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Warmth a precious commodity for reservation homes
James Traversie, an employee of Cheyenne River Gas Company, connects a hose from his propane truck to fill a propane tank for an Eagle Butte home. (Pauline Webb, West River Eagle)

Wearing sweaters, cooking pizzas in a toaster oven and turning down the water heater are not popular rules at Aldena Pretty Weasel's Eagle Butte home, but they are necessary steps the single mother of six and grandmother has taken to conserve propane.

With propane at $2.05 a gallon, Pretty Weasel estimates that it's costing her almost $400 a month to heat her rented home.

"It's a continual worry," Pretty Weasel said. "You try to keep your heat down all day, but you go home, and it's cold, and you have to put your heat up. It's hard; it's really hard."

At home, everyone wears a sweater and wraps up in blankets.

An electric space heater helps take the chill off her granddaughter's bedroom.

The arrival of much colder Canadian air this week was the last thing Pretty Weasel needed.

If her heating costs go much higher, she'll be forced to make some hard choices.

"I will have to let a few things go," she said. "There's nothing else I can do.

But, compared to many people on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, where 50 percent of the people live below the poverty level, Pretty Weasel says she is fortunate.

"I worry about the people who don't have a job," she said.

Joe Brings Plenty, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, talks with people almost daily who are living on $200 to $300 a month.

Brings Plenty recently alerted his tribal council that additional financial resources may be needed to help people make it through the winter.

"The prices and fuel isn't helping out any either," Brings Plenty said. "The remainder of this coming winter is a bad time for some of our folks."

The tribe has already exhausted its allocation of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding and a $470,000 grant from CITGO Petroleum Corp. through the Citizens Energy Corporation, is almost exhausted, Brings Plenty said.

"It will maybe last us another week or two, but we still have the month of February, and the month of March is going to be cold, too," Brings Plenty said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has announced that South Dakota is receiving an additional $3.3 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds, which includes $578,428 for South Dakota's nine tribes.

A CITGO donation has also picked up the slack on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, according to Robert Running Bear, data coordinator for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The tribe received more than $600,000 from CITGO, he said. Those funds were given to the nine tribal district government centers for distribution.

"My energy assistance money, I've reached the end now," Running Bear said about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance funds.

Running Bear used $700,400 of those funds.

"We were hit hard and spent that," he said. So far 2,403 families have received the low-income fund assistance.

The announcement of the additional funds was welcome news.

Running Strong For America Youth will match Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds with up to $5,000 for each of Pine Ridge's nine districts.

Last year, the program helped 1,030 families, according to Lauren Haas Finkelstein, Running Strong's executive director.

At Eagle Butte, the Cheyenne River Youth Project's office was swamped with members applying for heating assistance Jan. 15, which was the first day of their heating-assistance program.

For the past seven years, Running Strong has offered member families a fuel-assistance matching grant. Families can pay up to $100, and Running Strong will match their payment. Last year, the program helped 300 families.

"Within the first 15 minutes, five people came in," executive director Julie Garreau said. "With propane costs at $2.05, $100 doesn't go that far."

It's a difficult time for everyone, said J.C. Williams, manager of Cheyenne River Gas, a division of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority.

With rising fuel costs, the tribally owned gas company requires a $150 minimum order before a truck will deliver to outlying communities, Williams said.

Unlike some propane suppliers, who have increased some charges because of escalating fuel costs, the tribal company does not charge an individual minimum delivery requirement and after hours and weekend deliveries continue.

Recognizing that higher fuel costs and propane costs are tough on everyone, Williams tries to accommodate his customers.

"When it's as cold as it is and winter has settled in, we're out in those communities every day," Williams said.

For residents of the Pine Ridge reservation, the only local propane supplier is Lakota Plains Propane in Kyle, which requires a minimum order of $120 or 53 gallons.

For small orders, the cost of propane is higher: $2.15 a gallon for deliveries of $199 or less. For those able to spend $200 or more, the price is $2.05.7.

For many of Williams' customers, scraping together the money for 50 gallons is a struggle that never ends.

"At 8 to 13 gallons a day, 50 gallons lasts three to five days," he said.

Especially, in drafty, poorly insulated homes, such as Iyonne Garreau's Eagle Butte home.

"I'm suffering from this; $200 is getting me what $100 used to get me," she said. "My house is big and old, and it never was insulated properly."

Each reservation has a program to provide firewood for homes that burn wood, but wood heaters are prohibited in some housing projects.

Like Pretty Weasel, many families use space heaters as a supplemental heat source - which, in turn, raises their electric bills, causing them to fall further behind, Williams said.

For families living in poverty, it becomes a choice between food, staying warm and other necessities.

"They're never beyond the economics of figuring out how to pay the bills," Julie Garreau said. "It's a balancing act: Do my kids go without? There are always choices like that to be made."

Running Bear's biggest concern is what will happen if a severe storm hits the reservation. Economic conditions are so bad on the reservation that many people are just getting by and barely meeting their basic needs, he said.

"It's an ongoing war. They rely a lot on us and other programs to try and help them through," he said. "We're in dire straits."

Tribal Low Income Home Energy Assistance

2007 Base Funding, compared to contingency funding

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe: $357,148, $91,742

Lower Brule Sioux Tribe: $48,126, $12,362

Oglala Sioux Tribe: $739,625, $189,990

Rosebud Sioux Tribe: $582,581, $149,649

Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe: $235,566, $60,511

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (N.D.): $146,912, $37,738

Yankton Sioux Tribe: $141,846 $36,436

Total: $2,251,804, $578,428

(The above tribes administer their federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding. The Flandreau and Crow Creek Sioux Tribes do not. Those areas are covered by the South Dakota Department of Social Services-Office of Energy Assistance.)

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