Months after flood, South Dakota Indian school opens with optimism

By Randy Dockendorf
Marty, South Dakota (AP) September 2010

The students and staff at the Marty Indian School received an extra week of summer vacation this year, but they would gladly have given up the reason in order to start classes on time.

In June, the Marty area was flooded with an estimated 8 inches of rain in a matter of hours. Other parts of southern Charles Mix County received 4 to 7 inches of rain. The region received an estimated 13 inches of rain during an 80-hour period.

Charles Mix County suffered an estimated $1 million damage, and the Yankton Sioux Tribe sustained similar damage. At one time, nearly 40 displaced families were living in hotel rooms, with relatives and in other accommodations.

School superintendent Mike Elsberry and Steve Cournoyer Jr., the campus facilities manager, spent the entire summer working with campus repairs, federal agency inspections and insurance claims.

“We spent the entire summer working on (school) flood repairs,” Elsberry said. “We were scheduled to start school Aug. 16, but as the date approached we hadn’t even begun to do the usual things we needed for the school year.”

That led to the decision to postpone the start of school, giving staff time to finish preparations, Elsberry said. Fortunately, the flooding damage left the main classroom buildings relatively unscathed, he said.

“Most schools around here didn’t start until this week anyway,” he said. “We will take a look at our calendar down the line and re-evaluate what to do.”

Recently, the entire K-12 student body gathered behind the high school for a program welcoming the new school year. They formed three circles, with the elementary students on the inside, the middle school in the center and the high school on the outside.

The traditional program provided normalcy for the students, staff and their families during a summer that saw a great deal of upheaval in their lives.

As the program began, the drummers and local veteran’s group entered the circle. The procession included the U.S. flag, the Yankton Sioux Tribe flag and the eagle feather staff.

The program featured the prayer song, the smudge, a welcome and introduction of staff, and words of encouragement. The event concluded with the circle of honor for the students.

Marty eighth grader Laryn Weddell offered a traditional prayer in Lakota. She said she can speak a fair amount of the native language.

“I learned the prayer in fourth grade and recited it back then,” she said. “I was asked to recite it again this year.”

During the program, Master of Ceremonies Allen Hare reminded the students that their school reflects their American Indian culture. Tribal members have drawn on those cultural values to face the flooding and other challenges this year.

“We have been a tribal school since 1975. The tribe chose to operate the school,” he said of the former Catholic mission school. “We have traditions here at Marty, and we thank those who have made it possible.”

The gathering of the entire student body provided an important bonding experience for all ages, said staff members Barb Selwyn and Danielle Zephier. They saw the opening program as important for kicking off the school year after the summer’s flooding and other challenges.

“In the past, they have had the elementary and high school separate (for the opening program), but this year they had everyone all together,” Selwyn said. “I like it that they had it like this.”

The flooding placed a strain on the school’s facilities and finances. Despite those issues, the school is working to expand the opportunities for its students.

Those possibilities include refurbishing the football field to host Marty’s first home games since 1985. The team currently plays its home games in neighboring Lake Andes.

In addition, the school is seeking a way to provide proper running shoes for the growing number of cross-country runners.

The cross country team has also seen its numbers explode from a former three runners to a high of 32, said second-year coach Andrew Rowe. He wants to rebuild the school’s cross country tradition, which received a major boost with last year’s team qualifying for the state meet in Rapid City.

The team has run into a major financial problem, as its members cannot afford proper running shoes, Elsberry said. The school and tribe also don’t have the money after covering the expenses of flood clean-up and repair, he said.

“Right now, they are running in street shoes or even dress shoes,” he said. “They don’t need a $200 pair of shoes, but they need decent running shoes.”

The team faces an upcoming deadline for buying new shoes, as Marty competes in its first meet Sept. 9 at Corsica, Rowe said. “Right now, we run for practice to Greenwood, six miles, in whatever shoes they have,” he said.

To help raise funds, Yankton Sioux councilman Greg Zephier – also the father of cross country runners – is seeking to organize a benefit concert featuring world-renowned blues band Indigenous, which originated in Marty.

Zephier said he was contacting Mato Nanji, the lead guitarist and a Marty native.

“As far as the concert, we would like to hold it in Yankton, which has more population and where we think we could raise more donations,” Zephier said.

Donations for the shoes can be sent to Marty Indian School, c/o Mike Elsberry, Box 187, Marty SD. Checks should contain the notation that the donation is intended for the cross-country shoes.

As a tribal councilman, Zephier is also working with other council members on relocating the tribal headquarters, located next to the school, following the flooding.

The tribe has leased space for 18 offices on the second and third floors of the Marty school’s administration building, Elsberry said. The arrangement was natural in a time of need, he said.

“Their (tribal headquarters) was destroyed, and we had the space. People help each other,” he said.

The tribe is looking at a number of options for its headquarters, Elsberry said. The tribe could continue using the temporary school offices or use the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in Wagner, erect a metal building or use a pre-fabricated building, he said.

The tribe could also return to its current headquarters. However, some leaders have expressed reluctance for fear of future flooding, the possibility or mold and other health hazards, or just the lack of space.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has determined the tribal headquarters remains usable, Zephier said.

“FEMA inspected the building and said it could last another 40 years,” he said.

Rucker said he considers the current lease of school offices as temporary. “The plans are to move to a temporary building by the Wagner BIA. We hope to make the move by Jan. 1,” he said.

In the meantime, the Marty school continues its clean-up and replacing its losses, Elsberry said.

“We lost five vehicles that were flooded in the basement of the shop area. That alone could surpass $500,000 in damages,” he said. “We received one insurance payment of $200,000, and we are awaiting another $500,000 payment.”

Elsberry admits it was quite a shock to find himself thrust into a catastrophic flood only 11 days after his first day on the job.

“The flood water was so strong that I had corn stalks (from a nearby field) in my office window,” he said of the unwelcome office plant.

However, patience, hard work and cooperation by a large number of people has helped the school get through the crisis so far, Elsberry said.

“We took a deep breath and things went extra well,” he said.

Through all of the challenges, Elsberry remains optimistic about the future. He called on the need for a strong commitment from the parents and community.

“It’s time to make Marty the best,” he said.