Editorial Roundup: South Dakota

Yankton Press & Dakotan. January 16, 2023.

Editorial: Storm Response And The Need For Answers

A point of contention was brought to the South Dakota Legislature last week concerning the state’s recent response to a December snowstorm that smothered several West River reservations.

During the annual State of the Tribes address to lawmakers in Pierre, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Peter Lengkeek called for better collaboration and coordination between the state and the tribes in dealing with disasters such as life-threatening storms.

In this case, Lengkeek was alluding to the mid-December storm that dropped several feet of snow in some parts of western South Dakota. It ground life on some reservations to a halt, with many people left snowbound, isolated and without power. It was reported that some people resorted to burning clothing in order to keep warm — to survive — until help could reach them.

Lengkeek said nine people died in both the mid-winter storm and the bitter Arctic cold that followed a week later. According to a South Dakota Searchlight story, the fatalities included a 12-year-old boy with health issues who could not be reached by emergency responders, and an elderly man found frozen to death in a ditch.

“A single life lost is one too many,” the chairman said. “If we are able to collaborate and work in partnership successfully in the future, we must address and correct the dynamics of our relationship so that the lives of all South Dakotans are protected.”

Lengkeek also noted that the Rosebud Sioux Tribe issued a disaster declaration on Dec. 16 in the wake of the heavy snowfall of the first storm, but Gov. Kristi Noem did not activate the National Guard until six days later, just as frigid air overwhelmed the central part of the nation.

“…Emergency services were slow to act,” Lengkeek said.

After the chairman’s speech, the governor’s office challenged the allegations. Noem spokesman Ian Fury issued a press release calling Lengkeek’s remarks “a message of division” that were part of a “false media narrative.” Fury noted that Rodney Bordeaux, former chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, sent Noem a letter “thanking her for the efforts of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety… and the South Dakota National Guard… to assist in the storm response.”

So, we are presented with (at least) two different accounts of what happened during these winter storms that left several people dead and many people effectively under siege for days.

Legislators need to ask for more information and facts on the situation.

If this were Congress, hearings would be put together to begin exploring those questions, but the Legislature — being limited to just a few weeks of business each winter — likely doesn’t operate in a manner that allows such committee inquiries to be quickly organized and launched.

Nevertheless, the matter demands more clarity, if for no other reason than the peace of mind of South Dakotans, particularly those who faced this calamitous situation that made headlines around the world. Whether this could be packaged as a broader summer study by lawmakers or into some other, timelier fact-finding inquiry is open to question.

The divergence of accounts — not only between the state and the tribes but also, apparently, among tribal officials themselves — must be untangled so that we (that is, state and tribal officials, and citizens alike) are better prepared for such disasters in the future.