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As Climate Chaos Engulfs Indian Country, Feds Abandon Tribes

The escalating climate crisis has caused the weather systems in Indian Country to swing wildly. And the tribes of the Plains — American citizens, like the Hurricane Maria-battered people of Puerto Rico — are being left to face the rising chaos alone.

Flooding in a downtown park on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The March 2019 bomb cyclone brought powerful winds and rain to the Pine Ridge Reservation, flooding this downtown park and displacing thousands. ,Image courtesy of the Lakota People’s Law Project.
  • South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation is one of the most impoverished places in the U.S. But in 2018 and 2019, the reservation was struck by two horrific storms — with economic harm to their homes and livelihoods that the community’s low income residents have found it extraordinarily difficult to absorb.
  • High Plains weather has been getting more variable, erratic and destructive: in 2011 came severe drought and wildfires, followed in 2012 by severe flooding. Sometimes these oscillations take the form of high-powered storms, with a rash of tornadoes in 2016, a destructive ice storm in 2018, and a bomb cyclone in 2019.
  • According to the National Climate Assessment issued at the end of 2018, “Climate change is expected to exacerbate these [extreme weather] challenges.” But starting with Bill Clinton and continuing under Donald Trump, the federal government has severely slashed federal aid to Indian reservations and their low income residents.
  • As a result, Pine Ridge is increasingly forced to rely on its own resources and on creative solutions, including crowdfunded local and national volunteer teams who have risen to the challenge and helped the communities repair storm damage. But as extreme weather intensifies on the High Plains, surviving there will get tougher.

Late last March, an unseasonably hot column of air shot suddenly upward from the U.S. Great Plains and collided with the frigid high atmosphere above South Dakota, sending barometric pressure plummeting. In just seconds, the sky erupted like an exploding pressure cooker, bringing devastating wind, storm and flooding. At the bottom of that madly swirling air column were the homes and ranches of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The bomb cyclone hit the communities’ mobile homes like a missile. Such meteorological events (fierce storms that form with incredible speed when an extratropical surface cyclone undergoes “bombogenesis,” with a pressure drop of 24 millibars in 24 hours or less), are usually features of the coast, not the continent’s deep interior.

But then, as the residents of Pine Ridge know from tragic experience, these were not normal times.

This was their second weather disaster in eight months. When a fierce late July ice storm slammed into the Sioux reservation in 2018, Chase Iron Eyes and his kids had been on their way out for dinner. “It was dark, foreboding, swirling clouds,” remembered the Lakota attorney and tribal government spokesperson.

Then the hail hit with the force of a shrapnel blast, “so strong it wasn’t coming from heaven to earth but sideways,” ripping through the reservation’s rural settlements, slashing holes in the vinyl and aluminum siding and roofs of their mobile homes, shattering house and car windows, while also pulverizing cottonwood leaves, filling the air with the powerful scent of fresh shredded greenery.

When the July storm passed, Pine Ridge residents surveyed the damage: more than 500 homes were left uninhabitable, a severe blow to a reservation whose impoverished families have little capacity to absorb such a disaster. The March 2019 bomb cyclone would only add to the damage and despair. The reservation is home to the descendants of the Oglala Sioux who, under the great war leader Red Cloud, made peace with the United States in 1873. Its communities remain desperately poor; Oglala Lakota County is one of the most impoverished counties in the nation.

Like a Third World nation

For Iron Eyes, a grassroots activist who spent most of his life on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and who moved to Pine Ridge not long ago to campaign for the current tribal president, Julian Bear Runner, the dire conditions at Pine Ridge were eye opening: “It’s Ground Zero here,” he said. “During the campaign, we knocked on hundreds of doors, man. And the way a lot of people were living… I thought [such places] only existed in Third World countries.”

Life on Pine Ridge, Iron Eyes said, “has all the outward manifestations of a slow genocide.”

But behind the economic depression loomed something much larger and more frightening: the violent swings of a changing climate have come to the Northern Plains, threatening not only agriculture but the very habitability of a region once dubbed by whites as the “Great American Desert.”

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Poverty has long made adaptation difficult here. And that was before the March bomb cyclone, which damaged 75 houses, or last July’s hail storm, which damaged hundreds more.

After the summer event, many houses perforated by the hail, were left exposed to the South Dakota elements. And as every Oglala knew then, time was fast running out. Soon the harsh Plains winter rolled in — a brutal season even in a house with intact windows and walls.

Time is against the Oglala long-term as well: the Northern Plains, with their arid climate and long distance from temperate oceans, have always been a place noted for temperature and weather extremes — an unpredictability, the recent National Climate Assessment notes, that has always made it difficult for cities, suburbs and the tribes to cooperate in reliably managing resources. “Climate change,” the report warned, “is expected to exacerbate these challenges.”

