Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire:  it is the time for home.

Edith Sitwell, Taken Care Of: An Autobiography

“Winter is harsh,” says Miya, reminding me. In the phone conversation in which we decide I will travel to South Dakota and stay with her through the end of her life, Miya both cautions me and teases me:  “Be ready for the cold and the wind. You’ve grown soft with pink cheeks in the Northwest. It will do you good to walk across the frozen prairie.”

I remember a winter day we spent together on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation several years ago. The cold hit hard and the winds blew ceaselessly. It was the last time I traveled to South Dakota in the wintertime until this past winter.

We awoke to a restless Great Plains sky. It was an eerie indigo-blue color. Instead of a glorious sunrise show, we watched a black-blue cloud blot out the sun as it hurried up the sky. Within minutes, the weather changed dramatically. Clouds blew through the sky, rolling and sliding as though the sky were a skatepark with steep, never-ending half-pipes, quarter pipes, spine transfers, bowls, and banked ramps.

A new line of darkening purple clouds appeared under the rolling clouds. Stretching upwards, slanting across the sky, they moved through quickly like an opulent cloud staircase in a sky mansion.

Becoming bleaker and heavier with snow clouds, the sky turned a dreadful greenish-blue and then darkened the day like dusk. In Ohio, where I grew up, a green sky meant a severe thunderstorm was coming; we could tell by the clouds that looked like towers. On this particular day on the prairie, we knew that what we were witnessing was all about light, air, clouds, and water droplets – and it wasn’t good.

We abandoned our observation spot at the window, added wood to the stove, and made fry bread in the iron skillet, all of our senses heightened with the dramatic weather show outdoors. The temperature suddenly dropped 20 degrees, the sky turned slate gray, and the overburdened, exhausted clouds exploded, dumping large amounts of snow, rain, and ice. Then the temperature dropped another 10 degrees or more, and the sky turned into a blizzard.

Wicked winds blew (we learned they had reached 70 miles per hour) and heavy snow fell, reducing visibility from near zero to zero in just a few minutes. I then understood what “whiteout conditions” meant as I watched the scene at the window turn from a milky haze to a whipping white blanket. The wall of wind, snow, and frost was a beastly storm beating against the house. We added more wood to the stove, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and hunkered down in the comfort of home, away from the windows, singing songs and sharing wild storm stories as the blizzard surged on furiously.

Feeling a shift in the temperature, we got up and looked out the window again. Snow had stopped falling, and sustained winds had blown the already fallen snow on the ground all around, creating large snowdrifts. The biggest surprise of all was the bright, clear blue sky where, just a couple hours earlier, enormous storms had raged.

The sharper the blast, the sooner it will pass.

Weather proverb

Winter is like that on Pine Ridge:  sharp, intense storms of short duration travel swiftly across the prairie. Unlike the powerful and swift prairie snowstorm, a prairie thunderstorm moves more slowly, bringing seemingly endless waves of storms and clouds. There may be cloudy, stormy weather for days before the storm hits. First, the warm front passes, followed in a few hours by the cold front. It is a confusing combination of clouds and rain, wind and temperature changes, and can be severe, but not frightening like a blizzard. Still, I do not want to be caught outside and unprepared in either.

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Storm sky over Pine Ridge

This isolated expanse of the Great Plains where Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located is one of the harshest environments in the United States. Temperatures in the winter often drop below zero – 10 to 20 degrees below or lower – and fierce, frigid storms bring heaping snow, ice, and wind. During winter months, wind chill temperatures (a value derived from both temperature and wind speed) can reach dangerous levels for humans and animals. On much of the land, there are few trees or other obstructions to reduce wind and blowing snow.

A temperature of 10 degrees below zero or lower physically hurts my fingers, face, ears, and brain. Even my earwax froze this past February. Miya liked that I laughed about it. My escort on the reservation, Red Feather, joked to Miya, “I think Cheryl has found Jesus on the Rez. When we walk outside, she always says ‘Jesus, it’s cold!'”

Storms on the prairie always remind me of my childhood home in Ohio, where the storm gods of the Midwest bring wind, rain, and snow in winter and bring wind, hail, lightning, thunder, and sweet, restoring rain in spring and summer. That is my memory anyway. What sets the prairie storms apart from the Midwest storms, however, is the wind. It astonishes me each time I see the prairie wind blow.

Here in Oregon, where I make my home now, we, too, can have severe winter weather. Although the Columbia River Gorge wind can easily uproot the mightiest Douglas Fir tree and shatter houseboats in rolling river currents, our storms are mild in comparison to those on the Great Plains and in the Midwest. Our most severe storms occur every 40 years, not every 4 years, nor 1/4 of the year.

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Winter storm on Pine Ridge

My friend Miya never thundered at the storms, the furious winds, the biting frosts, and the blinding snows. Nor did she grumble about the summer heat, which can reach above 110 degrees, and the burning summer wind, which scours the prairie. Miya called the prairie winds “playful and temperamental” like the prairie wolf or coyote after which she was named (Miyaca, mee-YAH-chah). Whatever came, she adjusted, with more effort and energy if necessary, but always without complaint. The Lakota people, the horses, the antelope, the buffalo, and the coyotes are hardy survivors.

