When Marvin Goings, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation in South Dakota, founded a horseback riding group called Slim Buttes Riders for Lakota youth, it began as a way to keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
But since a massive storm tore through Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in mid-March, his team of young Lakota horsemen and horsewomen are riding to save lives. The flooding that followed the “bomb cyclone” created a life-threatening situation on the already impoverished reservation. The riders are among those from the tribe working to get supplies to stranded people.
The Lakota, widely known as the Horse Nation, traditionally hunted buffalo on horseback, and horses are at the center of Lakota culture. When he began Slim Buttes Riders in 2011, Goings wanted to give Pine Ridge youth experiences that connected them to this culture.
Youth riders learn how to ride in the rain, snow, wind, and heat. They ride in the famed Memorial Rides, serve as funeral escorts, and go out on search and rescue missions.
Many have grown up on these rides, and as they bring new friends, more youth are returning to Lakota traditions, Goings said.
Located in one of the poorest counties in the nation, Pine Ridge has been called a “third-world country” in the richest country in the world. It’s a vast and sprawling network of towns and remote homes in the southwest part of the state, with an unemployment rate of 89% and many people who live in aging, substandard housing and overcrowded mobile homes.
Charley NewHoly appealed for riders on Facebook when his nephew told him about families with children and infants living 15 miles from the nearest town of Oglala. They had been stuck behind snowed-in roads, swollen creeks, and flood waters for eight days after the storm without clean water, food, or infant formula.
“I knew the only way to get help to them was by horse,” NewHoly says. “It was nothing new to me to pack food and supplies out to the country.”
Four people in isolated locations died of storm- and access-related problems. It was later calculated that there were hundreds of miles of damaged or destroyed roads and thousands of homes with disrupted water supplies.
Goings saw NewHoly’s frantic appeal and put out a call on Facebook for his riders. The first day, 14 responded; the second, nine did. The youngest was 11.
“We’re going in, rain, shine, or snow,” NewHoly said. On two separate trips conducted two days in a row, he led them on 30-miles round trip from Oglala that took 10 hours on the first day, when they were breaking through thick snows and drifts frozen over the roads. Three youth joined the riders on foot the first ride, lugging water, food packages, and infant formula in their backpacks.
Jamie Turning Holy, who has ridden with Slim Buttes Riders for funeral escorts and in the Crazy Horse and Chief Big Foot Memorial Rides, said she “grew up with” the riders.
Now 18 years old, she rode both days with NewHoly’s group. Some of the roads, she said, were nearly impassable.
“The flooding was terrible,” Turning Holy said. “Creeks and rivers that hadn’t had any water running through them for years were filled up. Roads were completely washed out. Some ruts had to have been at least 5 feet deep or more.”
Once they arrived, though, it was the greatest feeling to look into the satisfied eyes of the children they’d helped, NewHoly said. They told him, “Thank you for coming” and “I’m tired of drinking melted snow.”
Goings was a little blunter. “They guzzled the water.”
When they left, NewHoly said, the whole world seemed to stop as they watched the sun set behind the Black Hills. “Riding back, everyone became silent, lost in their own thoughts. Then one by one, in soft voices you heard, ‘We did it.’”
Sunset became total blackness on the prairie on the night ride back. Hearing nothing but the sounds of horse hooves and running creek waters was such a profound experience that Turning Holy said, “I’ll never forget it.”
“Folks asked me why we do these things,” NewHoly said. “It’s not for glory—it’s so our people may live. That’s what a warrior does.”
The impetus for the storm was climate breakdown, reported CBS News Climate and weather meteorologist Jeff Berardelli. He called it “a perfect storm of extreme weather and climate change,” factors that drove the deadly phenomenon, which normally occurs in coastal areas, far inland.
Trends in heavy rain events since earlier in the 1900s. Not only is annual rainfall increasing, but much of that extra rainfall is falling in a few yearly extreme rainfalls. That is how climate change loads the dice. #MetsUnite! pic.twitter.com/8m3p18kT69
— Meteorologists United on Climate Change (@MetsUnite) March 18, 2019
In this case, the heavier rainfall hit tightly packed snow, so rather than being absorbed into the ground, it produced unprecedented flooding. Pine Ridge suffered some of the worst devastation from the explosive rise in the rivers.
Oglala Sioux Tribe President Julian Bear Runner and Public Relations Director Chase Iron Eyes, together with the Lakota People’s Law Project, have made repeated appeals for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid. In a video posted on the tribe’s website, Iron Eyes said that the “process could take months. We don’t have months.”
As of this date, FEMA has made disaster declarations for counties in Nebraska and Iowa but none for counties or tribal reservations in South Dakota.
Other tribes were the first to respond to the video appeal when Bear Runner posted it on Facebook. Barclay Farms on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska donated a flatbed to haul hay for their livestock and water donated by the tribe to Pine Ridge. Volunteers drove it over 350 miles to Oglala. The Yankton Sioux Tribe donated 10,000 jugs of water. Other tribes quickly followed with their own donations.
The governor of South Dakota sent the National Guard on the 13th day of flooding to distribute water to more than 8,000 residents who had been without, and 100 Red Cross volunteers distributed food, water, and cleanup kits.
This writer discovered the role of Slim Buttes Riders when she donated to her cousin Saunie Wilson, a Pine Ridge resident, asking she distribute the funds wherever the need was greatest. Wilson gave it to the riders, who had continued delivering essential supplies to outlying districts in borrowed vehicles.
“That $300 gave us the fuel money to make another run,” Goings said. When he notified the tribe of the funds, they rustled up additional donations for deliveries. “We had maybe six vehicles total,” Goings said. “That’s our big downfall, not having enough fuel money” to help as many people as need it.
One of their borrowed trucks turned over, nearly lost in the muck of thick, heavy mud. “We borrowed another truck to pull our truck out. My son fixed the roof, so we made it drivable,” Goings said. “You use what you have.”
That’s the story of the Lakota: resilience. Their culture and traditions have endured for over 500 years. Through ancestors, elders, and youth like the Slim Buttes Riders, Lakota culture has withstood massacres, theft of the sacred Black Hills, extermination of buffalo, removal to reservations, boarding schools, and historical trauma. Now the tribe faces the devastating impacts of climate change.
Residents of Pine Ridge are still recovering even as, just last week, the reservation was hit with yet another snowstorm. The snows brought new fears and fresh tears.
Another fear now is that the situation at Pine Ridge will be forgotten as news coverage fades, yet their needs remain immense. The damage, which the tribal government estimated could come to $100 million or more, will stretch out years, longer without outside help.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe is urging President Trump to provide federal disaster relief to the Pine Ridge Reservation and other flooded areas in South Dakota.
Meanwhile, the Oglala Sioux Tribe has set up an Emergency Relief Fund and is accepting donations to assist with ongoing relief efforts.
Karin Eagle, the media relations specialist for the tribe, said that although the snow and ice have melted and the waters have receded, they’re having to deal with the challenge of roads and bridges washed out by the storms.
“A lot of different people with four-wheel drives using their own private vehicles along with horseback riders are still delivering to people cut off from the main roads,” she said.
After the Slim Buttes Riders made the two rides to deliver aid, it was time for the youth riders to return to school. The adults in the program have continued the work, so far trucking five loads of water and hay to distant locations, including Red Shirt Village, 70 miles from the tribal offices in Pine Ridge.
And volunteers from Slim Buttes Riders will continue their work, Goings said, providing any kind of aid they can to help people.
Terri Hansen is a member of the Winnebago tribe and a journalist focusing on climate adaptation and resilience.