Over recent decades, the escalating climate crisis has steadily turned up the chaos meter, battering reservations. Creeping behind the more theatrical plagues of tornadoes and ice storms is an even greater threat: a dizzying dance of deluge, followed by drought, followed by flood, as regional weather systems swing ever more wildly. And as these extremes intensify, the tribes of the Plains — American citizens, like the Hurricane Maria-battered people of Puerto Rico — are being left to face the rising chaos alone.

Indian Country’s changing climate

According to studies by NASA and NOAA, 2018 marked the fourth warmest year on record since 1880, “an extremely warm year on top of a long-term global warming trend,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science.

But for the Northern Plains and the communities there, the danger is less rising temperature per se than a tremendous increase in anarchic, unpredictable and extreme weather, particularly centered around water. According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, weather on the Plains has been getting more variable, erratic and destructive, with sometimes surreal oscillations: in 2011, for example, the Northern Plains faced a rash of wildfires and drought, followed in 2012, by severe flooding. Occasionally, these oscillations take the form of high-powered storms, as in the rash of tornadoes that ravaged South Dakota reservations in 2016, or the ice storm of 2018, or the bomb cyclone of 2019.

With its frigid winters and baking summers, and its lack of mountains or forests to break up violent weather systems, the Northern Plains have always been characterized by wild weather swings. But now those fluctuations are increasing, endangering infrastructure and water supplies that have made the semi-arid Plains habitable. For example, as winter drought and earlier spring melt reduce the High Country snowpack that feeds the Missouri River and other streams, agriculture is becoming more constricted, narrowing the region’s economic base. However, larger and more powerful storms dump far more rain all at once, causing Biblical floods, found the 2018 National Climate Assessment.

Water woes were at the root of the region’s re-entry into the national consciousness in 2016. Early that year, as a Houston-based pipeline company proposed drilling the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath the Missouri River, Bobby Jean Three Legs, a young mother and long distance runner, woke up in her home on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to her three-year old daughter asking her for water. Three Legs had a sudden, heart-stopping vision of a coming world in which there would be no water to give.

The rebellion at Standing Rock, which grew out of a movement that Three Legs and a group of Lakota teens started, became a meeting-place for utopians and dissidents of all stripes who turned out to fight, as they said, “for the water.” But for the Lakota this was no metaphor: in 2002, when Three Legs was 9, a severe drought had caused Standing Rock to run out of water entirely; though that disaster was little noticed outside of South Dakota.

By 2016 they were getting their water from the Missouri River and “water protectors” feared that a single pipeline oil spill could make Three Legs’ prophecy come true. Now that the pipeline is complete, that’s still a concern — and ironically, the National Climate Assessment notes, the source of that breach could be increased flooding brought by escalating climate change.

The federal help that doesn’t come

The surge in extreme weather has been exacerbated by tribal reliance on federal disaster relief — aid which has become more difficult to get. Indigenous people on reservations generally lack ready capital as a buffer against bad weather, and they also — because they are technically residents of sovereign nations — are often disqualified from receiving aid from state disaster agencies and county extension offices. Many Pine Ridge residents, for example, hit by the 2018 hail storm, were still living in FEMA trailers brought in after a 1999 tornado that destroyed 150 homes.

As the winter of 2018-19 came on in the wake of the hail storm, the Oglala expected the federal government would step in again. But FEMA had weathered a harsh recent period of climate chaos too: 2017 had seen Houston inundated by Hurricane Harvey; the Gulf Coast and Caribbean utterly trashed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria; and a nearly-continuous season of wildfires across the West.

Amidst all these disasters, the Trump Administration — ignoring both the reality of climate change and the need to adapt to it — had ransacked agency, taking from FEMA to fund other “national security” priorities. In late June 2018, as Hurricane Florence barreled toward Georgia and the Carolinas, Trump reallocated nearly $10 million from FEMA’s budget slated for operations, mitigation and recovery, and transferred it to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was running a $200 million shortfall due to its larger-than-expected expenses for incarceration of undocumented immigrants.

This matters more, to be clear, for rhetorical reasons than practical ones. The FEMA budget is about $16 billion a year, far larger than the amount shifted to ICE. Jeff Byard, a FEMA associate administrator, told reporters that the loss of a mere $10 million had “not impacted [FEMA’s disaster relief] situation whatsoever.” But the optics were extraordinarily bad: the news of FEMA’s funding loss broke as hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans languished without power; deprived of much-needed supplies that FEMA had reallocated just before the storm. One study later found that a poor disaster response by FEMA had likely helped lead to the exodus of half a million American refugees from the beleaguered island.

Meanwhile, President Trump told Puerto Rico it was too well-off to need support, treating the Commonwealth, David Dayen wrote in The Intercept, “like a welfare recipient found to have too much money in its bank account.” Several months later, in January 2019, Trump would threaten to cut FEMA aid from California counties ravaged by wildfires “unless they get their act together,” citing alleged wasted “billions of dollars.”