Because winter months are extremely difficult on the Great Plains, the Lakota people measure a person’s life by the number of winters they have survived and not their actual date of birth. In English we ask, “How old are you?” We count the years and months since our birthdate. In Lakota they ask, “Waniyetu nitona he?” (wah-NEE-yea-tue nee-TOH-nah hey), which translates to “How many winters are you?” They count the winters of their life. Miya survived most of 66 winters; she died in February, three weeks before her 66th birthday.

Home is a shelter from storms – all sorts of storms.

William J. Bennett

Not only is winter on Pine Ridge harsh, it is also expensive. Less than a third of Pine Ridge residents rely on electricity for home heating, with more than half using propane, kerosene, or natural gas. Others use wood, despite the scarcity of trees. Many homes have no basic water and sewage system, forcing them to carry water from local streams for their daily personal needs.

The history of Pine Ridge, along with other reservations across the country, is that they have largely been ignored by state and federal infrastructure projects since state and federal governments were established. As reported in U.S. News & World Report, in 1964 a large public utility serving the central and western United States constructed a transmission line that runs through Pine Ridge, but the line did not service the reservation itself. It took a private company to come in many years later to begin the process to extend the line and distribute electric power to Pine Ridge. The process spanned decades. I know people whose homes weren’t connected until last summer.

Even with the transmission line, however, bringing electricity to people’s homes on the reservation is expensive; it is not feasible to install lines and meters for remote residences. For a reservation covering 2.22 million acres (larger than the U.S. states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined), where more than half of the people live below the poverty line, it is more feasible for residents to buy propane and wood for heating and cooking. After paying for those costs, they have little left for other needs.

Miya eventually moved off the reservation and made her home in Rapid City, regularly returning to Pine Ridge to assist her tribal community and family. She asserted that energy poverty is a human rights issue, and utility companies should be held accountable for decisions that can cost the lives of people living in the harshest of conditions. “People living on the reservation shouldn’t have to get up each day and choose between feeding themselves, heating their home, turning on a light, or charging their cell phone,” she said.

There is no industry on the reservation to help Oglala Lakota people. Pine Ridge’s extreme conditions, arid climate, and a lack of resources, due to the fact that the land is not farmable on an industrial scale, create a need for renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. The state of South Dakota is a leader in renewable energy production, with most of the state’s electricity coming from hydroelectric power and wind, but tribal members tell me state resources don’t make their way to the reservation.

The tribe has to figure out on its own how to harness the power of the sun and the wind, and they are doing just that. A Native-owned and operated renewable energy company located on Pine Ridge is partnering with a community organizing group to install solar heating systems and train people how to use them. Together they are building renewable energy systems for heating, electricity, and job growth on the reservation. This slow storm of change is life-saving. It also reinforces and strengthens the Lakota people’s connection to nature and responsible environmental stewardship.

Events of this past March, however, exposed the need for change on a larger scale. Residents on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were stranded for more than two weeks after a blizzard and then a flood made many roads impassable and collapsed water supply lines. Mountains of mud and rising floodwaters created a state of emergency and humanitarian crisis as people could not get off the reservation to obtain drinking water and food, buy medicine, access medical care, get feed for their buffalo and cattle herds and horses, and secure the necessary supplies and equipment to deal with the crisis. Flooded creeks made it impossible to travel even by horseback in some areas. Many buildings and homes were destroyed. In their path, the floodwaters also swamped the renewable energy company; as a result, the business suffered terrible, uninsured losses. The flooding was reported by the New York Times to be the worst in at least a generation.

Miya’s niece, Kimimela (kee-MEE-mey-lah), described the scene on Pine Ridge to me as “a cold, gray-white and brown loneliness.” For more than two weeks, the Lakota communities remained virtually isolated from the outside world. The State of South Dakota was slow to respond, blaming the tribe for being slow to submit their formal requests for assistance. The government’s position is problematic. It reflects the State’s ignorance about both the plight of the tribe and the lack of communications tools available to the tribe. Or, perhaps more accurately, it reflects a history of federal and state neglect and racism.

I believe it is a responsibility of state government to inform themselves of these critical situations throughout their state – to be proactive emergency planners and responders. Checking in on and assisting the impoverished tribal communities in the event of a weather emergency, especially one that dares to break historic levels, should be a standard, integral part of South Dakota’s emergency preparation, response, and recovery plans.

Miya was right:  winter on the Great Plains is harsh. The average South Dakotan is strong. The endurance to make it through severe winter weather is a fundamental part of a South Dakotan’s constitution. But desperately poor families on the reservation – people without the resources, communications tools, and infrastructure to prepare for, respond to, and recover from severe winter storms and extreme cold – are more imperiled. The spirit of the Lakota people is strong. They have grit, but there is little they can do except wait for the next storm and survive the next winter. The State of South Dakota government should have figured that out by now. How many winters are they?