We were sitting around the fire. We were complaining. A lot. And then we decided that there was no other enemy that stood between ourselves and change but ourselves. We were the only enemy. So we decided to stop waiting for things to change and to do something about our community. Together. And together we created the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation…
I have paraphrased these words from the moving opening invocation that Lakota spiritual leader, Jerome LeBeaux (Oglala-Sioux), offered to the fifty or so technical professionals who had traveled from around the country to participate in a two-day charrette on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Jerome’s prayer moved from English to Lakota, from spoken word to song, carrying us with the sound of his high, clear, powerful voice to a shared and sacred common purpose.
Each day our nerdy explorations into housing density, R-values, septic systems, energy calculations and the even more arcane acronyms and regulations of public funding sources were punctuated with Lakota prayer, a constant reminder of where we were and why we were there. When realized, the “Regenerative Community” planned by and for Oglala Lakota people, will model what it takes to bring housing, infrastructure, jobs and hope to the Pine Ridge Reservation where housing is scarce –– 10 to 15 people may share a 2 bedroom FEMA trailer –– jobs are few, and suicide and alcoholism rates are tragically high.
There is a lot of history in the place. The nearby site of Wounded Knee stands in memory of the 1890 massacre of many Sioux people. It echos the occupation by the American Indian Movement in 1973 to protest the conditions of reservation life 40 years ago. The surrounding Badlands and Black Hills were once Indian country. And now they are not.
The charrette was one of the developmental and relationship-building strategies that are a signature of Nick Tilsen (Oglala-Sioux), a founder and Executive Director of the Thunder Valley organization. Nick, at barely 30 –– the tagline for Thunder Valley CDC is “Native Youth on the Move” –– has applied his impressive political and intellectual savvy to the design of a sophisticated sustainable development plan.
President Obama recognized Nick’s hopeful, intelligent resourcefulness in a speech late last year. While that shone a bright light and attention on the needs and potential of the Lakota, there are no short-cuts to the work ahead –– hence the need for many minds and resources from outside the community.
I was very fortunate on this trip to be accompanied by David Mix (German/Irish/ Muscogee-Creek), one of the urban sustainability graduate students in my program at Antioch. David is part of the Thunder Valley tiospaye [extended family], has strong relationships with Nick and Jerome, and understands the relationship between the land, the Lakota, and the history of dispossession at the hands of the U.S. government that is at the root of the crushing poverty that persists in Lakota country today.
Committed to locating a meaningful role for himself in service to Thunder Valley, David brought me along to help figure that out. Thus, as is often the case in my world, the student became the teacher.
In terms of David’s mission, there were some great role models among the technical folks who were present in the Lady of Lourdes church meeting hall where the two-day charrette was held.
Joshua Hemberger and Craig Scranton from BNIM, a Kansas City-based award-winning architecture firm, nationally recognized for its achievements in sustainable design, provided baseline information about the site and posed key questions at the charrette. “They’re expensive,” Nick admits. “But they never impose their ideas on us. Ever. They listen.”
Architects Rob Pyatt and Kim Drennan who both teach at the University of Colorado and also have their own firm, partnered with the reservation’s Oglala Lakota College to launch the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative (NASHI) as a platform for teaching, learning, designing and prototyping to address tribal needs and values. “They and a whole crew of students slept on the floor in the Thunder Valley office –– for three months,” Nick explained in reference to their commitment as well as the need to incorporate a bunkhouse into the Thunder Valley plan.
Others who I spent some time with include Rosemary Fagrelius, Housing Development Director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, who facilitated an ad hoc grouping of mostly public agency staff to help build a complex collective picture of possible funding sources for the 35 acre development plan; and she then proceeded to spend much of that night working on a particular funding proposal towards that end.
There was Dave Conine – Utah State Director Rural Development, US Department of Agriculture and Gene Gonzales of the Housing Assistance Council who each patiently broke down their knowledge about relevant programs, how they might relate to each other, and then benefit this particular moment in Thunder Valley.
While there may be others among the fifty or so assembled who also possess a similar combination of technical knowledge, creative adaptability, and generosity of spirit ––qualifications that I would list at the top of any “Help Wanted” job description for Thunder Valley –– I am very grateful to have made the acquaintance of these particular individuals, for the privilege of meeting Nick and Jerome, and the opportunity to listen and learn something about what it takes to make a contribution to the struggle for sustainability in tribal life.
To do that, we have to make our own peace with how we think about land and life in general, to the benefit of all, or in the words of Vine Deloria:
Who will find peace with the lands? The future of humankind lies waiting for those who still come to understand their lives and take up their responsibilities to all living things. Who will listen to the trees, the animals and birds, the voices of the places of the land? As the long forgotten peoples of the respective continents rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage, they will discover the meaning of the lands and their ancestors. That is when the invaders of the North American continent will finally discover, that for this land, God is red.