggled to survive amidst sub-freezing temperatures and the deaf ears of it’s own country.

From the White House  website, the following declaration was listed:

“The President today declared a major disaster exists in the State of South Dakota and ordered Federal aid to supplement State and local recovery efforts in the area struck by a severe winter storm during the period of January 20-26, 2010.

Federal funding is available to State and eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by the severe winter storm in Aurora, Brule, Buffalo, Campbell, Corson, Day, Deuel, Dewey, Douglas, Edmunds, Faulk, Grant, Gregory, Hand, Harding, Hughes, Hutchinson, Hyde, Jerauld, McCook, McPherson, Meade, Perkins, Potter, Roberts, Sully, Turner, Walworth, and Ziebach Counties, as well as those portions of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, Sisseton-Wahpeton Indian Reservation, and Standing Rock Indian Reservation that lie within these counties.”

In his October 22, 2008 campaign video message entitled, “Barack’s Message for First Americans,” Obama states the following:

 “For twenty months now I’ve traveled this country often talking about the needs of the American people are going unmet by Washington.  And the truth is, few have been ignored by Washington for as long as American Indians.  Too often, Washington pays lip service to working with tribes while taking a one-size-fits-all approach with tribal communities across the nation.  That will change when I’m president of the United States.”

My American Indian policy begins with creating a bond between an Obama administration and the nations all across this country. We need more than just a government-to-government relationship, we need a nation-to-nation relationship; and I will make sure that tribal nations have a voice in the White House.

While tribal nations may have been promised a voice in the White House, it would seem that sadly, those voices have been silenced.

December 24, 2009 brought a crushing winter storm that left the CRST reservation with drifts of ice and snow towering 30 feet and more into the air.  Many still remain as a staunch reminder that the crises which blanketed tribal lands with deadly snow and ice, continue to be ignored  just as the many promises made, lying in state beneath a blanket of flowery words and smooth assurances that the “change we can believe in” would be a positive change for Native peoples.

January 21st brought new storms that left thousands without power, water, heat, food, medical supplies, and transportation, some for weeks.  Nearly ten thousand electrical poles lay scattered across the 2.8 million acres that make up the CRST reservation, the price of which the tribe will be required to absorb as the poles are repaired and replaced.

It has been reported that the state estimates damages from the storm in December will be in excess of $1 million; however no estimates have been provided for the January storms nor have estimates been given regarding the long-term damage to homes, roads, schools, or the health care of tribal members.

From an earlier interview with CRST chairman Joseph Brings Plenty, estimates for repairs to the reservation could be in excess of $100 million.  The water infrastructure was put into place some sixty years ago after the Missouri River, the tribe’s only natural source of water, was diverted away from the tribe’s land.  With a “shelf life” of only 25 years, the tribe was assured in 1976 that should the system fail or need repaired, it would be completed without fail.  That promise, just as every promise made to the Lakota, has gone unfulfilled and today the tribe continues the already daunting battle to provide clean healthy drinking water to it’s members.

It would seem, the “lip service” that President Obama spoke so harshly of in his video message, remains in full effect.

Treaties between the American government and Native nations have gone unfulfilled and as a result, many tribes remain in poverty with crime rates, rape and crimes against women, drug and alcohol addiction, and teen suicide continue to rise.  Crises such as these recent storms, only add to the current state of urgency that each tribe faces on a daily basis.

Barbara Low, Mi’kmaq activist,” Lakota Helper,” (a title of honor) and good friend of Autumn TwoBulls (Lakota youth activist from Pine Ridge) relates the following in regards to the rising incidents of alcoholism and the number of teen suicide on the reservations, “We [share] a history of Genocide, and with that in mind, I would just make one suggestion:  Not only is it important to highlight the positive with the negative, [it] is just as important to highlight the fact that the ‘negative’ is the RESULT of Colonialism induced genocide.  Too often, articles are written that miss the step between conditions and solutions.  We are not suicidal, impoverished peoples, because we are Indigenous.  We are suicidal, impoverished peoples, because of the inter-generational effects of genocide. Over 500 years of colonialism will drive anyone to drink.”

