Toxic Trailers and Smallpox Blankets
by David Swallow, Lakota Spiritual Leader and a Headman of the Lakota
Edited by Stephanie M. Schwartz
© July 16, 2007 Porcupine, South Dakota
My name is David Swallow. I live near the community of Porcupine on
the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I want to speak today. I
want to speak out against ethnic cleansing, genocide, and extermination
in these modern days.
Today, due to the terrible economic situation on the Pine Ridge
Reservation, everyone knows that many poor people need housing.
Horrible poverty is everywhere here. Reports say unemployment on Pine
Ridge is around 85% or worse.
Many of my people are sick. I am told that the life expectancy here
on Pine Ridge is between 48-52 years old. By this, I am one who has
already lived past when they thought I would die.
There are some people who live good lives. BIA workers and Federal
and State Government workers don’t live on the Reservation. They have
jobs and live in nice housing in towns in Nebraska, South Dakota,
Colorado, and Wyoming.
Others live good lives, too. Tribal Council members have jobs so
they can afford decent housing. They live good.
But all these people are working together to bring toxic,
contaminated FEMA trailers left over from Hurricane Katrina to the
poorest people of Pine Ridge. They will be creating an ethnic cleansing
like in the 1800s when the Government sent blankets to the reservations
which had smallpox infection in them.
This new trailer housing creates disease. That is why the Government
gives them away to Indians. The Government wants the oil, uranium, and
rich minerals that might be on our land but the Indians are in the way
That is the same reason the BIA and the Tribal Council started up the
Land Consolidation Act of 2000, to buy up all the Reservation land.
With no jobs, little food, and much homelessness, they put us in a
position where we have to sell our land.
Now they’re trying to bring in trailer houses infested with toxic
chemicals. These chemicals get into the air and make people very sick,
especially the children, elders, mothers, and people already with health
problems. The contamination causes cancer, heart diseases, lung
diseases, rashes, mental problems, breathing problems, many horrible
If these trailers are such good housing, why doesn’t the mainstream
people want to buy them? Why did their own inspectors warn them about
the danger from the high levels of the chemicals? Why are the people
already living in them suing the trailer makers and FEMA because of
getting sick from the toxic poisons? Why will no one listen when many
major mainstream news reports have talked about these FEMA trailers
Every time we deal with the Government, they give us a deal like
this. This is no good way.
I want to say, we are not “Indians.” We are Lakota. And we
Traditional Lakota carry the Red Nation C’anunpa [Sacred Pipe] in
Truth. Who walked this land first? The Red Man did. And he should be
dealt with in a good way.
We need jobs, not charity. We don’t need contaminated hand-outs. We
need lots and lots of jobs. We need good economic-development projects
and programs on the Reservation. If we had jobs, we could build our own
homes. With jobs, we would be able to solve many of our problems.
If anyone really cares about conditions on the Reservation, they
should look to these things. They should not try to kill us with
So this is what I have to say today. Ho h’ecetu yelo, I have spoken.
David Swallow, Wowitan Yuha Mani
Porcupine, South Dakota – The Pine Ridge Reservation
Deja vue, Indeed: The Evolving
Story of FEMA’s Toxic Trailers
by Stephanie M. Schwartz, Freelance Writer - Member,
Native American Journalists Association (NAJA)
© July 16, 2007 Firestone, Colorado Stephanie M. Schwartz
In June of 2007, Senator Tim Johnson, FEMA, Congress, and the BIA
arranged for 2,000 FEMA trailers to be made available to the Native
American reservations in dire need of housing. These trailers are part
of the 8,000+ excess, unused FEMA trailers constructed for the victims
of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Exactly which American Indian
reservations and how many units each reservation will get remains yet to
The tribes will be required to pay transportation costs as well as
the costs to prepare the lots, set the trailers up, and to winterize
them. However, clearly this appeared to be a significant help towards
the critical need of about 90,000 American Indian families in need of
adequate housing (as detailed in a 2003 study by the U.S. Commission on
According to public statements, Senator Johnson specifically
envisioned many of these trailers going to the Pine Ridge Reservation in
South Dakota, a place whose poverty-stricken conditions are likened to
third world countries. The Senator and the BIA have been working
closely with John Steele, Paul Iron Cloud, and the Tribal Council from
Pine Ridge to make it all happen.
It seemed a surprisingly ideal solution, one which many people
applauded at first as a huge humanitarian and logical move by the
Federal Government. Ideal, that is, until one starts to investigate the
history of these mobile homes and learns of an astonishing toxicity
issue with the vast majority of the units.
