‘It’s like the third world’: tribe feels forgotten as flooding brings misery to a struggling community – Nina LakhaniLast modified on Fri 29 Nov 2019 03.30 EST


Chad Medicine Horn starts each day mopping his bedroom floor and bleaching the walls to kill the fresh black mould.

A few hours later, the floor is once again soaked by groundwater seeping into the converted basement that he shares with his four-year-old grandson. They spend afternoons trying to stop the murky water soaking their double bed and few surviving clothes and toys with squeegee mops donated by the Red Cross.

Upstairs, Chad’s mother, Christina Selvin, 75, spends most days on the couch in pain from arthritis and kidney cancer, too sick to escape the toxic mould spores.

“No matter how much I clean, this shit just keeps coming back, it’s ruined all our stuff,” said Medicine Horn, 50, while mopping. “This isn’t healthy, everything stinks, my eyes hurt, we’ve all been sick, it can’t be legal to leave us living like this.”

It’s been like this for nine months in the White Swan community on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where hundreds of Native Americans have been struggling to cope with unprecedented rainfall and disease outbreaks following a series of extreme weather events.

The annual powwow and ball tournament in White Swan had to be cancelled this year because of the flooding.
The annual powwow and ball tournament in White Swan had to be cancelled this year because of the flooding. Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

These climate catastrophes have triggered three federal major disaster declarations for the state, but help has been slow to arrive to this tribal community where severe flooding has compounded longstanding social and economic inequalities by wrecking jobs, homes, and infrastructure.

And while tribal authorities scramble to navigate bureaucratic grants to ease the immediate suffering, fears are mounting about the community’s future: further flooding is forecast for spring which threatens to turn White Swan residents into climate refugees.

“The floods have caused a lot of hardships, it feels like the third world,” Shelly Saunsoci, 43, director of the Tribal Employment Rights Office (Tore), told the Guardian. The unemployment rate is 85% and few folks have insurance.

“The climate is changing, it’s already snowing in Montana, and if we have another wet winter and spring, there will be devastation, we’ll have to be evacuated,” she added.

The Yankton Sioux is one of seven tribes in South Dakota, where a third or so of the 9,000 enrolled members living within its territory near the Nebraska border – mostly in federal public housing projects managed by the tribal housing authority (THA).

Historically, White Swan was located on the banks of the Missouri River, but in 1952, the community was flooded out by the newly constructed Fort Randall dam.

Shelly Saunsoci, who is both the vice-chair of the community and the tribal employment rights director, in Swan Lake, SD. “We feel like we are all alone,” says Saunsoci. She has been organizing flood relief with no help from FEMA, the federal or state government.
Shelly Saunsoci, who is the vice-chair of the community and the tribal employment rights director, in White Swan. ‘We feel like we are all alone.’ Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

It was rebuilt in the 1960s on the southern edge of Lake Andes in Charles Mix county, with a powwow arena for traditional festivities situated between the houses and water.

After several years of low water levels, the lake has been flooded since early March when a bomb cyclone – heavy snow, wind and rain – hit the area. The ageing aqueduct, which should divert excess water from the lake to the Missouri River, was overwhelmed by the extreme rainfall. (Until the water recedes, full inspections are impossible.)

In White Swan, groundwater and waste flowed into basements as the sewage station neared collapse; the highway and powwow arena were inundated.

A month later, another cyclone struck, followed by a second consecutive summer of record rainfall, causing havoc for local farmers already struggling due to the president’s trade wars.

Houses made uninhabitable by the flooding in Swan Lake, South Dakota on 15 November.
Houses made uninhabitable by the flooding in White Swan, South Dakota. Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

One of the most visible consequences of global heating is the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like heatwaves, heavy rain and storms, which wreak economic and social havoc on communities.

Gordon White Bull, 41, was rushed to hospital with liver failure during the first downpours in March, and returned four months later still recovering from a transplant. Back home, the family car was wrecked on the muddy road, while the furniture, children’s clothes and kitchen cabinet doors were covered in so much mould that they had to be thrown out.

“I can feel it in my lungs, it’s hard to breathe. We’ve done our best to keep it clean, but we need to get out,” said White Bull, 41, who was recently hospitalized again with a stomach infection. The basement is submerged in several inches of water, and the putrid smell makes it hard to breathe or see clearly.

Left: The basement of Theresa Hart’s house in White Swan. A sump pump works around the clock but still the water seeps up. Right: Mold and moisture collect on the walls in Deonne Tibbetts’ house in White Swan. Photographs by Amber Bracken/The Guardian

“Mould kills lung tissue and repeated infections can affect child growth and development, people should not be living in these dangerous conditions,” said Tom Gilmore, a retired physician who spent 50 years working on Indian reservations. “But Native Americans are not politically important.”

Initially, even tribal authorities were slow to react, though eventually they provided sump pumps (bought with donations from another tribe) and organised “muck squads” to strip mouldy walls and clear the wreckage.

But the rain kept lashing down, and the lake kept rising. In early August, the annual powwow was cancelled for the first time ever.

That’s when a group of women took matters into their own hands.

Saunsoci rallied local church groups, the Salvation Army and Red Cross, who brought emergency supplies – bedding, cots, tents, toiletries, food and clean-up kits (mops, gloves, bleach and face masks) – to the community centre which became the hub for exhausted families.

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