Power shut-offs at Standing Rock put families in danger

(Photo: Standing Rock Sioux Tribe)

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The White Mountains were forced out of their trailer during the coronavirus pandemic because they couldn't pay their power bill; now they're being told to stay home

News Release

Lakota People's Law Project

Robert White Mountain says he wasn’t sure what to do when he learned that the McLaughlin City Council was shutting off the electricity in his son’s FEMA trailer in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To many Native residents of McLaughlin, the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation’s second largest town (population 663, according to the 2010 census), such news is tantamount to an eviction. The White Mountain trailer lacks gas heating, so the family of five relies on electricity to provide warmth in subfreezing temperatures.

“Our McLaughlin City Council apparently fails to recognize the importance of keeping citizens within the safety of their homes during this pandemic, even though 23 states throughout the country and most other utilities in South Dakota have suspended power shut-offs,” White Mountain said.

The council shut off his son’s electricity twice this winter, once during February and again in March, in possible violation of South Dakota law. Though the state previously banned winter shut-offs from November through the end of March, McLaughlin mayor Arnold Schott said a staffer informed him the City could still cut the White Mountains' power.

While every privately-owned utility in South Dakota has now ceased power shut-offs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of McLaughlin has chosen to procure its electricity from Heartland Power, a co-op based in Minnesota. The council — notably all white except for one member in a town that’s 65 percent Native — exercises responsibility for administering water, power, and sanitation services for residents without additional oversight by the tribe.

Ultimately, White Mountain, who is in his 60s, invited his son, his daughter-in-law and their three children to cram into his house. He said it’s a suboptimal solution given the well-known possibility for the virus to more adversely affect older people, who most medical experts agree should limit outside exposure as much as possible during the pandemic.

White Mountain said he’s concerned that other families may be in a similar situation with their power bills but without any fallback plan. So he decided to contact the Lakota People’s Law Project to see if the Native rights-focused law and policy organization could help find a way to keep Standing Rock’s families safer. The organization responded by agreeing to amplify White Mountain’s story through various media channels and schedule him to speak at tonight's council meeting.

But in a conversation with Lakota Law director Daniel Nelson, Mayor Schott shut down the latter idea. Citing safety concerns due to the pandemic, Schott made it clear that no member of the public would be permitted inside council chambers. "I locked down the city. We're supposed to stay home, period," he said.

“This blatant hypocrisy shows exactly why we have to work overtime to protect Native families,” said Chase Iron Eyes, Lakota People’s Law Project lead counsel.

A former Democratic congressional candidate in North Dakota, home to half of Standing Rock’s territory, Iron Eyes pointed out that safety should come first for children, mothers and fathers, not just councilmembers. “We must not put anyone on the street where they can come to harm, perhaps contracting and spreading the virus," he said. "Not on their own reservation, not anywhere during this public health crisis.”

The McLaughlin case highlights a stark disparity among the ways different communities and states are handling the coronavirus pandemic. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has been unwilling to mandate statewide stay-at-home restrictions or business closures, while most other states have done both, and many have also put a stop to evictions.

In South Dakota, it’s still up to elected leadership in communities like McLaughlin, which the Native inhabitants refer to as Bear Soldier District, to decide when and how to respond to the pandemic. As of Sunday, South Dakota had 240 confirmed positive tests for the virus and two confirmed deaths. Though no known cases exist yet in McLaughlin, cases have been detected in Burleigh County, one hour’s drive away in North Dakota.

“We’re fortunate that COVID-19 hasn’t gained much of a foothold in Bear Soldier yet,” Iron Eyes said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to turn off power to people’s homes. We’ve got to be smart and compassionate about this. We’ve got to be ahead of the curve.”

The Lakota People’s Law Project has set up a form so people can email the McLaughlin City Council about the need to keep Standing Rock families like the White Mountains safe during the pandemic: https://www.lakotalaw.org/our-actions/no-sr-shut-offs.

The Lakota People's Law Project operates under the 501(c)(3) Romero Institute, a nonprofit law and policy center.

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