The President didn’t follow through on the threat, but in this era of disaster-relief means-testing, the Pine Ridge request to the federal government for post-disaster assistance was quietly turned down.

FEMA sent a couple of agents to assess the 2018 hail storm damage, and then, to the shock of Steve Wilson, tribal emergency management officer, the agency refused to help. The reason, it said, was because the total financial damage hadn’t been high enough to warrant assistance.

Ironically: Pine Ridge property values were found to be so depressed that the extensive damage resulting from the hail storm — though catastrophic to the low income people living through it — wasn’t sufficiently high to warrant any aid.

To Chas Jewett, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation organizer in South Dakota, the Trump administration response was symptomatic of the double bind that much of Indian Country finds itself caught in again and again. “If that ice storm had hit Rapid City,” she said, “that same [destruction] would have been [totaled in] millions of dollars in damages, easy.” The lack of disaster relief, she added, felt like a tax on poverty: “You don’t know what the real cost of poverty is until you have to spend hundreds of dollars a month on propane because your house isn’t insulated, and you’re not hooked up to a grid.”

Extreme weather and a shrinking federal safety net

Other Indian reservations are being shut out from federal aid as well, including South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation last winter. The federal government shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019 cut funding to, and shut down, most of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency that pays for tribal police as well as other support offices and services.

During the shutdown, the Cheyenne River Indians endured almost three weeks of subzero temperatures, which took a heavy toll on roads, bridges, tribal vehicles, maintenance buildings and other infrastructure. With federal funding withheld, and budgets already thin, Jewett said, every additional bit of asset depreciation due to worsening extreme weather is more money taken out of largely depleted coffers.

“Climate change brings in so much more volatility,” said Zach Ducheneaux, a Cheyenne River resident who provides technical assistance for Indian farmers through the Intertribal Agricultural Council. “Even where our trend line is staying the same, the highs and lows are so much farther from what’s normal.”

Extreme storms and droughts, once considered outlier events, have gotten gradually worse, and have become the new normal on the reservation. In early October 2012, Winter Storm Atlas hit South Dakota with record setting blizzards and cold. “I knew tribal [cattle] producers who lost their whole herd,” Ducheneaux recalled. According to NOAA, this is part of a national trend — 2018 saw 14 one billion-dollar disaster events nationwide, the fourth highest ever. (The three higher years were all since 2011.)

Because Indian Country is generally rural and agricultural its economic base is particularly susceptible to natural disasters and freak weather. Likewise, recent alterations in US Department of Agriculture policy have disproportionately impacted Native farmers and ranchers.

Up until the late 1990s, the federal government maintained a standing disaster relief fund. Known as the Indian Acute Disaster Program, it was specifically earmarked for Indian Country and even included emergency money designated for hay deliveries to Native ranchers whose livestock feed had been snowed under, and guaranteed relief for herds assaulted by blizzards.

But toward the end of the Clinton Administration, the rules changed: the standard Indian allotment was dropped in favor of a system where tribes and ranchers had to apply for relief after individual disasters.

This new system was especially bad for Indian farmers, for reasons that mostly, like so much in farm country across the US, come back to credit.The new rule required lots of time-consuming paperwork, and then, following a written tribal appeal for disaster relief, USDA would send officials to “ground-proof” claims, all of which could take days or weeks. Most counties have extension agents whose job it is to coordinate between federal aid programs and farmers, but the reservation system often has to make do with whatever extension agents their non-native neighbors can spare — adding more delay.

And finally, when aid does become available, records can be a problem. “Our Native American producers aren’t as accustomed to the [detailed] recordkeeping that non-Indian producers do on a regular basis,” Ducheneaux said, “because we don’t have the access to capital in the same way, which would require reporting your livestock.”

Because Indians are less able to get loans, Ducheneaux explained, they are also less likely to carry through on the sort of recordkeeping that becomes vital once disaster strikes. Not that records are necessarily any salve: “A whole bunch of cows got burnt up in the big wildfires on the Colville Reservation a few years ago,” Ducheneaux recalled. “How do you document your cow got burnt up?”

The credit problem

It isn’t, Ducheneaux emphasized, that Indians always get aid significantly later than non-Indians. But with, for example, Winter Storm Atlas, no federal money came through till the following autumn, forcing any farmers who lost their herds to get by for many months without credit or relief. Indian farmers, he noted, are resilient and well-networked with their neighbors — but they don’t generally have banked cash or equity to float them through a disaster until the federal relief money shows up. “The non-Indian is up there with a bunch of farm [assets],” Ducheneaux said. “He has his CAFO, he’s diversified. He’s had 45-50 years to build equity. So if he knows there’s federal disaster assistance coming [eventually], he can go to the bank, borrow against this collateral for now, pay you back later.”

