In this third of three articles in our summer series, LIHEAP.org offers a special report surrounding Native American tribes and their support of LIHEAP as a national program that's vital for many tribes. The following interview was written and reported by Jake Brown with the Wyandotte Nation.
A few years back, when Wyandotte Nation Chief Billy Friend announced the opening of the tribe’s new 7,000-square-foot Heritage Acres Community Center, he celebrated the occasion with The Oklahoman among other media and tribal members, heralding the multi-purpose community center as “a great addition for the community here in the Wyandotte Nation… The idea is to bring the community together to have a place for activities, a place where young and old both can come and enjoy — whether it is working in the computer lab, playing a game of pool or ping pong or in the case of a storm, to be able to find a place of refuge and shelter in the safe room. We sat down and looked at ways to do community building. Of course, having quality housing, quality education, quality healthcare, producing jobs — these are all vital pieces of building a community.”
Along with being an activity center, the Wyandotte Nation built a Senior Center where their elder tribal members could come to seek not only shelter from Oklahoma’s legendary storms, but from the summer heat and frigid winters too, along with being a resource center where they can apply for energy assistance during the aforementioned seasons’ hottest and coldest days. Confirming that indeed “LIEHAP is life saving for some of the Elder population of the Wyandotte Nation,” Dana Butterfield, Family Services Director of the Wyandotte Nation, explained in an exclusive interview with LIHEAP.org that this assistance is vital because “a large number of Tribal Elders live on a very low fixed income and rely on extra assistance such as LIHEAP to survive.”
With her unique perspective as the head of Family Services, Director Butterfield sees the full spectrum of stresses facing economically-challenged households day in and out. Whether helping with energy assistance because they spent their monthly budget on feeding and keeping a roof over the heads of their family and didn’t have enough left over to pay a higher-than-average winter heating or summer cooling bill, or possibly a household with elderly residents whose electric bill stays consistently high month in and out due to medical equipment that must run 24 hours a day, LIHEAP – with the diversity of energy needs the program helps to provide year in and out – she unequivocally feels has “proven to be an essential asset to the people of the Wyandotte Nation. The Wyandotte Nation receives a…very much appreciated…amount of funding through LIHEAP.”
As the tribe approaches the end of what has been a record summer of scorching heat, that asset was working overtime throughout the summer against the backdrop of what a Tulsa World headline in July described as “oppressive heat” as “an already sweltering summer peaked Thursday afternoon as the temperature reached triple figures for the first time this year. The heat climbed to 101 degrees shortly before 3 p.m. and 102 degrees about 5 p.m. at Tulsa International Airport, making Thursday the hottest day of 2018. It won’t hold that distinction long, however, as forecasters expect the temperature to reach 106 degrees Friday afternoon. If that high is realized, Friday would be the area’s hottest day in six years, according to the National Weather Service. Joe Sellers, meteorologist at NWS Tulsa, described the ongoing weather situation as an oppressive heat. An excessive heat warning was issued for much of eastern Oklahoma through Friday due to heat indices ranging from 105 to 115 degrees.”
Director Butterfield has noted that throughout the summer’s punishing temperature spikes, “with rising utility bills across the board, the assistance LIHEAP provides has been increasingly sought after.” Unfortunately, due to demand exceeding available funding, “every application period leaves families turned away due to lack of funding,” and heading into the upcoming heading season, her people face a similar fear as the rest of the state regarding funding shortages. It’s a reality her office faces every fall, and one that sends a shiver colder than winter’s at the talk in Washington among certain political circles of eliminating the essential safety-net of LIHEAP entirely. Going on the offense, the tribes around Oklahoma have spoken in a chorus against such suggestions, with one prominent example coming in August, 2018 when the Chickasaw Times in reported on that effort that “the Inter-tribal Council (ITC) of the Five Civilized Tribes unanimously passed nine resolutions May 1 calling for action on several issues critically important to Indian Country…(including) opposition to proposed elimination of funding for low income home energy assistance.”
Making the broad argument that LIHEAP helps “thousands of…Tribes citizens provided heating and cooling assistance through the program,” the Chickasaw Times noted of particular relevance to Tribes across Oklahoma that “rural areas of Indian Country would particularly be adversely impacted, the ITC called on Congress to protect funding for programs that provide basic needs for tribal children, elders and individuals with disabilities.” Agreeing that the risk to families is equally as potentially dangerous across the frozen plains of Oklahoma’s notoriously frigid winter months, Director Butterfield in closing argues that even as her tribe does will continue to do all it can to supplement funding shortages for its tribal community, where “the Wyandotte Nation provides an emergency assistance program that can help with utilities, when those funds are depleted, they turn to LIHEAP to help keep their homes warm.”