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Bringing the Plight of Reservation Homes to the Nation’s Capital

In no greater place can the poverty of some Indian reservations be observed than at the very houses that many Indian citizens call home.

These homes have received limited funding from the federal government for upkeep, having been built decades previously—and not always in a sound manner. Just ask Blackfeet residents who have been dealing with moldy homes and the related illnesses for years, with both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the tribe failing to fix the problem.

Other Indian homes, like those on the Pine Ridge Reservation, were built forty years ago and counting—long before energy efficiency was a concern.

“Our housing conditions across much of Indian country are really bad,” laments Henry Red Cloud, a Lakota Sioux citizen who has spent a lifetime working on energy and housing issues that affect Native Americans. “Our people are starving and cold—sometimes in stick houses that haven’t had updates in four generations.” (Read: Henry Red Cloud Leads the Renewable Energy Charge at Pine Ridge)

Legislators and administrators from Washington don’t usually get to see that poverty first-hand, so a group of Indians from the Oglala Sioux Tribe brought a powerful example to the footsteps of the Capitol Building in late March. Red Cloud was part of the effort, called “Trail of Hope,” which set up an Oglala home that has been lived in since the 1950s. Four generations and counting have lived in the tiny residence.

Grace Marks

One hope of the event’s organizers was to have Congress members and other important politicos tour the home, and to hopefully foster a desire to increase HUD funding. Problem was, the event took place just days after the bombings in Boston and as the White House and Capitol were receiving a new round of letters laced with ricin. So it turned out that that Capitol Building was locked down on the day of the demonstration, and few legislators were in sight.

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Still, Red Cloud says there was an impact, as non-profit housing workers were there, some news outlets picked up the story, and Native leaders in D.C. attended to help gather information and disseminate the word. In all, about 100 people attended or visited throughout the course of the event. He would have liked to have seen some HUD workers there as well, as that agency wasn’t closed that day, but none showed up.

“The main message is that housing is a huge need for throughout the First Nation communities. When the nation’s capital faces a huge need, things get done—they just need to see our huge needs as well,” Red Cloud says.

The goal of the Oglala Sioux Housing Council, which organized the event, is to ultimately achieve increased HUD funding. Right now, on Pine Ridge, the council estimates that there is a need for at least 6,000 new homes, or a need to improve the existing ones.

“This money would be awarded on a competitive basis to tribes with the greatest need and only if they have the capacity to effectively spend it,” according to a briefing paper released by the organizers. “The funds would be used to develop badly needed new housing and renovate existing housing. The shortage of housing and poverty that exist in some Indian and Alaska Native communities is dramatic and overcrowded and substandard housing has become epidemic in these Indian communities.”

Many federally recognized Indian tribes and Alaska Native communities already receive some housing money through HUD’s NAHASDA program, but tribal leaders say there is greater need than what the program currently meets and the funding levels have remained stagnant for 17 years. Also, all tribes are eligible for the same money under the program, so the needier tribes sometimes lament the competition from their wealthier counterparts.

Organizers, knowing the current limits on federal spending, said another goal is to get America’s private sector to establish new housing grant programs for America’s most needy Indian reservations and Alaska Native communities.

“Only ten housing units have been built on Pine Ridge in recent times,” Red Cloud says. “They are totally overcrowded—it’s disheartening. Our children can’t get a good night’s rest. They go to school hungry and cold. How can their minds be nourished?”