American Indians struggle to survive winter in South Dakota

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American Indians struggle to survive winter 01:28

Story highlights

  • One charity provides firewood to families in need
  • In addition to firewood, One Spirit, the non-profit organization, also wants to reintroduce indigenous food to the Lakota

(CNN)For the Lakota American Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota winters are an annual time of danger and desperation. Temperatures there drop as low as -25 degrees. But homes on the reservation are often substandard, without central heat or proper electricity.

Local activist Bamm Brewer says, "So many people here have wood stoves because it's the cheapest way to heat your home."
One charity is trying to make it easier for Lakota families to heat their homes throughout the winter. One Spirit is a non-profit organization that provides firewood to hundreds of people on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Heating is not the only issue families struggle with on Pine Ridge. Officials with One Spirit say 90 percent of Lakota residents live below the federal poverty level and can't afford healthy food. Health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and malnutrition pose a significant threat. So One Spirit has also established a food program. Just as the group distributes firewood in keeping with the indigenous people's primary source of heat (the wood stove), the food program also aims to create solutions that mesh with the Lakota community's history and heritage.
One Spirit is primarily run by American Indians to help the Oglala Lakota.
Brewer is the charity's program director. He says while firewood is the most affordable heating source, many people are often unable to gather the wood themselves.
"In a lot of cases, people struggle to get out to get the wood because of the poverty," Brewer says, "No gas money to get out there. No vehicle."
The reservation landscape is dry terrain with hardly any forests. One Spirit volunteers drive miles to find the nearest deadwood.
They bring the wood back to their shop, split the logs, and deliver truckloads to homes.
Before One Spirit's firewood program, some families worried they wouldn't survive the winter.
One resident, Ronald Robert Red Cloud, tells CNN, "We would have to burn anything -- burn clothes, burn shoes, just something to keep warm."
One year, Red Cloud said he wrapped his house with plastic on the outside and inside to try and keep as much heat inside. His home lacks plumbing and has rudimentary electricity, which isn't powerful enough to handle a space heater. He has a wood stove next to his bed in his two-room house.
Now, Red Cloud says One Spirit regularly delivers firewood.
"There's hardly any wood for us to keep warm. So, we call here and there and see if they can bring us a load of wood, which is good," and his family has a supply to last them through winter.
The need for firewood is so great that Brewer and his team make emergency runs, delivering a half truckload when people completely run out. Because of the combination of freezing temperatures and high demand, Brewer says the supply gets low in the middle of winter. They struggle to keep the woodpile up and running.
Brewer's goal is to gather firewood all year long and store a massive woodpile to hold them through winter, which can run from October to April. However, Brewer tells CNN that they need donations so they can afford the fuel to drive around all year to collect wood and maintain their tools. They only have two chainsaws and one log splitter to churn out hundreds of pieces of wood.
Bringing back Indigenous food to the Lakota
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Bringing back Indigenous food to the Lakota 00:52
Brewer has ambitious plans for One Spirit's food program. It's already distinct from most food charities because it mainly provides fresh produce and locally-raised meat instead of processed food.
Once a month, One Spirit purchases food from vendors using monetary donations. Volunteers distribute the items into boxes, and drivers deliver them to homes across the reservation.
Bamm Brewer is also the food program director. He doesn't just provide food but also strives to teach the Lakota about their culture's indigenous diet — getting back to their roots of eating off the land — through its "Bring Back the Buffalo" campaign.
"We're going to process buffalo, deer, elk and be able to provide some of the cultural aspects back to our people," Brewer says, "When we go back to our cultural diet, it will be a big significant, healthy way of returning to our life."
The campaign aims to increase the number of buffalo on the reservation, provide jobs for processing meat, and feed families.
Whether it's providing firewood or food to those in need, Brewer says, "It's part of our culture to help out one another."