Water Crisis on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation

Cheyenne reservation and the Oahe DamPhoto: Doc SearlsLake Oahe with the Oahe Dam and Cheyenne Indian Reservation:

Water is a precious commodity essential for man’s survival. In the Western world it is a commodity we often take for granted. With a simple turn of the tap one has access to a resource that is scarce in many developing countries. But what if I were to tell you that a community in one of the world’s richest nations is suffering today from a lack of access to clean, drinkable water; would you believe me?


On 31 January 2010 in the USA an ice storm hit the reservation of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in the state of South Dakota. The severe winds of the storm itself knocked down more than 3,000 power poles, and the tribe’s aging and inefficient water system, which was unable to cope with the added pressure, collapsed, leaving the reservation’s 13,000 residents without electricity, heat or running water for weeks on end.

A day later, the tribe declared a state of emergency as the storm was followed by a blizzard and below freezing temperatures. A total of 1,500 to 2,000 households were affected by the disaster and many homes were damaged. The tribe then waited for a Presidential Disaster Declaration. The US Government is still yet to respond and the crisis has so far gone largely unreported in the mainstream media. The power supply on the reservation may now have mainly been restored but the poor water infrastructure remains a pressing issue. The Cheyenne River Sioux need funds from the government in order to replace their ailing water system to prevent such a disaster from happening again; funds that were promised to them more than 50 years ago.

Dammed and Damned

To explain how this happened one needs to look backwards. In 1944 the United States Army Corps of Engineering and the Bureau of Reclamation developed the Pick-Sloan Plan, as part of the Flood Control Act enabled by Congress, creating reservoirs and dams across the Missouri River Basin. This plan resulted in the flooding of more than 200,000 acres of Sioux land and it caused more damage to tribal land than any other public works project that has taken place in the USA. The Sioux were only informed of the plan after it had been approved and their treaty rights were violated as they were forced to give up their best agricultural land and resources on the Missouri River.

In August 1948, construction started on the Oahe Dam, one of the five main projects of the Pick-Sloan Plan. The creation of the dam and the Oahe Reservoir swallowed up 104,420 acres of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. The largest town on the reservation and the original tribal headquarters – the Old Agency on the Cheyenne River – and two other smaller settlements were completely submerged. The tribe lost schools, hospitals, their police headquarters and other public facilities that they had built with tribal dollars. More than 180 families and 30% of the tribal population were forced to leave their homes and move 60 miles inland from the Missouri to the prairie town of Eagle Butte. The dam’s precious water resources are now used for hydro power to create billions of dollars of electricity a year, but the tribe sees little of these benefits.

Unclean Water

The Oahe Reservoir also provides an unlimited supply of clean water, but again the Cheyenne River Sioux do not benefit from this. The population of the reservation is reliant on groundwater sources of often poor quality. At the community of Eagle Butte, the water supply exceeds federal standards for maximum levels of impurities and contains unacceptable amounts of iron, sulphate, fluoride and dissolved solids. The high concentration of fluoride in the water is enough to damage the enamel of children’s teeth and the mineralised water has many other adverse side effects. Not only is the water unsuitable for consumption, it is also difficult to find and deep wells need to be sunk through heavy shale.


The unemployment rate on the reservation is 86% and shockingly, roughly a quarter of all Native Americans live below the poverty line. The lack of an efficient water system on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation means that one of the most impoverished nations in the USA is being kept in a circle of hardship, as the tribe is unable to expand economically. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman, Joseph Brings Plenty, said: “For years we have had a complete ban on any new housing or business building because we don’t have the water structure to support it. This crisis has exacerbated an already impossible situation”.

Words from Washington

On 5 November 2009, delegates from each of the 564 federally recognised Native American Tribes traveled to Washington to take part in the first White House Tribal Nations Conference. In his opening remarks at the conference, President Obama talked of how he sees his term in office as an opportunity to change the way Washington works. He stated that “few have been more marginalised and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans…our First Americans… We know the history that we share. It’s a history marked by violence and disease and deprivation. Treaties were violated. Promises were broken. You were told your lands, your religion, your cultures and your languages were not yours to keep. And that’s a history that we’ve got to acknowledge if we are to move forward.”

I think that now is the time for Washington to use actions and not words to show that it is willing to break this cycle of broken promises.

Turning the Tide

News of the crisis on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation found its way to Josselyne Herman, personal manager to those in the entertainment industry and the founder of United Global Shift (UGS), a non-profit organisation that works with individuals and communities worldwide to create projects to enable them to develop sustainable solutions to problems. She immediately called one of her clients, Chaske Spencer, who is also a spokesperson for UGS and a Native American actor.

Spencer has recently been thrust into the media spotlight through his portrayal of Sam Uley in the screen version of Stephanie Mayer’s best-selling Twilight Saga novel New Moon, and he is using his new found fame to highlight issues he cares deeply about. “I want to shift the focus to bring it to something that needs it very badly. I’m very fortunate in that I’m in a position where I can do that,” he said. In conjunction with UGS, Spencer has set up the “Shift the Power to the People” project to focus on water issues in the Native American community. “I grew up on a reservation so I’ve seen poverty first hand”, he said.

Spreading the Word

This project has been instrumental in highlighting the crisis on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation. Within a couple of days of hearing the news, Spencer had pulled together a collection of celebrities and filmed a public service announcement. The campaign is not asking for donations but for people to speak out and make their voices heard. A website has been set up that enables people to send a letter to their local congressman and ask them to petition the government to provide the tribe with the US$492.5 million in funds needed to build a new water infrastructure; a venture that would create the much needed employment on the reservation.

Spencer’s campaign has again gone largely unreported in mainstream US news. Instead, it has slowly seeped its way into the consciousness of America through social networking sites. Two public service announcements are now available on the project’s website and on YouTube. Spencer has used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to spread the word to and via his many fans, and he has even set up an option for non-US citizens to appeal to the White House directly.

There has been a phenomenal response to the campaign. “It is amazing”, Herman stressed. “We are targeting 1 million letters [to be sent to congress] by the June 30 release of Eclipse” (the third film in the Twilight saga), she told me. “We are working on an event with some high profile stars to hopefully get media attention but anything people can do to get media coverage is appreciated”.

It Could Happen Again

In today’s climate, extreme weather seems to be becoming something of a norm. Floods in Britain are becoming more frequent as well as droughts and harsh winters across the globe. Who is to say that next year, next winter, the same thing won’t happen again to the Cheyenne River Sioux? The water system in place simply does not meet the needs of the people living on the reservation. How many winters and how many crises will it take for funding to be given? If this had happened to a community in middle-class America, would the media and government response have been different?

One of the comments made in the public service announcement is that “This is not a Native American Issue. It is a human issue”. Clean drinking water is a resource that should be available to all worldwide. As Chairman Brings Plenty has stated: “It is a public shame for any community in America to be without safe drinking water. I hope our friends in Washington DC are listening: this is a life and death situation here. Help us protect our families, and help us create jobs and open up our stifled economy for tomorrow”.

To be the shift and help the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation visit www.shiftthepowertothepeople.com

For more information on UGS go to www.unitedglobalshift.org

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Extra source:
Lawson, M. L. (1994) Dammed Indians The Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux, 1994-1980, University of Oklahoma Press