As nurse Trudy Peterson drove from her home in Mobridge, South Dakota, along Highway 1806 in July 2019, rain pounded Standing Rock Reservation’s flat, barren landscape. A massive seven inches of rain fell overnight and as she approached a straight stretch of road just south of Fort Yates, disaster struck.
Powerful floodwaters had destroyed a culvert running under the road, washing a 30-foot section of the highway away. Peterson, 60, drove straight into the ravine and was killed — one of two people to lose their lives there that night. Two other motorists were injured.
“We have other culverts like that that are going to be blown out if we get a bunch of rain,” warned Elliott Ward, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s emergency manager, from his office in Fort Yates. “(R)oads, bridges, culverts, lagoons, housing. Our infrastructure is shot,” said Ward. “A lot of our roads were built back in the ‘50s and ‘60s; they’re dilapidated and need replacing.”
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Tribe administrators on Standing Rock Reservation say having an array of departments and authorities — state, federal, and tribal — in charge of roads and transport infrastructure means that accessing funds to maintain highways and culverts is complicated and riven with bureaucracy. Most federal funding for roads and highways on reservation lands is provided through the Tribal Transportation Program (TTP), which authorized $505 million for 2020 and is co-administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Federal Highway Administration.
But reservations across the U.S. have a backlog of infrastructure projects, a delay referred to as “deferred maintenance.” Repairs were estimated at $390 million for 2018.
Indigenous communities are some of the poorest in the country. The per capita income in Standing Rock’s Sioux County stands at less than $16,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while in Emmons County on the other side of the Missouri River, the figure is almost double that.
In Navajo Nation, home to around 175,000 people spread across New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona, three-quarters of the roads on the reservation are either dirt or gravel. In an area larger than the state of West Virginia, drainage systems are easily clogged by expanding and migrating sand dunes, making roads impassable during times of heavy rain or thawing. In 2015, ten days of school in the reservation’s San Juan County were canceled because road conditions made it unsafe to ferry students to and from their classrooms.
In South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, not far from Standing Rock, federal funding for the community’s 310 miles of roads was just $2.2 million in 2019, one tenth of the estimated minimum needed to bring the roads into good repair. Road ploughing alone cost $600,000 that same year, when a combination of failing infrastructure and extreme weather led to a state of emergency being issued by tribal authorities on two occasions.
Dirt roads in poor condition are a growing problem in the era of climate change, with record-breaking late summer and early winter storms and snowfall that have made it even more difficult for residents to get around. In March 2019, a “bomb cyclone” storm flooded homes and businesses on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to some of the lowest life expectancy rates in the Western Hemisphere. With the ground underneath still frozen solid, rapidly rising temperatures that followed the snowstorm fueled a thaw and several-feet-high floodwaters left whole communities stranded for days.
For vulnerable minorities such as Native communities, the threat presented by the coronavirus has added to the worry. With Covid-19 cases rising in states across the Plains region, being able to safely drive to healthcare and emergency facilities is more critical than ever. Those drives can be long. In Navajo Nation, for example, 12 health care facilities cover 25,000 square miles of land. Early last summer, Navajo Nation reported a higher per capita number of Covid-19 cases than New York state, ground zero for the outbreak last spring. Meanwhile, lost with the passing of 1,152 members of Navajo Nation are generations of the same families and coveted oral histories.
The culvert under Highway 1806 into which Trudy Peterson’s car dived in the summer of 2019 wasn’t repaired because it fell into the “long-range projects and costs list” in the Tribe’s Long Range Transportation Plan for Standing Rock document, published in December 2018. It meant there wasn’t funding set aside to repair the culvert, estimated at costing $1.5 million, or it wasn’t considered high priority at the time. The shortfall facing Standing Rock, according to the Tribe’s director of transportation and planning, Ron His Horse Is Thunder, is down to Congress and the Federal Highway Administration not releasing enough funds. “We go to Congress every year,” he told the Associated Press in August 2019. “They just don’t give us enough money to take care of the issues.”
Nor could the tribe, says Elliott Ward, avail itself of funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to repair the highway, as it comes under BIA jurisdiction. The culvert that killed Trudy Peterson had been identified for replacement seven years before it was washed out, according to an internal document.
Recent months saw some efforts in Washington DC to help ease the crisis. In August 2020, then-Representative Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), now Secretary of the Interior Department — and the first Native American to hold a cabinet position — spoke of how the Invest in America and Moving Forward Acts would result in funding increases for the TTP. In November 2020, four senators including Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation that would send funds toward infrastructure improvement efforts, including traffic calming and pedestrian facilities on reservation lands. The bill would have seen the opening of a new program within the Department for Transportation with an annual budget of $25 million. It has not been reintroduced in the 117th Congress.
But throwing money at the problem isn’t a catch-all solution. Interjurisdictional cooperation is key to determining how roads and road safety are managed in many reservations, says Kathy Quick, a co-author with Guillermo Narváez of a University of Minnesota study about improving roadway safety on reservations. “Matters of responsibility and authority — who has it and who may exercise it — are frequently in question and contested in most reservations,” she said.
“The boundaries of reservations and of tribes’ jurisdictions to formulate, implement, and enforce safety-related policies and plans are frequently questioned and contested by federal, state and local government authorities.”
For Trudy Peterson’s daughter, Jade Mound, those issues don’t compare to the raw pain of losing someone to poor road conditions. “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what my family has gone through,” she told the Bismarck Tribune in September 2020, when Peterson’s and other families filed a claim against the BIA seeking monetary damages and better maintenance of roads.
“There is absolutely no reason that the BIA roads should be in the condition they’re in.”