Rosebud Tribe struggles to clear roads as blizzard contributes to at least one death
The view from O.J. Semans’ rural Mission home during two rounds of extreme winter weather in December 2022. (Courtesy of O.J. Semans)
The situation is grim on the Rosebud Reservation after two rounds of severe winter weather pummeled the area, contributing to at least one death. Many people remain snowed-in and some have run out of propane for their furnaces, causing tribal residents to fear there may be more deaths from the cold.
Wayne Boyd, chief of staff for Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Scott Herman, said a 12-year-old with a medical condition died when the weather and impassable roads kept responders from reaching the child in time.
Boyd said the tribe is in need of big snowblowers and loaders to help clear the roads.
“The grocery store shelves are bare, there is hardly any food,” Boyd said. “Everybody is working very hard, doing what we can. We’re just going to need a lot of help when this is done.”
A tribal council consultant and longtime voting-rights activist, O.J. Semans, said the tribe needs help now but also in the future to address a long-term funding shortage for road equipment.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the eight other federally recognized tribes in South Dakota receive federal funding pursuant to treaties with the U.S. government that date to the 1800s. Without a local tax structure like the ones non-reservation communities use to fund public projects, tribes rely on federal funding to run their local governments.
The first snow that we got, it was hard, and then it got cold, so then it kind of became almost like cement. So plows weren’t going to do the job. We have to have front-end loaders.
– O.J. Semans, Rosebud Sioux Tribe member
Out on the open plains where South Dakota’s reservations are located, extreme cold, heavy snow and howling winds combine to create tall and nearly immovable snowdrifts. The Rosebud Reservation is in south-central South Dakota.
“The first snow that we got, it was hard, and then it got cold, so then it kind of became almost like cement,” Semans said. “So plows weren’t going to do the job. We have to have front-end loaders.”
The tribe’s inability to clear the roads has made it difficult for propane haulers to reach homes. Many tribal residents rely on propane-fueled furnaces for heat, with outdoor propane tanks that need regular refilling.
Semans said tribal officials had a call scheduled Friday afternoon with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Other help has come or is on the way from organizations such as Feeding South Dakota, which brought a truckload of supplies to the reservation this week. On Thursday night, Gov. Kristi Noem activated the South Dakota National Guard to haul firewood from the Black Hills National Forest to the reservation.
About 60 percent of reservation residents have wood-burning stoves, Semans estimates, so the firewood may help. But he said the Guard will have to bust its way through snowdrifts to access homes.
Meanwhile, the only thing Semans and many other reservation residents can do is wait. Semans still has electricity and supplies at his rural Mission home, but he’s heard of others on the reservation who lack propane or have malfunctioning furnaces and frozen water pipes. He’s also heard multiple reports of deaths from cold temperatures – which have dipped into double digits below zero – but verifiable information has been difficult to come by so far.
“I cannot remember a time where I’ve been home for 10 days in a row, where I haven’t checked the mail, haven’t went to the grocery store and got any food, haven’t went and filled up with gas,” Semans said. “I mean, being in your house without going anywhere for 10 days is something I don’t think I’ve experienced in my lifetime.”
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