housing and its discontents…

We recently met with the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, the tribal office responsible for managing federal housing programs on the reservation. It was founded on this reservation in 1963, and is funded by the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is often the scapegoat for the poor design and conditions of housing here.  Until the 1980’s, the Housing Authority had little control over its designs, and the mandated HUD designs were of poor quality. While the Housing Authority has historically been the main provider of new housing on the reservation, there are other housing organizations that have built similar designs with similar construction materials and techniques.  In general, these homes were not designed to withstand the harsh climate extremes. While it would be easy to blame the Housing Authority, HUD, and the other providers for substandard housing or maintenance, we have also seen that the politics of subsidized housing are not that simple.

Houses built by Housing Authority, Cherry Creek

Habitat for Humanity housing, Eagle Butte

Housing on the reservation often looks very similar, and while the Housing Authority has built the majority of the housing here, much of it has since been purchased outright and is thus no longer their maintenance responsibility.  However, the general state of housing, characterized by vinyl or wood siding, broken windows (often single pane), shingled or metal roof (preferable), and single-story timber frame design, is makeshift and in varied states of deterioration. The biggest problem we’ve heard from people regarding their housing is that the windows and doors are not tightly sealed and that they are expensive and/or impossible to heat and cool.  Houses tend to be drafty in the bitterly cold winters and hot in the summers (it was recently 109 degrees).  While double-pane windows are required by building code on the east coast, where winters don’t get nearly as cold as they do in South Dakota, here we’ve see many houses with single-pane windows showing few upgrades/replacements.  The Housing Authority assured us that they currently follow the International Building Code, however there is no Department of Buildings here.  Any inspection of a property would be by internal inspectors. Other builders have told us that there is no enforced code.

Current Housing Authority rental unit, Dupree

Some of the damage and poor condition of houses can be attributed to the maintenance (or lack thereof) by the various housing agencies, but some is also due to mistreatment and neglect by tenants.  Without a stake in one’s house, there is less incentive to upkeep or improve one’s space, especially when money is tight and homes are overcrowded.  Furthermore, a large percentage of subsidized housing can create an economic culture of poverty, where there is no incentive to invest in one’s home and there are more incentives to be unemployed than employed.  Here, Housing Authority rental housing is income based, so if you don’t work, you pay less or nothing at all.  If you do work, your government commodities (similar to rations and/or food stamps) can be taken away and rent will increase with your salary (until hitting a certain cap).  While many people do take pride in being independent, others choose to accept the handouts. For those who do work, rent remains a percentage of their income, so there is little incentive to earn more.

There is practically no private rental market on this reservation, so one must work with the Housing Authority or one of the other non-profits operating on the reservation to find a rental unit. This process is extremely slow, and the housing stock is relatively stagnant. The Housing Authority currently manages approximately 600 rental units on the reservation, while the waiting list for housing has over 400 people on it. The first person on the list for a one-bedroom house submitted their application in 1998. We imagine they may need more than a one bedroom, 12 years later.

The person we spoke with regarding the Housing Authority’s “modernization program” informed us that the oldest HUD designed houses from the 1960’s can have exterior walls constructed out of 2 x 4’s.  This doesn’t leave much room for insulation.  The “modernization” department is responsible for construction updates due to damages and normal wear and tear, but renovations can also be needed in the case of “tenant abuse.”  This is when the tenant so badly abuses the property that it requires renovation.  The way “modernization” works is that the Housing Authority periodically inspects their units and reports the “worst of the worst” conditions.  Those properties get put on a list for modernization, but a tenant cannot request their home to be modernized.  We’re hoping to see examples of houses before and after this modernization process next week, but were told that repairs can range from kitchen/bathroom updates to full interior renovations.

With regard to ownership, we met with a woman at the Housing Authority who is responsible for home ownership educational programs and funding. She spoke with us about their relationship to the reservation, the housing types they provide, the setbacks because of water shortage, and the Housing Authority’s vision for the future of housing on the reservation. She told us about several mortgage packages, educational programs and advisement that provide options and support for tribal members who are interested in purchasing a home. However, it is currently difficult to build new housing because of a water shortage, so they can only advise people on purchasing already built homes or trailers. In the past, the Housing Authority did have a rent-to-own program, but this is no longer available.

