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Monday, October 12, 2020

Embracing the Culture and Challenges in Disaster Recovery Work in Tribal Communities


Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  No matter how a state may reference the day, whether it is recognized as Native American Day, First Peoples’ Day, or American Indian Day, in Indian Country, it is a day to celebrate people and communities who have responded with resiliency to European explorers' atrocities and the colonization that followed. 

Some states continue to mark “Columbus Day” for Christopher Columbus, but in 1990, South Dakota became the first state to recognize the history, culture and contributions of Indigenous people in the U.S.  The Pew Research Center says 21 states have this day as a state holiday, with 13 states and dozens of cities recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

In “Resiliency” is a word you will hear a lot when working with Native communities.  In fact, sometimes, the word resilience is seen as negative: It refers to survival from the generations of trauma and suffering caused by forced relocation and removal from homelands, massacres, and the forced assimilation of Native children in boarding schools.  The struggle from marginalization, underrepresentation and disenfranchisement continues today.

What does disaster recovery look like in Native communities on reservation lands? How do we respect the culture and customs of each tribe and tribal community while helping to achieve a robust recovery? How does the community focus on disaster recovery when there were already pressing needs and little resources?

In a recent conversation, Maretta Champagne, who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and coordinator of the Pine Ridge Long-Term Recovery Group, shared: 

“Resiliency is the key to disaster recovery. We have to teach resiliency and basic skills, like how to fix a window or install a glass pane, instead of just hammering some wood or cardboard over it. We are doing resiliency training starting with the elders and youth in the nine districts of Pine Ridge.”

We use the word “resilient” often at Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP). At the core of our disaster recovery work is helping communities toward resilience following a disaster. As we explained, disaster recovery is “the process of improving individual, family and community resiliency after the occurrence of a disaster. Recovery is not only about the restoration of structures, systems and services — a successful recovery is also about individuals and families being able to rebound from their losses and sustain their physical, social, economic, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Like any rural, small town disaster, the disasters on reservations are “low attention” – they receive little if any regional media attention, and certainly no national attention, which means less funds raised. In addition, tribal communities have pre-disaster challenges that make disaster recovery that much harder. In Maretta’s words: 

“We have a lack of housing with about 2,000 homeless families and 60% of the homes are severely substandard, without water, electricity, adequate insulation and sewage systems. All of these factors and lack of resources create a delay or no disaster recovery for some of the most vulnerable people. Natural disasters are devastating. For many survivors, their lives are forever changed and recovery takes years. Many will not recover without assistance.” 

The state had raised this road between White Swan Community and the town of Lake Andes to prevent flooding into the tribal community. Two weeks later, it was underwater; ironically, it created a dam for the water to stay in the housing. (Photo by Richie Richards/Native Sun News Today.)

Our partners in recovery know that disasters exacerbate tribal communities’ need for food and water. Bread for the World cites that one in four Native Americans is food insecure.  Shelly Saunsoci, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, has been helping the White Swan Community following the spring, fall and winter flooding of 2019. Under her leadership and a grant from CDP, the community has developed a Long Term Disaster Recovery Group, with Shelly coordinating the work. She recently noted:

“When we surveyed needs of all of the households, the number one need was food, and the number two concern was the damage and mold from the flooding. Of the 79 households that completed the survey, 73% reported an immediate need for food, while 42% reported urgent flood related mold removal and repair needs. This is coming from families who are living in homes with visible or noticeable mold that is causing health issues and concerns” 

347 households in White Swan and Lake Andes area received household items, toiletries, food and water distributed from the White Swan Community Center on September 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of White Swan Community Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group/Walks On The Day Foundation.)

Some reservation counties have 40% of people living in poverty. The poorest county in the United States (according to the 2010 U.S. Census) is Oglala Lakota, in South Dakota, home of the Pine Ridge Reservation with poverty of nearly 50% and unemployment rates of 10%. Maretta says of her tribe, “It is really 97% living in poverty and 85% unemployment, plus one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.” The households completing a needs assessment in White Swan Community on the Yankton Sioux Reservation as part of CDP’s grant reported 28% unemployment and 68% are receiving SNAP benefits.

CDP is working with tribal communities in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota to build local capacity to recover from natural disasters. We are learning from community leaders like Maretta in Pine Ridge and Shelly from Yankton Sioux, residents, and elders. We are asking what is needed and helping those communities to get the necessary resources. We are helping the people get organized, hiring staff if needed, making connections with other organizations and funders who may be able to help, and helping them to also learn right along with us. 

Shelly explains: 

“CDP gave us a name for our work, some structure and funds to get started. Being a Long Term Recovery Group has provided us mutual respect from our Tribal Council, the Emergency Manager, and the Housing Authority, to work together. We aren’t just asking them questions and for help, they are asking us too.” 

The people who live in the disaster-impacted tribal communities are the ones doing the work and becoming disaster “champions” for their community.

We are building relationships with Tribes, tribal members, emergency managers, housing authorities, non-profit organizations, and churches serving tribal communities and connecting disaster-impacted tribal communities with other funders.  We continue to learn from the community itself about how we, as funders, can help them get resources into the hands of the local folks and support their work without getting in the way. 

Recently, CDP introduced Shelly and her White Swan recovery group to some funders to enable them to increase and improve their food give-aways. Shelly shared the inspiring impact from this outreach: 

Community volunteers helped unload, sort and package donations from Good360 and Walks On The Day Foundation. Most Fridays, a meal is distributed as well as other items donated each week. COVID-19 has exacerbated needs. (Photo courtesy of White Swan Community Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group/Walks On The Day Foundation.)


“Currently we are working on becoming a food distribution site and daily kitchen. All of the community grandmas and moms are anxious to get cooking for the people. We felt like no one was helping us. Now we are organized, raising funds, and we are making things happen. We have hope.”


Written by Heidi Schultz, program officer for the Tribal Communities Disaster Recovery Program of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. CDP is the only full-time national resource dedicated to helping donors maximize their impact by making more intentional disaster-related giving decisions. You can learn more here: https://disasterphilanthropy.org


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