On each cold winter evening, residents of Red Shirt go to bed wondering how long their propane will last.
The painfully poor community on the northwest edge of the Pine Ridge Reservation reflects a dangerous reality across Indian Country, one that brought leaders from seven tribes to Rapid City this week in search of solutions.
Paul Iron Cloud, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe now working on reservation housing issues, coordinated the meeting with aides to Sens. Tim Johnson, D-SD, and Sen. John Thune, R-SD, and a regional representative from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Heating problems have piled up quickly during a winter of cold temperatures and high winds, Iron Cloud said.
"First of all, the propane went sky high," he said. "No way in heck can our people with their salaries pay for all of that. Lot of them is on fixed incomes so they either buy food or buy propane And you know, they need the food."
Iron Cloud said many on the reservation face that hard choice during a winter marked by stretches of below-zero gales. Oglala Tribal Council members have been flooded by calls for heating assistance. And council members are especially worried about children.
"One of the calls I got was from an elderly lady that lives in Pine Ridge," says councilman Larry Eagle Bull of the Pine Ridge District. "She was crying on the phone. She said, 'You know, this isn't for me. This is for my takosias, grandchildren. They're the ones that are cold.'"
The tribe provided some heating assistance but exhaused available funds. It also got help from the tribal casino. With tribal resources exhausted and federal heat assistance limited, reservation leaders are seeking help from federal officials -- but with a practical attitude.
"They're not going to meet all of our needs right now," Oglala Tribe President Bryan Brewer says. "And I think the tribal council, we need to sit down and try to come up with another solution. What are we going to do? How are we going to make it through the next couple of months?"
It's a question being asked each night in chilly homes across the reservation.