We were really excited to meet with the Housing Authority and hear their side of the story.  It appears that the biggest setback to creating new housing at the moment is the water shortage. In essence, the existing water pipes and reservoir for the reservation cannot accommodate the demand, and Tri-County Water, the sole provider for the reservation, has put a hold on new installations and water meters. A new water reservoir has been created but the funding hasn’t come in to lay new pipes and finish the pumping station.  This could take a couple of years to be completed.  Until then, there will be no new traditional water lines and thus, no new housing unless you pay for an alternative to the county water system.  At the moment, the Housing Authority does not plan to explore alternatives like digging wells or developing rainwater collection systems, as this is too costly for on their budget. Thus, they will not build until the water shortage is solved.

There have been roads and infrastructure laid for a new housing development near the main town of Eagle Butte, called Badger Park, which is currently on hold due to the water shortage. The plans for this community do include a number of new ideas and experiments, including alternative building techniques and updated designs by an architecture firm in Pierre.  These houses would be built in modular pieces by the Housing Authority on a lot in Eagle Butte, and then moved to their sites to be assembled and hooked up. We are planning to meet with this firm and other Housing Authority officials to discuss the details of these designs.

We also learned of an exciting project in the residential community of Cherry Creek which fell under the Housing Authority’s modernization program for rental units.  Six houses have to be moved to a new location in town because they are in a flood plain. The Housing Authority received government funding and will experiment using geothermal heating in these homes.  This could drastically reduce the cost of heating in the winter and provide an example for implementation of energy-conscious building techniques.

While we felt like our initial meeting at the Housing Authority provided a lot of new information about their scope of management and the housing stock, we still have more questions about specific building techniques and historic data.  We want access to the GIS maps that show land ownership, roads, utilities, geology and housing location/vintage, but are having trouble getting this information. We hope this will not be necessary, but an attorney for the Department of the Interior in Washington DC has advised us that we may have to file a Freedom of Information Act request if we keep getting blocked from accessing information that is public. We have now met with the BIA, Housing Authority, and Games, Fish and Parks, all of whom have been incredibly generous with their time and discussions of their work, but reluctant to share what we feel is important spatial information. Each organization has pointed us towards another to get this information, when they all have it in one form or another.

Abandoned house built by Housing Authority, Bridger

Abandoned house built by Housing Authority, Bridger

Whose land? Land status and regulation

Laws regarding land use, ownership and taxation influence everything that is built on reservation land.  There are several categories and subcategories of land, each with their own laws regarding taxation, land value, control, and economic potential. The main categories of land status are “Trust” and “non-Trust” (also called Deeded or Fee). The concept of “trust” goes back to the creation of reservations by the Federal Government, as an attempt to protect tribes and their new, enclosed land.  However, the trust relationship has played out in a way that has led to a checkerboard pattern of land control by the tribe, and complications in the economics of home ownership by individual tribal members.

Trust v. Nontrust


This “checkerboard” comes from a history of experimental and misguided land policies by the federal government. The General Allotment Act in 1887 designated 160 acre plots of land in trust to individual tribal members in the spirit of assimilation and “civilization” through farming.  This land, if maintained, would automatically be turned to non-trust land after 25 years, slowly turning reservation trust land into non-trust land subject to property tax.  This policy of “forced deeds” led to foreclosures and the sale of much of the original property on the reservations to non-Indians.  Additionally, after the distribution of the 160 acre allotments, the “excess” or “surplus” land was sold off by the federal government to non-Indians – further reducing the size of tribal land.  By 1919, 1,052,320 acres of the 2.8 million within the boundaries of reservation were “allotted” on Cheyenne River – a number that shrank to 503,483 acres by 2000.[1] In 2010, that number is 447,094.  In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which prohibited “forced” deeds.  Since then, one must request to convert their property to deeded land; otherwise it remains in trust.

