Northern Cheyenne Needs our HelpTweet
By: Chase Iron Eyes
On my way back from Billings, MT (USA) after a speaking engagement I had been urged to visit the homelands of the Northern Cheyenne (Tsistsistas) in the wake of recent devastating wild fires that had torn through nearly 160,000 acres (35%) of their 500,000 acre country. The fires are still going. So, I took a detour from the interstate and headed south toward the beautiful territory where I had helped with the Fort Robinson break-out run just 6 months ago. As I approached Lame Deer (Tribal Headquarters) coming south, I could see active smoke to the east and a persistent haze which colored the sky an orange-bronze hue when the sunlight illuminated the continuous clouds of smoke. I did not have a contact person, and the friends and relatives that I know were not in the area at that moment. I decided to head straight to Tribal Headquarters where I found a random Sahiyela (Cheyenne) brother who lamented and claimed that B.I.A. Forestry did not respond with initial attack support to the fire, started by dry lightning, on Monday when it was probable that a satisfactory level of fire containment could have been achieved due to the fires size of 500 acres on Monday. Regret and critical hindsight ran deep with those I visited who pointed me to my next stop: the Northern Cheyenne Boys and Girls Club.
When I arrived at the central shelter for those that were forced from their homes (approximately 400 Northern Cheyenne), most of the people were out of the building as a meal had just been served prior to my arrival. I was able to track down two relatively young adults, both affiliated with helping the Boys and Girls Club, in an office catching some down-time. Desi Small and Lane Spotted Elk greeted me and we introduced ourselves. The first thing they did, as is customary, was ask if I had eaten and offered me a meal, which I was thankful to eat.
We got right down to business as Desi Small explained to me with the same sense of regret that normally the Northern Cheyenne firefighters, renowned in the past for their effectiveness throughout the country, would have provided initial response, but several crews were dispatched to fires in other states. The channels of communication to the people were non-existent and BIA policy reasons, which the people have yet to fully hear, further weakened the initial fire response.
Desi Small explained that On Monday, June 25, 2012, (the 136th anniversary of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho victory at Little Big Horn) lightning struck and started the fire. On Tuesday is when all hell broke loose and people were caught in the fires raging path. The entire reservation lost electricity, landline telephone operations, and running water on Tuesday, June 26. The Tribal government was not able to neither respond with an evacuation plan nor help with initial response. Within 24 hours of Tuesdays ravaging uptake in the fires size and force, due to the extremely hot, dry weather, strength of the wind, and the arid nature and availability of fuel for the fire, the town of Ashland and surrounding houses and communities were left at the mercy of the elements. Nobody had time to react. Between the hours of 9 and 10pm on Tuesday, June 26, 400 people, who had fled for their lives with only the clothes on their backs, had descended upon Lame Deer with no authorities to receive them and no plan to follow. Thats when the people stepped up. Geri Small (Chief Professional Officer), with Emma Harris of the Boys and Girls Club, made the decision to open the facilities to care for their relatives, regardless of a plan, adequate resources, electricity or running water.
The normal order of business for the Boys and Girls club is to facilitate healthy activity for some 500-600 Northern Cheyenne youth on a daily basis. The mission statement would be expanded. The Boys and Girls club was instantly transformed into an emergency shelter, food bank, a food provider (using stored supplies for its summer program to feed kids), information center, and a clothing, diapers and toiletry supply center, and is still functioning as such.
Desi and Lane couldnt tell me how much sleep theyve gotten in the past 96 hours, but that wasnt their concern. They were thankful that running water and electricity had been restored late Wednesday, June 27 in Lame Deer and Friday, June 29 in Ashland and Birney. The fire is still raging, however, and recent communication with Desi alerted us to the fact that the electricity was once again out reservation wide at the time of this printing.
The Governor of Montana declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, June 27, making Red Cross support available on that day, but still not providing adequate air or ground support, which arrived on Thursday or Friday, days after the fire had erupted. U.S. Senators from Montana Max Baucus and John Tester, House Rep. Denny Rehburg, and a FEMA official were in Northern Cheyenne country on Saturday, June 30th, for a briefing with Tribal officials just hours before my arrival.
As I was interviewing Desi Small and Lane Spotted Elk, Emma Harris was about to drive a transit bus of supplies over to Ashland, which was nearly totally destroyed by the fires , and the group advised that I follow them so I could make it through a police blockade of Highway 212. On our way to Ashland, my stomach dropped several times as I breathed the heavier smoke of already burned land and I was surrounded for miles as far as I could see by the black of the earth; once beautiful country through which I had watched Northern Cheyenne Youth relay run their flag and staffs for their ancestors and their future. Every so often I would see what used to be a foundation, a house, a mobile home, a corral, a barn, a home it felt apocalyptic.
