‘Always in emergency mode’: Tribe partners with national groups on food security, disaster prep
People on the Cheyenne River Reservation receive first aid and CPR training through Partnerships With Native Americans. (Courtesy of PWNA)
About 90 inmates at the Roberts County Jail in northeastern South Dakota didn’t have food in mid-December this winter.
The jail relies on weekly truck deliveries from over 50 miles away, but back-to-back blizzards dropped roughly 18 inches of snow on the region, closed the interstate and left kitchen staff stranded in their homes.
“Any time the roads are closed will cause a delay in getting food, supplies, whatever the jail needs,” said James Foster, the Roberts County jail administrator.
But with the help of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, inmates were able to eat. The tribe’s emergency management and disaster assistance program gathered community members to purchase and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for inmates while the truck was delayed.
And it’s not just jail inmates — the tribe’s disaster assistance program helps tribal members and residents throughout the reservation in similar situations.
“We’re always in emergency mode in our communities,” said Thomas “Sonny” LeBlanc, director of the tribe’s Disaster Assistance Response Employee Team. “I say that in the nicest way. We’ve been in emergency mode since we were established on these reservations. You guys call it an emergency disaster. We call it Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”
Selected for national program
The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is one of five tribal nations selected to participate in a partnership with Feeding America and Partnerships With Native Americans to further strengthen emergency preparedness and food security. Other tribes are in Louisiana, New York, Arizona and Washington.
“When the pandemic started, we had two big disparities we saw: feeding ourselves and getting clean water,” LeBlanc said. “This project will help eliminate one of the big problems we have, which is food security. We have 14,000-plus people we’re responsible for at the end of the day.”
Food insecurity impacts 23% of Native Americans across the country, according to the PWNA. Some reservations are also especially susceptible to natural disasters — such as blizzards on the South Dakota prairie.
While many tribal nations have relied on Feeding America in emergencies, this partnership will help communities become more autonomous and self-reliant, said Laura Schad, long term solutions program manager for the PWNA Plains office.
Sisseton Wahpeton was selected as a participant not only because it responds to several emergencies a year but also because its disaster assistance program during the COVID pandemic was identified as an example of how tribes should effectively respond to emergencies, Schad said.
Responding across South Dakota
While in its early stages, local leaders like LeBlanc hope the program will set an example of how to implement emergency management and preparedness “across Indian Country.”
Ideas up for consideration by the tribe include building a warehouse to store emergency supplies, partnering with other organizations to establish emergency response offices on the reservation, and training community members and strengthening disaster management so the tribe can help other tribal nations in the region when needed.
The partnership will allow the tribal nation to step back and “go upstream” to work on prevention so they’re not “always being in crisis response mode,” said Winona Burley, a member of the tribe’s Disaster Assistance Response Employee Team.
“We’re still in a huge state of poverty,” Burley said. “If we can alleviate the stress of where some people are going to get their food tomorrow and water tonight to make sure our community members have those basic needs met, the prayer is that we can start building our community back up to a healthier place where they can budget and keep savings to get them out of their situations.”
Mark Ford, the native and tribal partnerships director with Feeding America, hopes this partnership strengthens emergency preparedness not only for Sisseton Wahpeton but creates a network for tribal nations to learn from each other.
“Onondaga in New York has one of the most advanced food sovereignty programs I’ve seen among any nation,” Ford said. “There are about 60 people working full time, paid for by the tribe, to hunt, fish, grow food, can food and preserve food. They have three years of food stockpiled for tribal members in an emergency.”
The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate will complete its plan and priorities by the end of 2023 or early 2024. After that, the tribe will implement its plan over a two-year period, during which Feeding America and PWNA will bring in outside funding sources, donors and technical support. The cost allocated for the project is $280,000.
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