Staying Warm on the Reservations
How could it be that in 2014 a woman on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota froze, when the state has grown from the seventh to the third largest of U.S. crude oil producers?
While the passing of Debbie Dogskin and the oil boom in North Dakota may seem unrelated, consider the thousands of flares accompanying oil wells across North Dakota. As each one of those flares burn, natural gas is released and often uncaptured alongside the crude oil below. Part of that uncaptured gas is propane. When Debbie Dogskin was found on February 4 last year, she was housesitting for a friend and the home’s propane tank was empty.
At the time, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was under a state of emergency as a national propane shortage had skyrocketed the price of propane to more than $3.50 per gallon. A year earlier, the average price of propane in North Dakota was $1.55 per gallon. According to the Associated Press, some 5,000 homes on Standing Rock rely on propane for winter heating. Many of the people occupying those homes live on fixed incomes.
When this was happening, I was living on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota and the same thing was happening there. Propane shortages and the loss of propane in domestic oil production, combined with off-reservation propane vendors often requiring a minimum order of 100 gallons for deliveries, made a basic human necessity like staying warm unattainable for many of the people of Rosebud.
Although many of you may be surprised by this, staying warm in Indian country really can be a matter of life and death or lead to hypothermia. Typically, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assists eligible tribal members with winter heating needs for wood, propane and electricity. However, recent budget cuts at federal and tribal levels have led to temporary closures of tribal LIHEAP offices, limiting the number of people served and delaying help for those with urgent need. When speaking about the budget cuts, Northern Cheyenne President Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher predicted, “I’m afraid it’s going to get worse and worse in future years.” The impact of LIHEAP budget cuts are only heightened by the lack of local winter fuel sources and providers in remote reservation communities.
Knowing that those most vulnerable in reservation communities are often the most affected by harsh winters and social program budget cuts, National Relief Charities provides various forms of heating assistance, according to community needs of the reservations we serve. NRC knows that Native American Elders often heat their homes with wood, wood and coal, propane or electricity, and that about 40% of reservation housing is considered sub-standard for plumbing, heating and cooling. Providing firewood, coal and winter fuel vouchers for propane or electricity is NRC’s way of helping hundreds of Elders stay warm on the Northern Plains and the Southwest reservations.