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Lake Andes Resource Center looks ahead after fire destroyed 'priceless' tribal history, paused vital services

As leaders of the NAWHERC scramble to resume operations, they’re beginning to realize the true extent of what a “total loss” meant.

NAWHERC after a fire
Organization leaders say they are devastated after a fire on Dec. 20, 2021 at the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes caused major losses to the building's services and tribal history. Submitted photo
Submitted photo
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LAKE ANDES, S.D. — Charon Asetoyer was sleeping soundly on Dec. 20, when she was awoken by the screaming sirens of the Lake Andes Fire Department. She went back to sleep, until she got a phone call she never expected.

“The shelter director called me and said ‘Charon, that’s the resource center, it’s on fire,’” Asetoyer said. “So, I jumped up and drove over there and called some other staff. And sure enough… it was blazing and several fire units were there putting it out.”

Asetoyer serves as the director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC) in Lake Andes and, alongside some of her staff, she watched helplessly as the building she treasured burned before her eyes.

Unbeknownst to Asetoyer at the time, the fire would be deemed arson . A suspect allegedly admitted later that morning that he was upset, and set multiple fires across the city. But how the fire started made no difference — the building is a total loss.

READ MORE: 'Devastating' fire at Lake Andes' Native American Resource Center deemed arson, one arrested

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But the NAWHERC is more than just a building. Asetoyer said the organization — which has become the leading pathfinder in the country in addressing Indigenous women’s reproductive health and justice issues while working to preserve and protect their culture since 1988 — is working hard to resume their services at alternate locations.

Shucking corn
Members and volunteers with the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes shuck corn that was donated by an area farmer in 2016.
Submitted photo

Two of the top priorities for the NAWHERC are resuming operations of the community’s food pantry and radio station.

“Food security is a huge issue here on our reservations, and the longer [the food pantry] is down the harder it is on the community,” Asetoyer said. “It’s pretty devastating for some families. [For services] to come to a screeching halt, you can rest assured that the community is feeling it.”

Last year, the food pantry distributed over 50 tons of food throughout the community.

“It’s a big loss to the community,” Asetoyer said. “It’s pretty devastating for some families.”

Further, Asetoyer worries about the risks of KDKO 89.9 FM, their community radio station, remaining offline.

“That has the Emergency Alert System, so we are really concerned that it gets up and going again as soon as possible,” Asetoyer said. “That’s really important to a community, that we have immediate response to storms and disasters. The longer the station is down, the longer the EAS system is down — so it’s frightening.”

KDKO also broadcasts culturally-based programming, aiming to preserve Indigenous culture through language, music, news and public affairs.

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Beyond the loss of services, the fire destroyed priceless historical photographs and taped interviews with tribal elders.

“The elders — in Indian Country, oral history is extremely important,” Asetoyer said. “To be able to interview elders and capture it on tape for the next generation is really important.”

NAWHERC Post-Fire
The Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center suffered a fire on Dec. 20, 2021, that was deemed a total loss.
Submitted photo

The documents and interviews were often used as part of a language immersion program, where, mostly over the summer, NAWHERC organizers would teach children in the community the traditional Dakota language and lifestyle their ancestors spoke and lived.

“It’s really heartbreaking to see so much of that destroyed,” Asetoyer said. “Within a language is contained your values, your math, your science, your medicines, your info on traditional healing practices — all those things that are so important for survival. You just do not want to lose that.”

Though some documents had been preserved online, most of those kept only in a physical form are considered forever lost.

Since many operations have been put on pause, Asetoyer said each day it takes to open up is a day the community is impacted.

“[The community will] come into the food pantry or maybe they need to use a phone or need us to fax something. They’re pretty upset about the situation,” Asetoyer said. “It's hurting the community in a big way. It's pretty dire.”

As leaders of the NAWHERC scramble to resume operations, they’re beginning to realize the true extent of what a “total loss” meant.

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Beyond dealing with the loss of items such as computers, files and their building — which Asetoyer valued at about a $900,000 loss — employees are beginning to realize they’re missing even the basic necessities of their jobs like pens and paper.

“Someone called me yesterday from another office asking for Wite-Out,” Asetoyer said. “Just things that when you work in an office you take for granted.”

Leaders of NAWHERC say they’re looking into a few different options for where to relocate. They’ve taken a look at a couple of options in the area, and are continuing to investigate what space may best suit their needs — most importantly for the food pantry and community radio station.

“We're just trying to decide,” Asetoyer said. “Once we do, boom, we're going to get up and going again.”

As the resource center works to replace their losses, a GoFundMe page has been set up which had already amassed nearly $13,000 in donations as of Friday afternoon. Any person who may want to donate through other means can write a check to the Native American Community Board at PO Box 572 in Lake Andes.

Related Topics: FIRESAMERICAN INDIAN
Dunteman covers general and breaking news as well as crime in the Mitchell Republic's 17-county coverage area. He grew up in Harrisburg, and has lived in South Dakota for over 20 years. He joined the Mitchell Republic in June 2021 after earning his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He can be reached at HDunteman@MitchellRepublic.com, or on Twitter @HRDunt.
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