By contrast, Ducheneaux described a Cheyenne River rancher who had just taken out a loan for his cows when Winter Storm Atlas froze them all to death. “That Indian producer was tapped out borrowing to secure the cows [in the first place]. So there’s no real ability for him to go to the bank and say, ‘Well, I got federal assistance coming at some point, how about we work together [and you give me a loan to tide me over]?’.”

Ducheneaux sees a broader economic problem as well: if Indians could capture more of the wealth currently being extracted from their reservations in the form of cattle — say, by building their own meatpacking plants, their own credit instruments — then they would have more resilience in terms of disasters too. A partial solution may be on the way: the Intertribal Agricultural Council currently has $2.5 million out in loans to small producers, which it hopes to parlay into a new-model sustainability fund available to all of Indian Country, in which the bank helps Native farmers win, rather than simply taking the house when they lose.

But losing rather than winning could be the order of things in the near and far future. A grab bag of predictions from the recent National Climate Assessment for the Great Plains suggests harder times ahead: the number of days over 100 Fahrenheit is likely to double by 2050, with average temperatures up by 2-4 degrees Fahrenheit, in addition to that increased variability. Winter and spring precipitation is expected to rise up to 30 percent by the end of the century — likely bringing increases in flooding. There could be half again as many serious two-day floods by 2050. And as rainfall increases, snowfall will decrease, becoming more concentrated in dramatic hail storms, which will be, the federal report projected, 40 percent more damaging.

Despite predicted rainfall increases (mostly coming all at once, in extreme events), higher temperatures (which force plants, like people, to transpire more water), could lead to greater drought and groundwater depletion, which is already a serious creeping threat for the huge section of the United States that draws from the Ogallala Aquifer.

These big changes, Ducheneaux pointed out, won’t only impact the reservations. The Great Plains have become a breadbasket to the world; dramtic shifts in historical weather patterns and far greater climate extremes could pose a serious threat to U.S. and world food security.

Helping those who help themselves

For Pine Ridge, where the FEMA desk in the tribal headquarters has stood empty for more than a year, help after the 2018 hail storm came not from faraway Washington, but from the reservation’s own people, and from the kindness of strangers.

Jacquelyn Cordoba, a Taos Pueblo woman who had fallen in with the Oglala Lakota via her involvement in the International Indigenous Youth Council at the Standing Rock pipeline protest encampments, showed up in December 2018 on a different project. She was shocked to see the conditions following the July storm: “I heard it had happened, but I never knew how bad it was. Because you never hear how bad it is. Because the mainstream [media] doesn’t talk about what’s happening there [on the reservation].”

Her new organization, the Sacred Healing Circle, had passed their elders’ lore on to the young people at Pine Ridge, who were fired up on traditional religion after the Standing Rock protests. The previous summer, those young people had installed water quality monitors in a number of sensitive sites.

Now Cordoba walked through the Pine Ridge neighborhoods that had suffered the worst. “There were windows, doors, all stove in; cars smashed up,” she said. Church groups from Rapid City had already spent weekends volunteering, using plywood to cover gaping holes, but that was far from sufficient. “It was still cold and dark inside the houses, and people’s pipes were breaking” as winter temperatures fell. She crowdfunded $50,000 dollars, enough to put together a small work detail of locals and outside volunteers.

“A team came [to make repairs]. There would be a whole [street] of 20 busted up houses — and you just started knocking on doors, ‘Hey, we’re helping repair windows with Plexiglas. Would you like help?’ We would put five people on this house, five on that one, and you would just go for it,” Cordoba recalled.

It was slow going; few of the volunteers were professional construction workers, and there was “so much damage. We found out: some houses, it was [just] a window had to be fixed, but then [for others] the whole [trailer home] frame was damaged. Or, that person’s door has holes in it, so you go to Loews, and you buy them a new door — but then you realize the [door] frame was never set right, so the whole door is crooked,” and then both door and frame may need replacing to seal up the house again.

With the climate crisis now escalating, and the federal government withdrawing, help from local muscle and outside charities is about all the disaster relief that Pine Ridge can expect for the foreseeable future.

Speaking of FEMA’s 2018 hail storm aid denial, Cordoba said her team remains upbeat: “Sure, it shouldn’t have happened like that, but it did happen like that. And who was gonna keep people warm if not us?”

Originally, she expected volunteers to begin recovery work with great enthusiasm but then fade away. Instead, the building crews were indomitable: “They’d say, ‘These are our people.’ So we would do one more house. One more window. Keep one more family warm tonight.” So they hammered and drilled, house-by-house, until the last of the money was gone. Eight months later, the bomb cyclone hit.

 [Saul Elbein is a reporter for Mongabay, a non-profit that depends on support from readers like you. Donate here.]