- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Authorities on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas hope to know by the weekend whether a woman found dead in a mobile home with an empty propane tank died from the cold, as people nationwide struggle to stay warm due to a lack of affordable fuel.

Debbie Dogskin’s body was discovered Tuesday morning at her Fort Yates home, but a cause of death was not immediately determined. An autopsy was planned Wednesday morning, with results possible by Friday, Sioux County Sheriff Frank Landeis said.

The temperature in Fort Yates dropped to 1 degree below zero early Tuesday, and the inside of the mobile home was just as cold, according to the sheriff.

“Being that the house was so cold, and the position of her body, leads us to think that she just froze to death,” Landeis said. He declined to elaborate. He also declined to say how old Dogskin was, though tribal officials have said she was in her early 50s.

Dogskin’s son, who lived with his mother, was fine and taken to a shelter the tribe set up in the city last week, Landeis said. He declined to provide the name or age of the son.

As propane prices more than doubled due to a national shortage, the tribe declared a state of emergency because about 5,000 homes on the reservation that straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border are heated by the fuel. Many of those residents are on fixed incomes and can’t afford the more expensive fuel, according to Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II.

Tribal officials will investigate why Dogskin had no propane, Archambault said Wednesday. He did not know how many other homes on the reservation might be running low, though he said the tribe’s housing authority checked all subsidized housing on the reservation over the weekend and provided propane to those in need. He did not immediately know the cost but said “it puts a strain on the housing authority.”

A tribal program that helps low-income people heat their homes has only $1.5 million available this winter, down from $2.5 million last winter because of federal budget cuts, Archambault said. The local price of propane has fallen in recent days but is still unaffordable for many, he said.

The tribe last week opened public shelters in Fort Yates on the North Dakota side of the border and in Wakpala on the South Dakota side. Other shelters have been opened in the South Dakota communities of McLaughlin and Bullhead, and in Cannonball, N.D. The Red Cross is helping with cots, blankets and food, said Dan Kuecker, the agency’s disaster program manager for western South Dakota.

“If there’s a sudden influx of people that becomes more than the tribe has resources to handle we will mobilize Red Cross volunteers to go assist,” Kuecker said.

The National Weather Service forecast wind chills overnight into Thursday as low as 40 degrees below zero.

“The cold just doesn’t want to quit,” Landeis said.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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