Gerald Weasel's home was constructed out of "cob," a mixture of grass, sand and clay, and straw bale.

Hope for Housing on Pine Ridge

Babette Herrmann
7/2/11
Exterior shot of the cob house on Pine Ridge

What started out as a project to build an affordable and sustainable new home for her father-in-law on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has turned into a grass roots movement and a renewed sense of purpose for Shannon Freed and her family.

A few years ago times were tough for Freed. She was out of a job, and in the midst of recession jobs were tough to come by in Southern California. So Freed and her Oglala Lakota husband Adam Aguilar Weasel and daughter Raven Jade Mato Wi headed to South Dakota in early 2009. Even though she was going through a challenging time of her own, Freed had spoken to a natural homebuilder about building her father-in-law a home some months prior to the move.

What was supposed to be a a two-month stay turned into two years, and the family now lives a purpose-filled life near the hamlet of Manderson, S.D. Now that her father-in-law Gerald Weasel has a place to call home on the reservation, Freed is preparing to build a home for another family in need.

Freed relied on sheer determination, networking, and skills she learned through working on a couple of natural builds and knowledge gained through a permaculture class to help build Gerald’s roughly 400 square-foot cottage before the arrival of winter in 2010.

Natural builders House Alive, based in Jacksonville, Florida, led the construction team and turned Gerald’s dream of a new home into a reality. The home is constructed out of "cob": a mixture of grass, sand and clay, and straw bale, materials known for their high insulation value. The home took about 60 days to build and cost about $17,000, Freed said.

To help pay for supplies, the builder offered apprenticeships on natural home building. The construction of the home was divided into phases, which allowed apprentices to choose what phase they wanted to learn about while offering much needed labor and cash for the project.

"People came and paid to learn that building style, and this is how we funded the majority of it," Freed says.

Interior of cob house on Pine Ridge Reservation

Raising additional funds was a challenge, but she and husband Adam searched the region for the materials they needed for the project, including the concrete used for the foundation. They used sledgehammers to smash the concrete into fine pieces, and this backbreaking phase of the project was completed in the summer of 2009, a year before the build, in oder to allow the concrete to cure.

It’s a cozy one bedroom cottage with a loft, not much different looking than a conventional home on the exterior. As for the interior, the walls are the color of earth with red and gold tones, and the floor is made from a mixture of clay and sand. Slates of pine line the ceiling and wall. The bathroom has a composting toilet, and waste from there will be transferred to a composting bin and used in the garden.

Everything from the placement of the windows to the thickness of the walls was planned with the movement of sun in mind in order to keep the home at a moderate temperature. It holds heat so well in the winter that burning just a small bundle of wood will warm up the house for the night.

Gerald said he was deeply humbled by the experience. "I was kind of reluctant to let people help me out," he recalls. "Everything came out good in the end."

Soon, Gerald will have an orchard planted on his property thanks to a contest that Freed entered and won. About 45 fruit bearing trees will be planted before the end of summer. With a high rate of diabetes and a notable shortage of housing on the reservation, Freed says the building of sustainable homes and planting of orchards and gardens could be the wave of the future.

"The thing about natural building it’s in line with most Native values," she says.

Freed admits that Gerald was skeptical about the project being completed.

"There’s so many things that people claim are going to happen around here but don’t," she says. "My father-in-law really didn’t believe that he was getting a house."

Meanwhile, Freed and family are planning to give back by helping Walter Yellow Hair and his family of the Wakpamni District build a new home. They have lived in a camping trailer for the past two years and want their daughter and six grandchildren to come live with them.

David Reed of Texas Natural Builders, a licensed contractor with 24 years of experience, said he will utilize wooden pallets and a light stray clay infill and earthen plaster to build the house, complete with a rainwater catchment on the roof. Reed says about 8 billion pallets in the world have gone unused, and this is "massive waste material that has the ability to become a home."

The building workshop begins July 23. This first workshop will last for a week and cost $458. Scholarships are available to members of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and consideration will be given to members of other tribes. Reed encourages the public to donate $25 for a palette to help raise additional funds and there's a special incentive to business that participate.

For more information visit earthtipi.org

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