Trust (allotted to tribal member or owned by tribe):

Only the tribe (as a political body) and individual tribal members can own trust land.  This land cannot be sold or transferred to a non-Indian. The benefits of trust land are that no property taxes are paid on it, and it can be passed down within the family. Land passed down through family can only go to tribal members.  In the case that it is not passed on, it will be returned to the tribe. Trust land can be traded for other tracts, or can be sold within the tribe. Ownership can be beneficial, title or both – affecting whether income is received from leasing of the land, and how the land is transferred after death. Some tracts of land are 1 to 1 individual ownership, but most land is considered to be “undivided interest land,” meaning that it is in trust to several family members. In this case, an individual owns a percentage of the land, but not a segment. Since the land is in trust by the federal government to the tribe, the land cannot be sold to non-Indians, and the BIA has the power to approve or reject transactions.

Nontrust (also known as Fee or Deeded):

The reservation borders include a sizable amount of land that is not in trust, and has very different regulations that govern it. This land, called “fee” or “deeded” land, is owned in full by anyone, Indian or non-Indian, and is subject to property tax. It can be sold or leased at will.  It was only recently that the tribe gained 51% control of the land within the reservation, after the purchase of 24,000 acres of deeded land. It is still considered deeded until the debt is paid off, and then can be converted to trust land. Before this transaction, the tribe didn’t hold the majority interest on its own reservation.

Indian Country:

Indian Country is trust and nontrust land that is within the boundaries of the reservation and any territory outside the reservation that is under the jurisdiction of the tribe.  Private property on fee land in Indian Country is subject to US and county taxes.  However, these properties are under mixed jurisdiction between the tribe and federal government.  For example, if a non-major crime is committed between Indians in Indian Country, the tribe has jurisdiction. However, if an Indian commits a crime against a non-Indian or vice versa, it is considered a federal crime, and the FBI has jurisdiction – not the state.  All major crimes on the reservation, such as murder and rape, are under FBI jurisdiction.

Conversion Programs:

Individuals who own trust land can apply to have their land converted to fee-simple land, a practice that is usually only done if a tribal member wants to sell their land to a non-Indian, as it subjects the land to taxation. In this case, the land ceases to be considered “reservation” land and is no longer in trust for the tribe. Another process is the fee-to-trust program, in which a tribal member can apply to have their fee land converted to trust land. This process can only be started if all buildings on the property are paid in full.

City/Town Incorporations:

Four towns within the reservation, Dupree, Eagle Butte, Isabel and Timber Lake, have large sections that are incorporated by the state.  Being incorporated by the state means that the land is deeded and is most likely not owned by the tribe.  For example, in Eagle Butte the two main gas stations are in the incorporated section of town; the tribe does not own them.  In fact, there are two Eagle Buttes – Cheyenne Eagle Butte on trust land and Downtown Eagle Butte on fee land.  On tribal land there is no zoning.  To create a commercial site, each individual business venture must go through an approval process by the Tribal Council and BIA, a process that we have been told is tedious and long.  This is particularly problematic for the 15 residential cluster communities like Bridger, Cherry Creek, Iron Lightning and White Horse that are on reservation trust lands but have no precedent or encouragement for commercial activity.


After studying a map in the realty office of the BIA, we noticed that it was labeled “surface map,” and learned that surface and mineral rights are independently controlled and can have different trust statuses.  For example, in the case that surface land was allotted to an individual and in trust, the minerals below could be fee land owned by another individual.  Legally, mineral rights trump surface rights, so if the owner of the mineral rights wants to access their minerals, they can penetrate the surface land.  Because of this, the tribe’s current policy is to always keep mineral rights in trust when selling any fee land.

Housing Process:

Tribal members can apply for home sites on tribal trust land, which would then be leased indefinitely or traded for individual ownership. Site selection involves the study of a GIS map showing which land tracts are available. Typically, an application is for a five-acre home site. The leases are usually for 25 years, and are generally renewable for another 25 years. After tribal approval, the individual will be responsible for developing the property within 2 years, and will be responsible for acquiring housing on the site, and applying for utilities from the independent companies that sell electricity, propane and water. Tri-County Water charges between $600 and $1000 to install a water meter, though some programs (eg. Indian Health Services) may assist with the costs. However, there have been no new home sites selected in the past three years, due to a current hold on new water meters by Tri-County Water. Pipes laid in the 1970s were too small for current demand, and due to maxed out pipes and pumping station, new water meters will not be installed until a new intake, pump and treatment plant is completed in Armstrong County. This could be several years, depending on funding and climate conditions.  Until then, only sites with previously installed systems are selected (and these are rare), unless a cistern system is used to laboriously haul and hold water, or a more robust system of rainwater collection is put into place.

