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Christmas for White Swan

Dec 24, 2019

Chris and Shelly Saunsoci and their daughter, Chloe, stand by a dike that was built to hold back floodwaters at White Swan.


Lake Andes has receded slightly, but it is still at record levels and the surrounding land is soggy. “High water” marks are visible on many of White Swan's structures, including an old stone shed near the pow wow grounds. Many homes, though still inhabited, are black with mold. Children and adults are suffering respiratory diseases, ringworm, impetigo and other infections and ailments associated with moldy conditions.

The original White Swan community was flooded when the U.S. Corps of Engineers finished Fort Randall Dam in 1952. It was in the bottomland forest on the east side of the Missouri River, just a few miles above old Fort Randall. Named after a Yankton chief who lived there in the 1860s, the community had a dance hall, stores, two churches, two cemeteries, a cannery, post office and ferry in the first half of the 20th century. The residents gardened, hunted, fished, raised livestock and generally lived off the land. They were not consulted on plans for the dam, and then forced from their homes by the BIA and Corps of Engineers.

Today’s White Swan community was rebuilt on the southern tip of Lake Andes. This year, Lake Andes suffered major flooding and White Swan was flooded once again. The water woes continued all summer and fall, and even today groundwater continues to plague the homes and buildings. “Our community is literally drowning,” said tribal leaders in August.

Shelly Saunsoci, a local woman, took on the responsibility of running a food kitchen so the White Swan people would at least have a hot meal and a safe, healthy place to eat and socialize. She was feeding about 100 people a day until mid-December, when children came home from boarding schools. Suddenly, she and three other volunteers were feeding more than 200. 

Members of the YHS Humanitarian Club who helped at White Swan on Saturday included (from left) Kelsie Faulk, Cecilia Kouri, Aly Fedde, Josie Krajewski, Krystabelle Kosters and (center) Jon Syla.


How Yankton came to the aid of White Swan  

When Aly Fedde started the Humanitarian Club at Yankton High School, she could not have imagined how it would end up changing the holidays for families at White Swan, a flood-ravaged community near Lake Andes on the Yankton Sioux Reservation.

The club began to help the people of White Swan in November when they delivered 48 cases of drinking water and other supplies. They followed that up with a project to make bookmarks and collect books as gifts for the children. Several adult members of Yankton’s United Methodist Church got involved to help the teens, including retired physician Tom Gilmore of Utica, who provided OB/GYN services on the Yankton Sioux and Rosebud reservations for decades.

Gilmore and his wife Jane became acquainted with Shelly Saunsoci, a native of the reservation who has been running a food kitchen to provide nutrition for the families at White Swan.

“You delivered me,” grinned Saunsoci. It turns out, the retired doctor delivered many of the young adults in the area.

“You looked different then!” laughed Dr. Gilmore.

“So did you!” Saunsoci retorted.

Tom Gilmore (far left), a retired doctor, delivered Shelly Saunsoci (front, center) 43 years ago. They met again this month as the Gilmores and other Yankton area peoples rallied to help Saunsoci, who leads a food kitchen at flood-ravaged White Swan.

Laughter has resumed at White Swan, in part because of the connections that the community has made with the people of Yankton, many of whom were oblivious to the tiny community’s situation until the YHS Humanitarian Club began its outreach.

In mid-December, Saunsoci was worried what the Christmas season might bring for the children — especially those who would be coming home from boarding schools at Chamberlain and Flandreau. Would she have enough groceries for the food kitchen? Would there be any gifts for the young children? 

When the Yankton teens, the Gilmores and others brought those concerns back to Yankton, the entrepreneurial nonprofit Onward Yankton volunteered to start a fund drive for food supplies. An online Go Fund Me page was created on Onward’s Facebook page. Local media spread the word, and within days people from near and far had donated over $7,000. Donations are still coming.

Lisa Ryken, chief volunteer at Yankton’s Toys for Tots, heard about the efforts and called to say that her organization had some surplus toys. She packed dolls, footballs, trucks and games for White Swan even as she and her team were still wrapping gifts for Yankton families.

Last Saturday, the Humanitarian Club members and other Yankton residents traveled to White Swan with the toys, other donated supplies and grocery funds. Then they spent the morning helping Saunsoci and others sack candy and peanuts as gifts for area families. After completing nearly a thousand sacks, the teens took a break and shot baskets in the White Swan community center gym, where Sansoci has been running a food kitchen for weeks. 

Saunsoci, wearing a Santa Claus apron, watched the Yankton youth playing basketball and smiled.

“You saved our Christmas,” she said quietly. 

No one knows what the New Year holds for White Swan. The houses are flood-damaged and moldy. Roads and other infrastructure are deteriorating from the flood waters and high ground water. Another wet spring would be a devastating blow.

But this week, the children are enjoying gifts and hearty meals and their parents and grandparents many find some peace in knowing that — thanks to a sequence of events that began with students in Yankton — they are not forgotten.


Eunice Penton and other White Swan residents have been busy sorting and wrapping toys delivered for the children of the community.



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