'Welcome Home Mia Rae Ann' ...'Thank you and wopida'

Mia Fischer with her uncle Terrence Zephier at her welcome home. (Photo by Jacqueline Keeler)

Jacqueline Keeler

A Yankton Dakota thanksgiving after a year of epic flood

Jacqueline Keeler

The sign read: “Welcome Home Mia Rae Ann!" 

Mia Fischer, Wambdi Gdeśka Mahpiya Wi, thanked the room full of relatives and friends November 23rd at the Fort Randall Casino on the Yankton Sioux (Ihanktonwan Dakota) reservation.

"I'm sorry this is really hard, making me want to cry. but thank you all for coming, and I really do miss you guys, and thank you, wopida."

It had been a long and sometimes lonely road to recovery for Fischer, 20 of Lake Andes, South Dakota. On Oct. 30 a house explosion claimed the lives of her best friend and housemate Aurora Denney, 23, and Denney's 3-year old daughter. The blast was possibly due to a propane leak. 

Mia survived with burns over 20 percent of her body and was flown to St. Paul, Minnesota, for care. Mia's aunt, Dayla Irving Picotte, told Indian Country Today that a one-year-old held in the arms of another niece, Calarina Irving, was ejected from the house, and both survived, relatively unscathed.

Despite death being a frequent visitor to reservations across the country, the floods have hit the community hard. According to a 2010 Justice Department report, Native women experience death rates in some counties nine times that of other American women.

Sadly, these young women and their children had been relocated only three weeks earlier when their home in White Swan tribal housing had been condemned after being flooded for seven months. In March, a bomb cyclone hit the area turning basements into swimming pools and ripping off roofs.

As reported in Indian Country Today, the reservation housing community saw little assistance, when in mid-September, 11 inches of rain fell in 24 hours and washed out U.S. Hwy 18 the only paved road to their homes. The road had re-opened only two weeks earlier, after being raised four feet, but that was not enough. Some residents had not even had a chance to drive on it and joking named it the Gov. Noem Memorial Highway. The $1 million improvement was the only visible assistance the South Dakota governor provided the community. It was still underwater as of this week. However, a portion beyond the barricades that connects to a road to the housing community was driveable.

In October, the standing water that filled their homes and pooled in their yards and streets tested positive for E.Coli. The children have had ringworm and impetigo and MRSA. 

Last month, with sub-freezing temperatures already upon them, residents report an Indian Health Service official told them that turning on their furnaces would release black mold spores into their homes. Homes have had to be repeatedly cleaned with bleach to get rid of the black mold that re-grows on their walls. Some parents made the tough choice to leave their homes because their children could not breathe and were on nebulizers or suffering from pneumonia.

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Jennifer White Bull, White Swan housing resident in front of her home. Her husband Gordon is recovering from an organ transplant in a mold-filled house.(Photo by Jacqueline Keeler)

This was particularly challenging to Jennifer White Bull and her husband Gordon, 42, who arrived back to their flooded home after a liver transplant to find their van ruined and their fridge filled with black mold. The couple has seven children, and after all of them began vomiting and had diarrhea, which Jennifer attributes to the mold, her husband came down with a more severe version and had to be taken to Sioux Falls and hospitalized.

The expenses from the sump pumps, loss of winter clothes stored in the basement, re-painting walls covered in mold, a second car's transmission ruined from driving on the dirt road, the purchase of a third car has left the family in a financially precarious position. They were unable to accept relocation to a different tribal house in Wagner because, after missing work to seek medical care in Sioux Falls, the White Bulls couldn't afford the $250 reconnection fee for the utilities to the new house.

It will take Gordon a year to fully recover from the surgery under normal circumstances. Still, his doctors gave him paperwork to give to the tribe's Housing Authority, saying he shouldn't be living in these conditions.

"It's really hard. Stressful," Jennifer says, "You know, sometimes you just want to cry, and you want to give up, but you can't."

With snow falling this week, the community is facing the prospect of the standing water freezing and more flooding in the spring with the ground already saturated.

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Roads going to the White Swan housing are still underwater eight months after the bomb cyclone hit the Yankton Sioux Reservation. (Photo by Jacqueline Keeler)

"What we had this time," Jason Cooke, vice chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe's Business and Claims' Committee said, "next year, we're going to, next spring we're going to be in for worse flooding."

Despite all this, the community has found support with each other, regularly eating meals together in the community center. For Thanksgiving, they are planning a meal with all the trimmings. A retired doctor, who delivered many tribal members throughout his career, Dr. Howard Gilmore and his wife Gene have donated turkeys and ham for the feast.

"On Thanksgiving," Shelly Sansouci, vice chair of the White Swan Community said, "I'm expecting 250 people."

They are giving thanks, saying Wopida, for survival for still being there.

And they have some things to be thankful for. Strangers have sent them donations via an Amazon Wishlist the community has put together that includes everything from towels to coats to space heaters. Local churches have sent food and much-needed donations.

After reading about the flooding conditions in Indian Country Today, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians sent program officers from the tribe's charitable giving arm to visit and tour the White Swan housing community.

The tribe said in an email: "During our visit to the Yankton reservation, we were in disbelief of the significant impact the flooding's caused all throughout the reservation and the local non-native community. We knew right away that this was going to require significant investment of resources and the various stakeholders working together to address the crisis."

San Manuel worked with the Yankton Sioux Tribe's Business and Claims committee to extend financial help to the beleaguered community.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem has refused the Yankton Sioux Tribe's request that she send out the National Guard unit, which is located on the Yankton Sioux reservation and specializes in water disasters. Trump issued a second emergency declaration in early October but failed to include the Yankton Sioux reservation or Charles Mix County, the county where the reservation is located.

The role of climate change in the flooding of the Midwest strikes poor communities hardest. And it hits particularly ones like the Yankton Sioux Tribe hardest, which has limited visibility and few champions at either the state or federal level. The community of White Swan was moved before when their village was flooded in the 1950s to build a dam and fuel the intensive farming practices of their white neighbors while sacrificing their best farmland.

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(Image: Indian Country Today)

Jacqueline Keeler is a Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota writer. Her book “The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears” is available from Torrey House Press and the forthcoming “Standing Rock to the Bundy Standoff: Occupation, Native Sovereignty, and the Fight for Sacred Landscapes” will be released next year. On Twitter: @jfkeeler

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