Range Units:

Much of the undeveloped land within the reservation boundaries is leased to ranchers though a system of Range Units (RU’s).  Individual tribal members can apply to the tribe for 5 year leases of range units, and do not pay taxes on the land. Lease money is paid to the tribe, and the amount is calculated according to the number of animal “units” that can be run. In order to lease a RU, an individual must run at least half of his or her own animals on the property– either all together throughout the year, or half a year at a time. Generally, cattle graze the land, but horses also count for this percentage. The price of leasing land from the tribe is significantly less compared to leasing land from individuals with allotted plots of land – approximately $7/acre compared to approximately $17/acre.  Still, these Range Units provide a substantial source of income to individuals who are lucky enough to have them.  Range Units are difficult to come by and currently there are none available.  The application process includes a non-refundable $100 fee and the selection process is not based on a list or any clear criteria, but rather appears to be a political decision made by the tribe.

[1] Indian Land Tenure Foundation, http://www.indianlandtenure.org/iltfallotment/introduction/introI.htm

Landscapes from the road, Pow-Wow, etc.

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House visit, Dupree

Yesterday,  we visited with a new friend in Dupree to see her home and survey the damage from the June 16th tornados.  The house, built in the seventies by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is a divided two family home.  Each unit has three bedrooms, three closets, a small bathroom, a galley kitchen, dining area, and living room.  Her mother moved there in 1993 with six children.  Today, at any given time, 8 to 10 people live in the house.  There are essentially four families in one home; our friend and her boyfriend, her mother, her brother and his two kids, and her sister’s kids.  Of the adult residents, three have applications for separate housing.  They do not know when or if they will be approved.

Before the tornado, the house was functional but still needed improvement.  When asked what they would change about the layout, the family said they needed more closet space as there is no place for linens or general storage.  Also, they would like an entry area, both for coats and to buffer the living space from the weather.  A second bathroom is also needed.

Before the tornado, no renovations or improvements had been made to the property since they moved in 17 years ago.  The biggest construction issue was that the windows and doors were not well sealed, so the house was drafty and cold in the winter. The front door faces west, but due to damage from the tornado they now use the side door on the north end of the house as the only entrance.  Come wintertime, when the prevailing wind comes from the north, this will be very problematic. Some of the windows are missing screens and are thus inoperable, leaving bedrooms extremely hot in the summer.

Exterior roof damage

Floor Plan

The cost of living in this house was higher than we expected.  We were told that their bills were approximately the following:

  • Rent                         $380/month
  • Water                      $200/month
  • Electric                   $160/month
  • Propane                 $200/month summer and $500/month winter

Essentially the cost of living during the winter is $1240/month and $940/month in the summer.  The bulk of the money they spend each month is not on the house, but on utilities.  This model seems backwards.  Rather than investing more money into the property, money is being “thrown away” on utilities.  They use more energy than should be necessary for a house that size in order to compensate for the poor insulation.

Despite the large amount of money they spend on heating in the winter, sometimes it still isn’t warm enough.  When this happens, the family uses electric space heaters in the living room or spends nights in the Dupree winter shelter.  This shelter was so badly damaged during the June tornados that it was demolished shortly after the storm.  They can only hope a new one will be built in time for this winter, because the repairs to their house following the tornados lack insulation.  This past winter temperatures ranged from -15 to 30 degrees, not accounting for wind chill.

