The first homes built on the reservation by non-Indians were made by homesteaders, who introduced the log cabin typology to the region. Many of the log cabins we have seen were constructed in the early 20th century out of cottonwood logs. Between the logs, these cabins were insulated with local clay. In the 1970’s, the Housing Authority improved the insulation for some of these homes by installing new windows and adding a layer of stucco on the exterior of the homes. These log cabins typically have two rooms, a pitched roof, and no plumbing, and are built on grade. We have visited two of these cabins that have been abandoned and one that is lived in.
The occupied cabin we saw is outside the community of On the Tree, and had been abandoned for 6 years before the current residents moved there in September. This couple is living there with the permission of the rancher who owns the property, which is on fee land. They lease land for their horses to graze, but do not pay rent for their home. The cabin has two rooms, no running water, no electricity and a small propane tank for a gas stove. The residents currently can’t afford the cost of a water hook-up or to bring power lines to their home, but would like make that investment someday if they purchase the cabin. Currently, the house is lit by kerosene lamps, and reading is done with a camping headlamp. The small TV looked a little out of place, until we learned that it can be powered by the car battery just long enough to watch an occasional movie. Last winter, in order to heat the house using the wood burning stove, they went through 11 cords of wood, costing $100 per cord. They use two portable coolers (one small and one large) for any food storage, but must go daily to Eagle Butte, 20 minutes away, for ice and food. As for water, they have no cistern to periodically fill. Instead, they fill a 15 gallon jug at a hydrant 8 miles from their house and haul it back, twice a day. In the winter, when it is not uncommon to be snowed in and temperatures are predominately below freezing, this process can be quite difficult.
Despite its lack of infrastructure, Tess, the resident we spoke with, was very happy with her home. She has made it her own, and she enjoys her privacy in the vast open land. She said the wood burning stove provides excellent heat in the front room, which becomes the whole living space in the winter. All of the furniture is salvaged, but carefully picked and placed, and the house is cozy and comfortable. If she could change anything about the space, she would reinforce the foundation, upgrade the windows and doors, add more space for storage, get electricity – ideally through a turbine or solar panels, install a rainwater collection system, and build studio spaces for her and her husband to make their artwork.
The little technology she has access to she feels is vital. For example, she checks her email at the Dakota Book Club, where on a good day two of the three computers work. She did express frustration at the unreliability of the internet there, emphasizing that she refuses to give up on certain things functioning.
When we asked Tess if should would prefer to live elsewhere, she adamantly said no. She loves her home, and explained that her grandmother used to say “nothing is beyond repair”. She admits that sometimes living there is difficult and that surviving last winter was one of the most challenging things she has ever done. Ultimately though, she said that the biggest lesson she has learned is to surrender her expectations for many things. She sees this as a positive lesson, and embraces the challenges of their lifestyle as a worthwhile trade off for the independence and natural beauty she and her husband enjoy.