Said to be fully-furnished, three bedroom units, these trailers were
built during a construction frenzy created by FEMA's unprepared but
immediate need to house Hurricane Katrina survivors. A report from the
Sun Herald News in Mississippi in May of 2006 details the picture of
this manufacturing frenzy.... untrained workers, a dearth of suitable
materials, using materials possibly made outside the U.S. which
contained higher levels of chemicals than normally allowed, and low
quality control on hastily-created assembly lines.
Chemicals… therein lies the problem. The Government's public
announcements about these trailers fail to mention the history of toxic
contamination from formaldehyde which has been proven to exist in the
FEMA trailers and mobile homes constructed for the victims of Katrina.
Formaldehyde is a chemical which emits gasses which the EPA considers
to be highly toxic and carcinogenic (known to cause lung, nose, and
throat cancer) but which is not regulated for trailer manufacturing in
this country. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, exposure to formaldehyde toxins can create irritated eyes,
breathing problems, headaches, asthma attacks, coughing, congestive
heart disease, nausea, depression, memory-impairment, skin rashes,
respiratory problems and even can lead to cancer. To compound the
problem, high temperatures or high humidity increase the toxin levels.
Worse, for people who already are compromised with respiratory health
issues, and for infants, children, nursing mothers, and elders, exposure
can prove disastrous and even more deadly.
Formaldehyde is used in cheap building materials like particle board,
plywood, curtains, molded plastics, counter tops, glue, carpet,
insulation, and wallpaper. While normal trailers and mobile homes also
contain these toxins, the FEMA trailers and mobile homes, hurriedly
built as bare-bones cheap models, seem to contain significantly higher
In 2006, the Sierra Club tested FEMA trailers in Louisiana,
Mississippi, and Alabama and found 83-94% of them to contain
formaldehyde levels far above EPA and OSHA recommended workplace limits
of 0.10 parts per million. Other testing has shown comparable results.
Varying reports state that the gas levels emitted by the formaldehyde in
the contaminated trailers ranged from 3 to 1,000 times the acceptable
Originally, FEMA's response to hundreds of complaints from Katrina
victims was that the toxic vapors go away with adequate ventilation
after about six months. However, continued testing has proven that not
to be the case.
Additionally, according to a report given by journalist Dan Rather on
HD-TV, information has come to light that FEMA was informed of the high
toxicity by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) just
two months after Katrina hit, in October 2005, but did nothing. Testing
to ensure employee safety, OSHA found new units in four county FEMA
staging areas to have toxicity levels 20 times above government
standards just in the air outside the trailers.
Dan Rather further related his interview with a former FEMA employee
who clearly indicated that not only was FEMA aware of the toxic problems
but chose to ignore them. Moreover, the employee stated that FEMA
advised their employees to remain silent about the test results.
In March of 2007, the Washington Post News reported FEMA's woes in
trying to sell their excess trailers and mobile homes. Selling the
units at 40 cents on the dollar seemed like simple poor financial
management on the part of FEMA in this report.
However, in light of the contamination issues, it may have turned out
to be the best financial move FEMA could have made.
In May, 2007, both ABC News and CBS News reported that Louisiana Dem.
Senator Mary Landrieu and Louisiana Rep. Congressman Bobby Jindal have
each independently called for hearings to address the FEMA trailer
toxicity issues and FEMA's poor response as well as to what it knew, how
much it knew, and when.
In June, 2007, the Louisiana Advocate News reported that a
class-action lawsuit had been filed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana Federal
Court which claims that "hundreds of thousands" of people in Louisiana,
Mississippi, and Alabama may have been exposed to dangerously high
concentrations of carcinogenic formaldehyde fumes with no recourse or
viable solution provided by FEMA.
According to a report in the Washington Post on July 13, 2007,
Desiree Collins of Louisiana filed the original lawsuit regarding the
contamination of the FEMA trailers. She allowed her lawsuit to become a
class-action lawsuit for all Katrina survivors who are victims of the
toxic exposure. On July 2, 2007, the 47 year old wife and mother died
of lung cancer which was diagnosed only a week before she died. Her
husband and children will continue the court case.
Obviously, it seems tragic enough that well over 75-85,000 families,
victims of Hurricane Katrina, still have to remain trapped into living
in their FEMA units two years after the fact, a home most likely
contaminated and dangerous. That, in itself, defies anyone's definition
of humanitarian aid.
Yet since June of 2007, with South Dakota Dem. Senator Tim Johnson
leading Congress into approval, tribal councils are working hand in hand
with the Federal BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) to bring 2,000 of these
very same trailers to the reservations of South Dakota as well as to
other reservations. Again, all under the guise of humanitarian aid.
Deja vue, indeed. We have been here before. The seeming-correlation
of the distribution of toxic trailers to the reservations in 2007 and
the government dispersing smallpox-infested blankets to the reservations
in the 1800s is not so far-fetched at all. It just leaves one