Part of their roof was so badly damaged during the tornado that water gushed into their living room.  The morning after the tornado, the portion of the roof that covers the 14’ x 15’ living room collapsed, damaging everything in the room.  The Housing Authority quickly came to assess the damage and over two days installed a roof with no insulation over the living room.  They were told that they were on a list to be relocated so that further renovation could happen in their home.  After the next rainstorm, when leaking persisted through their light fixtures, maintenance came back and determined that the damages were fixed to the best of their capabilities – the family would not be relocated.  We checked out the renovation job and agreed with the family that there was a lot that still needs to be done to make the house safe and livable.  The ceiling is now sheet-rocked and spackled, but they had to cover the ceiling vent because bugs were crawling through it. The house is still not tightly sealed, and since the storm, they have been visited by spiders, grasshoppers and mice.  The living room’s overhead light has damaged wiring such that they only have one option for the light – on – meaning there is an exposed live wire in the fixture.  In the kitchen where the roof did not collapse, the ceiling sags and they are concerned that it may fall in during the next big rainstorm.

Living Room, showing former front door, patched ceiling and taped vent

Sagging ceiling above washer/dryer

From the exterior of the house, the roofing is poorly attached and unfinished.  The drainage gutter blew away in the storm, so now when it rains, water pours off all sides of the house.  The roof overhang that protected the west side of the house from sun collapsed after the storm, leaving the living room exposed to direct sunlight.  Yesterday when we visited, the high temperature was 102 degrees.  The crawl space below the house, which should be available for safety during a tornado, has been leaking for years.  After the storm, no one has felt comfortable going down there to check it out, fearing water, snakes, and mold. We think the lack of drainage gutters on the house will only exacerbate whatever conditions await them in the crawl space.

damaged roof drain

It is hard for us to understand how this is considered finished or acceptable by any standards.  [We have since spoken with the Housing Authority and were told that insurance funding should be coming soon to pay for thorough repairs]  The sad truth is, there are many families in Dupree in similar situations.  On this street alone, literally every other house has visible damage to the roof from the tornado.  The roofs are patched now, but none of them look like long-term sustainable solutions.  We are told that there are still people living in a shelter in Eagle Butte (20 minutes away), left homeless after the storm.  We have heard that the Housing Authority is understaffed and under-funded, however we think their temporary fixes will only leave properties open to greater and more expensive damage in the future.  Additionally, we are concerned that living conditions may be unsafe.  It would seem that an initial investment in better construction techniques and more thorough repairs would benefit both the Housing Authority and their renters.

We have many questions about the management of these properties and the responsibilities outlined in the rental agreements.  We also wonder if the Housing Authority has insurance on these properties.  If they do, where is the money collected from the storm damage?  If they don’t, why not?  We are planning to meet Housing Authority officials next week and hope to be able to answer some of these questions.  The family only recently learned about the option of renters insurance, which would protect their possessions, but not the house.  If they could afford it, perhaps they could have more easily replaced some of the damaged items in their living room.  After realizing how much money this family is paying monthly for their housing, we wonder if a market of private rentals might allow for better and more personal service for families like this.  From our understanding, the private rental market is slim to none.  People leave the reservation if they want more rental options.

Finally, this young woman we visited with is truly a survivor with incredible potential.  We were so impressed with her strength, intelligence and openness.  We are happy to see that despite feeling frustrated by her living situation, she maintains a positive outlook.  However, we hope things change for her sooner rather than later.  We can tell she has unique leadership skills, passion, and discipline, despite these difficult circumstances.

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Dupree photographs etc. 08.03.10

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Infrastructure We’ve Seen

Many things we take for granted back at home in New York City are simply unavailable or slow to get around here.  If you’ve tried to call us on our Alltel cell phone, you probably got cut off at some point.  Alltel is the only cell phone carrier who has invested in putting towers on the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge reservations.  We are grateful for the signal this has provided our phones, but it is still patchy.  Your best bet for a strong signal is a hilltop, taking a road on the perimeter of the reservation or getting close to a cell phone tower, which aren’t always near towns.  We spoke with a native woman today who took her Alltel phone to New York City, only to discover it didn’t work on the east coast because Alltel doesn’t have roaming agreements with carriers there.  Our provider, AT&T does provide roaming service around the country, but has no compatible towers in this area – we must be in the 1% of the country they can’t guarantee service.