Councilwoman Fisher stated that currently Ashland had lost about 20 homes. They didnt have a full count as the fire was still heading east away from Ashland and there are other fires to the west of Lame Deer. However, she stated that 20 homes means about 50-60 families: You know how we are. We are not homeless but we are always overcrowded, thats who we are, [not able to hold the tears back] she stated that, Not everyone had running cars or rides. Some stayed because of that, or if they did have a car they didnt have any gas and were on E. We didnt know if everyone lived; thankfully they did. Our people got to Lame Deer on fumes and prayers, picking up hitchhikers! There were people that were unaccounted for. Nobody knew who was alive, who wasnt, who made it out, who didnt. It was all a blur.
After addressing our concerns to Governor Schweitzer, Senators Max Baucus and John Tester about the lack of resources and the untimely response by the State & BIA fire crews; ultimately the responsibility relies with us, the Tribal Government. We have very limited resources of our own and rely on the BIA for our fire issues. However, this doesnt negate the fact that we are a sovereign nation and should be able to do what we can with what we have. We definitely could have been more effective by coordinating our tribal programs and employees in providing critical services and communications for our tribal members under a disaster plan and protocol. Due to the “separation of powers” in our Tribal Government, our President is given the sole authority to declare disasters and emergencies for our reservation. It is the Administration’s role and duty to direct resources and services under a disaster plan in order to avoid chaos and uncertainty in our communities. Real leadership was lacking in this branch of our government and it took the legislative branch to setup and takes a hands-on lead in coordinating emergency efforts.
Ashland District Council Representatives Tracy Robinson and Donna Fisher, whose own lives and homes where under attack by the fires, took it upon themselves to establish an emergency site with the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, follow up with State and Federal Officials on problems experienced, comfort and speak Ashland residents and Tribal members, and most importantly voice their emotional concerns with our Tribal President, US Senators and our MT Governor. Marlene Redneck and Donna Fisher where able to get the Governor to include our reservation in his executive order declaring a disaster on our homelands at 2 am Wednesday morning with phones lasting into the next day. We have mutual aid agreements with the State and local agencies; we are supposed to have a disaster plan that should have been activated. Remember, we had a fire disaster last year and we should have learned from our past.
It is a fact now that the BIA pull off their crews and equipment for safety reasons. It is also fact that during the initial fire in Ashland when houses were lost, no BIA fire truck could be seen by local volunteer firefighters or BIA Police. BIA is being looked at critically, and was unable to answer questions from Tribal Council members or community members at the Type II Incident Commands community update Wednesday. At todays Tribal fire briefing it was announced that the Northern Cheyenne Agency BIA Superintendent was relieved of his duties and replaced by Acting Superintendent Norma Gourneau. Whether this action is a result of the way the fire was handled is not certain as it is a BIA internal matter. A special thanks goes out to our volunteer firefighters, Tribal Housing employees, and all firefighters helping us save our land.
Indian Countrys hearts are heavy for those that have a long road of rebuilding their lives in Northern Cheyenne and elsewhere. Mitakuyepi blihiciyapo na hoyewaye unsiulapo. The sahiyela are our traditional allies. The least we could do is help them, not only as Lakota, but as Indigenous relatives.
Ill close with a quote from Desi Small:
The people had to come together. It was truly inspirational and heartbreaking to see all the young people step up from the communities and come to the Boys and Girls club and offer to help in the absence of a Tribal, federal or state response during the first 48 hours. We did what we had to, we started making calls, and created an online donation link since the club is a 501 (c) 3 organization and donations are tax-deductible, and just stayed here to help.
Please tell your friends and networks that we can donate to help rebuild Northern Cheyenne and provide immediate basic needs by contributing online or snail-mailing checks, money orders and donations at the following addresses:
1. www.paypal.com account name:firstname.lastname@example.org. The Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation is a registered 501(c) 3 non-profit and all donations are tax-deductible.
2. Northern Cheyenne Tribe (checks and money orders payable to Northern Cheyenne Fire Fund and supplies, diapers, toiletries, cleaning products, clothes, non-perishable food, etc.)
C/O Fire Relief
P.O. Box 128
Lame Deer, Montana 59043