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Indigenous Lakota Women Face Harsh Winter Wrath Under Climate Change

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Tuesday 02 November 2010

by: Lys Anzia  |  Women News Network

Pine Ridge, South Dakota - U.S. Oglala Sioux Lakota Elder women and families suffering from severe poverty are bracing themselves to face a harsh winter season spurred on by climate change this year, according to NOAA – the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With poverty conditions that rival some global developing regions and the lowest life expectancy in the Western hemisphere, second only to Haiti, the average current lifespan for women on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is 52 years, for men it’s 48 years.

Death rates for members of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation suffering under severe poverty are shockingly 533% higher than their ‘non-Indian’ U.S. counterparts for tuberculosis, 249% higher for diabetes and 71% higher for pneumonia and influenza, says the U.S. Department of Health – Indian Health Services.

With conditions of extreme poverty inside the country, why are U.S. poverty statistics for Native American Indian reservations so often left out of global poverty studies made by international agencies? The answers are complex and tied to the ongoing curse of global indigenous invisibility.

Numerous Lakota Oglala Sioux women Elders, are now facing extreme poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They also face real danger with threats of hypothermia during the winter season. “An average of 689 (reported) deaths per year in the United States results from excessive environmental cold exposure,” says educational resource group, the (U.S.) College of American Pathologists.

While deaths from cold temperatures are hard to track accurately, each year hypothermia deaths are reported on the Reservation. “Each winter, reservation Elders are found dead from hypothermia,” says Brenda Alpin, founder of Laktoa Aid, in a 2004 report for UNPO – Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

Although many hypothermia deaths are related to alcohol abuse, conditions leading to hypothermia in Elder Lakota women often occur due to poor health, poverty and lack of resources.

“Climate change hits poor people hardest – especially poor women,” says Oxfam’s current 2010, ‘Sisters on the Planet’ initiative campaign.

With little to no winter heat, numerous mobile trailers, homes that are commonly used by the Lakota, don’t meet current building standards. Temperatures inside a thin walled trailer, with little to no heat, can drop to levels below freezing as outside winter temperatures reach 10 below zero (Fahrenheit) or colder. These cold winter temperatures can actually cause ice to appear on windows, walls and surfaces inside a home that has inadequate heat.

“The night of January 2 was a truly dreadful night for the Swift Hawk family. They had run out of propane to heat their house. They also had no wood for their wood stove, although they tried desperately to obtain some wood, but without any success… The house had only thin plastic sheeting covering two large openings where windows were supposed to be. As night fell and the temperature plummeted from 16 degrees zero to 45 degrees zero, Sarah’s daughter, and her son-in-law put two blankets on Sarah in an attempt to keep her warm. The mother then took the other two blankets they had and placed them on her six children who were all huddled together on the floor where she and her husband would also sleep. Since there was only one cot in the house, that bed was given to Sarah who was the grandmother in the family. Everyone else in the Swift Hawk family has to sleep on the floor because the family is too poor to buy any furniture. When the sun came up on Sunday morning, January 3rd, the daughter got up from the floor to check on her mother, and she found her mother had died during the night, frozen to death as a result of exposure to extreme cold. Fortunately, the body heat from the parents and the children, all huddled together on the floor, kept them alive that terrible night.”
– U.S. Senator Hon. Byron L. Dorgan from South Dakota,
Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, on the floor of the Senate
(Congressional Record, February 25, 1999)

Deaths from hypothermia, “occur equally as frequently indoors as outdoors,” explains the College of American Pathologists. “A debilitated Elder may become hypothermic at home (inside) in temperatures as high as 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (22- 24 degrees Celsius).”

Hypothermia is characterized by the unintentional drop in a core body temperature to less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). “Mild hypothermia is often accompanied by confusion, progressing to impaired judgment, followed by apathy,” adds the College.

As symptoms arise in precursors to hypothermia, Elder women can face critical emergencies. Recognizing these symptoms is not always easy. Elder Lakota women “often struggle to survive the bitter winters,” says a September 2008 report by the Tribal Lands Renewable Project.

Women and children “are more likely to die than men during disasters,” outlines the Oxfam, ‘Sisters on the Planet’ 2010 report.

Current climate change with El Niño conditions are now predicted to cause unusual excursions of Arctic air into the central northern regions of the U.S. The NOAA – National Weather Service predicts a cold episode winter this year. The weather “favors the build-up of colder than normal air over Alaska and western Canada, which often penetrates into the northern Great Plains and the western United States,” states this winter’s report.

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