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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center building – a hub for services for the Indigenous community – was destroyed Dec. 20 during a bizarre string of early morning fires in Lake Andes, South Dakota.

“I am still in a state of utter disbelief,” said Charon Asetoyer, Comanche Nation, the center’s chief executive. “Why would someone destroy something that means so much to the community? Thankfully no one was injured in any of the five fires set.”

According to a report in the Mitchell Republic, Donavon Sully of Lake Andes claimed responsibility for the fires and turned himself in to the Charles Mix County Sheriff’s office. Sully told police he was angry and blacked out before setting the fires and slashing tires on cars in Lake Andes, according to an arrest affidavit.

The Health Resource Center is now faced with the daunting task of rebuilding. The center has served as the hub for several operations, including a food pantry, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, transitional housing and a community radio station, and also housed archival photographs and taped interviews with elders.

The shelter and transitional housing are located elsewhere and were not damaged in the fires but the food pantry, radio station and records for the organization were a complete loss.

“We are committed to providing non-stop services to the fullest extent possible as we rebuild,” Asetoyer said.

Established 35 years ago, the center has been a go-to location for community members, providing Dakota language programming, meals for children during summer breaks and after-school snacks. The center also houses “Dakota Talk Radio,” KDKO-89.5 FM.

“Several of our staff members grew up coming to the center for meals and services,” Asetoyer said.

The organization is also well-known for its national work and research on reproductive justice and Native women’s health policy.

“We met with staff at the center building later in the morning after the fire,” Asetoyer said. “We decided we are going to rebuild. We’re not going to let this stop us from serving the community.”

The cost to rebuild will be several hundred-thousand dollars. The organization has set up a crowdfunding page to help with the costs.

“There has been an outpouring of help from the community,” Asetoyer said. “The Yankton Sioux tribe is giving us office space at their law enforcement center and the Fort Randall Casino is donating office furniture.” 

For more info
For more information, visit the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center's website.

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