BIA Road to Cherry Creek

Internet is another story.  Getting a fast connection requires the installation of a costly satellite dish.  There are no cable lines laid so DSL and wireless are not options.  There are no “internet cafes” on the entire 4,266.987 sq mi of the Cheyenne River Reservation, which is comparable to the size of Connecticut.  If you want access to the internet, you can visit the Dupree YMCA in the center of the reservation.  We also heard that there are two computers at the sole small public library on the reservation, but we have yet to confirm they have internet.

Senior Center with roof repair after tornado Dupree

Yesterday in Dupree we saw first hand some of the destruction caused by 23 tornados, which simultaneously hit the town on June 16th, 2010.  Though much debris has been cleaned up, evidence of the damage is clear on the houses and farm structures.  Many of the houses are missing parts of their roofs, replaced by plywood, and a lot of windows are boarded up.  Given that it has been extremely rainy for the past few months, it is clear that these patches are not sufficient.  A woman, who works at the YMCA, ironically confirmed this during a rainstorm yesterday.  She was concerned about her house, which had been damaged by the tornadoes, and had unfinished repairs by the Housing Authority maintenance crew.  She described long waits for service, and mentioned soft parts of the roof and ceiling in several areas of her family’s home.  She was not expecting any follow up service, despite the fact that she feels the job is not finished, and was worried about the effects of yesterday’s rain on the house.  We are told that the Housing Authority receives money in lump sums.  They spread it as thin as they can, to help out as many people as possible, until they run out of money.  Then they wait for more.  This explains why so many of the windows in Dupree are boarded up.  When the next sum of money comes in, hopefully the Housing Authority will install new windows.  There is no telling when that will occur.

Road Trip NY to SD

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Settling in…

Greetings from the Cheyenne River Reservation! We arrived here Friday after an exciting four day road trip from New York. The home we are staying at is located somewhere between the towns of Bridger and Takini, on the southwest corner of the reservation. It is a gravel road and 2 dirt roads off Route 74. Getting here involves 4-wheel drive or some skilled driving, preferably both. Our hosts, Ben and Mayumi Elk Eagle are incredibly warm and welcoming friends. Ben has a big spirit that takes up a room. He listens with incredible patience, asks all the right questions and tells stories with humor, honesty and great warmth. You can tell he’s a leader and we were excited to learn that he is running for tribal council next fall. His wife, Mayumi, was born in Japan and fell in love with Ben and the reservation 10 years ago. She has a joyful laugh, is always eager to engage in conversation and is now welcomed and at home in the Lakota community. She has gone so far as to learn Lakota, the native language of the the tribe, and takes classes in everything from social sciences to geology at the tribal college. The Lakota language was almost completely wiped out in the 1950’s in an attempt to “civilize” the population, but today Ben and Mayumi speak it with each other and with friends. There has been a recent push on several nearby reservations to bring back the language, and it is currently being taught in many schools.

The weather has been intense, with unusual amounts of rain and storms. Many creeks that have been dry for years are suddenly wet again. This would seem to be a good thing after years of droughts, but two major problems with all this moisture are grasshoppers and water contamination. The grasshoppers run the show around here, as evidenced by the front grille of our car and the demolished vegetable garden next to the house. They eat most crops making it difficult to grow food in this area without use of strong pesticides. Water contamination is another issue. When it is not raining, it is HOT around here. Kids naturally flock to water, but turbidity in the water had been making children very sick. We met a woman in the Bridger community nearby who explained that her kids had to get a strong dose of antibiotics because they swam in the creek. She also mentioned that her tap water is undrinkable because of the turbidity.


We have been having really exciting conversations with people about our research, as well as leaning information about many potential projects that are on the horizon, including organic farming, new methods of building, wind power, and tribal banking. Everyone we have met has shared with us a great deal of information about their homes and lives, and we feel incredibly encouraged about the project.

Bridger, United Church of Christ


Thank you to all the people who have talked with us about our project, and to the contacts we have made in South Dakota!  We are leaving NYC in less than a week, and are very excited. We have been preparing for the road trip, and expect to be on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota by July 31. We look forward to meeting new people, pow-wow season, seeing old friends and taking a weekend trip to Sturgis 2010.

Something we stumbled upon, while planning for our communications and this blog:

if our project was about I-90, we'd totally call you

Photos of Cheyenne River, 1997

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