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'State of Emergency': Pine Ridge Reservation Flooding Exposes Racial Divide in Climate Crisis

"We're seeing the differential impact of climate change unfold before our eyes in real time."

Flooding at Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Flooding at Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Photo: Elizabeth Seymour, Facebook)

Flooding has inundated the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, leading to a serious crisis for its Native American population—and a slow government response that, critics say, exposes the racial imbalance in American disaster relief. 

"This is a state of emergency right now," said Pine Ridge resident Henry Red Cloud.

Rapidly melting snow from a recent blizzard is soaking the reservation and already damaged water lines, cutting the community off from safe drinking water. Roads are mostly impassable mud pits. 

Pine Ridge, according to The New York Times, is "in a state of shock and triage."

Officials with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which administers the reservation, say they lack the training, manpower and equipment needed to deal with such a large-scale crisis. And there's a pervasive sense on Pine Ridge, a place of long-strained relations with the state and federal governments, that help has been woefully slow to arrive, and that few people beyond the reservation know or care much about its plight.

Help is on the way from the federal government, though it's moving at a glacial pace. The distinction between the pace of recovery at Pine Ridge and other areas of the Midwest affected by the disaster was noted by a number of observers. 

"Unlike in Nebraska, where the National Guard rescued 111 people, including some by helicopter and boat," the Times reported, "outside help for Pine Ridge was conspicuously scarce at first."

Roads are washed out and flooded, so most aid is being trucked in by boat and horse. 

The National Guard arrived on scene over the weekend to assist the Red Shirt, Pine Ridge, Porcupine, Evergreen, and Wounded Knee communities on the reservation. 

Observers noted that the reservation's issues are longstanding and that the flooding will only exacerbate the problems. 

"Even before the floods, conditions on Pine Ridge have been described as 'third world,'" tweeted reporter Selina Guevara.

Native American journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat, in a lengthy Twitter thread detailing the connections between the reservation's past and current crises, put the current situation in historical persective. 

"I visited Wounded Knee, where, in 1890, hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were butchered by the United States cavalry," wrote NoiseCat. "Yesterday, residents of the Wounded Knee houses were walking down the highway to get water rations from the National Guard."

Environmental group 350.org cited NoiseCat's reporting and warned that Pine Ridge was only the beginning of how climate change will hit different communities. 

"We're seeing the differential impact of climate change unfold before our eyes in real time," the organization said on Twitter. 

Organizers are calling for relief efforts:

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