BISMARCK, N.D. — Donations from an American Indian tribe in Minnesota totaling nearly $1.4 million have helped Great Plains tribes weather this winter's propane crisis.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community provided grants to the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota and South Dakota; the Yankton, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota; and the Santee Sioux in Nebraska.
"The propane shortage this year has been particularly hard on American Indian communities," Shakopee Chairman Charlie Vig said in a statement. "We are compelled to help our fellow tribes get through the remaining days of winter."
A nationwide propane shortage caused by supply disruptions, a late harvest and a winter cold snap made the fuel so expensive that many reservation residents couldn't afford it. The problem was particularly acute on Standing Rock, where about 5,000 homes on the 3,600-square-mile reservation rely on the fuel for heat.
Authorities are still investigating whether cold was a factor in the death of Debbie Dogskin, 61, who died in a mobile home with an empty propane tank. Sioux County Sheriff Frank Landeis said he is still awaiting the autopsy results.
The situation on Standing Rock has eased as propane prices have fallen with the onset of spring, Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said. Residential propane prices have fallen from about $4 a gallon in late January to $3.08 this week, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That is below the $3.50 mark at which Archambault said the fuel starts becoming unaffordable for reservation residents. The tribe lifted an emergency declaration earlier this month.
"We don't think there's an emergency anymore," Archambault said. "People have propane, it's starting to warm up, and prices are dropping. It's all good."
Standing Rock received $500,000 from the Shakopee tribe in early February to help buy propane for tribal members who didn't qualify for help through the federal government's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The Minnesota tribe gave $300,000 to the Yankton Sioux Tribe and $70,000 to the Santee Sioux at the same time.
This month, the Shakopee tribe has given $250,000 each to the Rosebud and Cheyenne River tribes.
The Cheyenne River Sioux operates its own propane company, supplying about 1,000 homes.
"It has definitely been a challenge this year," General Manager Mona Thompson said
Rosebud Chairman Cyril Scott wrote in his request to the Shakopee tribe that some tribal members were in "dire need" of propane and called it a "crisis situation."
Wizipan Little Elk, CEO of the tribe's economic development corporation, said about 2,000 homes on the reservation rely on propane. Tribal officials went into communities several times over the winter to check on residents, he said.
The tribe last fall started its own propane supply company and stocked up on the fuel before the winter, so it was able to keep prices lower than other suppliers. However, the company ran out of propane for three days earlier this month, and residents had to turn to other suppliers.
"It wasn't a fun time to start a propane business, with the national crisis going on," Little Elk said. "But we managed."