In his video message, President Obama one again makes promises that seem to lie further under the snow and ice than many of the reservation roads.

“Here’s what else we’re going to do.  We’re going to end nearly a century of mismanagement of Indian Trusts.  We’re going to work together to settle unresolved cases; figure out how the trusts ought to operate, and make sure they’re being managed responsibly.  Today, tomorrow, and always.  Now I  understand the tragic history between the United States and tribal nations.   And we’ve got to acknowledge that truth if we’re going to move forward in a fair and honest way.  Indian nations have never asked much of the United States.  Only for what was promised by treaty obligations made to their fore-bearers.  So let me be absolutely clear.  I believe treaty commitments are paramount law.  And I will fulfill those commitments as President of United States.

Nancy LeBeau, a CRST tribal member and school teacher who lives on the reservation, explained that many roads are still impassible and due to the nature of damages from the storms, many schools are unfit to house the children for lessons.  As a result, children are being bused during the early morning hours to rented buildings more than an hour away in order to remain consistent with their schooling. Many families have no means of transportation and should a child miss the bus, there is no way for that child to get to school.  She recalls the frustration not only as a teacher, but from the children and their families as they live day to day in poverty and now literally with their community in ruins.

President Obama also guaranteed “…a world class education for all our children.  I’ll work with tribal nations to reform ‘No Child Left Behind,’  and create opportunities for tribal citizens to become teachers, so you can be free to educate your children the way you know best.  We’ll increase funding for tribal colleges and I will make native language preservation and education a priority.  To give families in our tribal communities every chance to succeed in a twenty-first economy, I will cut taxes for ninety-five percent of all workers, invest in job training and small business development, and put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads, schools, and bridges.  And I will never forget the service and sacrifice that generations of American Indians have given to this country.  We have to keep our sacred trust with Indian veterans by making sure that no veteran falls into homelessness.  And that all our veterans get the benefits and support they have earned.”

Ms. Lebeau tells of one of her students and his family who struggle daily to see that his educational needs are met.  “A parent of one of my kids told me what they did when the blizzard hit. She has no car as many do here. So, she relies on a family member who has a vehicle, then when the storm hit, they all relied on the one family member who still had a wood stove. She was worried because she doesn’t know how she is going to pay for her increased water, fuel and electric bill. She also is a very concerned parent and lets her son (who suffers from multiple disabilities) keep the one alarm clock they have. If he forgets to turn it on, they miss the bus, thus miss school because she has no way to drive him 30 miles to school. She quickly switches the subject and talks about his favorite food and how she tries to get the ingredients. Life is hard for her, yet she composes herself and lets me know that she is happy he is in school.”

President Obama closed his video message by comparing his upbringing and lifestyle to that of an American Indian who is poor, fatherless, ignored, and unrespected.

“Let me just close by saying this.  I was born to a teenage mother.  My father left when I was two years old so I never knew him well.  I was raised in Hawaii by a single mother and my grandparents and we didn’t have a lot of money.  Where I grew up there weren’t many black families, so I know what it feels like to be viewed as an outsider sometimes. I know what it’s like not always have been respected, to sometimes have been ignored.  I know what it’s like to struggle.  Every president is shaped by his own experience.  These have been mine.  And so I want you to know that I will never forget you.  The American Indians I have met across this country will be on my mind each day that I’m in the White House.  You deserve a president that who’s committed to being a full partner with you, to respecting you, honoring you, and working with you every day.  That is the commitment I will make to you as President of the United States.”

Well President Obama, it’s time you put your money where your mouth is.  You’ve made promises that you’ve yet to keep.  You’ve ignored those you promised to acknowledge.  You’ve dishonored and disrespected those who you promised to honor and respect.  You’ve broken that “sacred trust” you so eloquently emphasized in your campaign speech.  It’s time you stopped paying that lip service you so vehemently condemned and began making the changes you spoke of, and begin living up to the commitment that you made to the Indigenous peoples of this country.

Photograph used with permission of CRST tribal chairman Joseph Brings Plenty.
Source:  KSFY Staff at
Video Source:
President Obama’s Declaration of Disaster:


~ by RaznCain on April 19, 2011.

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