Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has the lowest life expectancy of any region in the United States. For many residents on the reservation their daily reality still involves a multi-mile or multi-mile trek to access water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. Overcoming water scarcity on the reservations takes enormous dedication and resiliency by Native residents in the face of insufficient government pipeline programs and infrastructure.
This winter, CNN visited our field office in Pine Ridge to interview Running Strong’s long-time Water Coordinator Ken Lone Elk about our water connection program. Water projects are the original foundation of Running Strong for American Indian Youth and continue to be one of the most in-demand services Running Strong performs on the Pine Ridge and Navajo reservations.
CNN also interviewed two Pine Ridge families who had recently received water connections from Running Strong. Mark Cottier, a 50-year old father of three daughters and diesel mechanic, has never had running water in his life and makes a daily trip of about a half a mile daily to haul water from a nearby creek to use for his home’s septic system. “If I need to shower, if I have an interview, I usually ‘bird-bath’ myself with a bit of water from the store,” Cottier said. “I get my buckets and go about 200, 250 yards [to the creek] to get the water to flush my toilet. This is my routine – I do it in the morning and I do it in the evening.”
Grace Rooks cares for her grandson in their mobile home and has gone without access to water for over a decade. Her grandson suffers from eczema and needs extra bathing to manage his condition, which requires Grace to haul hot water bucket by bucket to fill his bathtub. When she finally connected to the water line in November of 2019 she said, “I told him [my grandson] I was so happy I was going to take a shower all day long.”
To date Running Strong has completed over 400 water connections, water wells, and septic tank installations on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Navajo Nation. “It’s such a basic thing, and a lot of people can’t believe how many in Indian Country don’t even have running water.,” Ken Lone Elk added. “But when you dig for a connection and hook up a family with running water for a first time, you’re creating hope. You’re changing their lives.”
“I always tell my son and my daughter to leave with a good heart.” – Ken Lone Elk
“I’ve always seen the water shortage. A lot of us never had water.” – Ken Lone Elk
“Running Strong has been a god send.” – Willard Clifford, Water Systems Manager of Oglala Sioux Tribe
“They bring that glimpse of hope, of change.” – OST Valentina Merdanian, Oglala District Representative
“Running Strong has stepped up and stepped in to help families get access to running water.” – Valentina Merdanian
“5 gallons lasts a couple hours – if I cook, clean, wash dishes.” – Grace Rooks talking about how long her water lasted before she was connected to the water line
“I get my buckets and go about 200, 250 yards to get the water to flush my toilet. This is my routine – I do it in the morning and I do it in the evening.” – Mark Cottier
“The need is so big and the resources are so small.” – Sam O’Rourke