Crow Creek Tribal School
Crow Creek high school students are already ahead of schedule, as they begin a project that involves constructing homes for fellow tribal members.

Overcrowding Leads to Innovative Housing Projects at Crow Creek

Stephanie Woodard
June 26, 2013

“In building homes for tribal members, our students will learn computer-design and building skills, how to bid on a job and more,” said Oren Voice, wood-shop teacher at the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation’s high school, in Stephan, South Dakota. “It’ll give them a good technical education and help them prepare for careers.”

Under the supervision of Voice and a team of three additional faculty members, a crew of 11 students began building a home on the reservation June 4. In two days, the students had the subfloor in place and had framed two walls, using conventional balloon construction. “We’re ahead of schedule and should have no problem finishing the entire home, kitchen cabinetry and all, by November,” said Voice, a tribal member. “Then a family can move in.”

The dwellings will help the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe chip away at not just unemployment among tribal members, but also a critical need for housing, experienced on almost all reservations throughout the country. Tens of thousands of Native families live in overcrowded, substandard housing, according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in its 2003 report, The Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country. The homes may not have utilities, telephones, complete kitchens and other amenities many Americans take for granted.

As soon as the students finish the first house, they’ll start another one, said Voice. He was thrilled to report that the kids haven’t forgotten anything he taught them last year: “In fact, they told me they’re so happy they took my class.”

The youngsters will learn about furnishing and decorating houses from Margie Loud Hawk, from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who teaches Family Consumer Science. To help with future job hunting, the youngsters will get certificates of participation and help creating résumés, added Nova Griss, who teaches business and computer skills.

“I’d say half of Crow Creek’s population is in homes where families are doubled up,” said Voice. There may be hundreds of applicants when new places become available, he said. “I grew up here. I am very familiar with this.”

The Crow Creek tribal council provided seed funding for the program, including money to buy the necessary tools, and will buy the homes when they’re finished. More support for the project will come from sales of large- and small-scale decorative metalwork by students of automotive shop teacher Troy Naser. He gave the rest of the team a look at finished pieces for the tribal housing department and other clients. The hunting scenes, galloping ponies and other vivid imagery showed artistic talent and careful craftsmanship—a harbinger of more top-notch work to come from Crow Creek’s youngsters.

Home on the Rez

More creative housing projects are shaping up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, also in South Dakota. On the north end of the reservation, Oglala Lakota College and local high schools are working on a research project with Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, in Sharp’s Corner, and Pyatt Studio, the Boulder, Colorado firm of architect Rob Pyatt. Students are building straw-bale and other innovative homes and outfitting them with monitors to assess energy efficiency and air quality, according to Pyatt Studio architect Kimberly Drennan.

The straw-bale home was started last summer and will be finished this summer, said Drennan, with three more dwellings to go—using structural insulated panels, an updated form of balloon framing that uses less lumber and compressed-earth blocks. The construction technique the sensors reveal is most efficient will be used for housing stock Thunder Valley will build in a live-and-work community it plans for the reservation.

Each house the students build is a learning experience, said Drennan: “Every one helps us create benchmarks for the next one.”

In the southwestern corner of Pine Ridge, Milo Yellow Hair has a plan. He was looking up at the massive exposed ceiling beams of a two-story home built at Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corporation, a nonprofit on Pine Ridge, and a recipient of Running Strong for Native American Youth funding. “Isn’t it beautiful?” exclaimed Yellow Hair, the Slim Buttes service coordinator. “I wish this kind of house for everyone at Pine Ridge.”

The dwelling had an open-plan kitchen-plus-family-room downstairs and a sleeping loft upstairs. Yellow Hair, who is Oglala, pointed out the wooden pegs, instead of nails, joining the timbers—a building technique harking back to both medieval Europe and ancient Japan. “You can use various materials, such as bricks or adobe, to fill in the walls,” he said, adding that such homes are easy to keep warm. “We heat this one with just one woodstove.”

Yellow Hair envisions Slim Buttes creating timber-frame house kits. “For our people, it’s good when we have things we make with our own hands.”

If I Had a Hammer

This summer on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, families can go after those leaky faucets, missing roof shingles and more with grants for up to $1,000 to fix and upgrade their homes. They need to be homeowners and members of the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s Family Services program, said April Bachman, CRYP’s finance manager. Funding for the home improvement comes from Running Strong for Native American Youth.

This article is part of a series appearing this week about Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, the boycott of a South Dakota border town and ways the tribe is addressing its economic issues through innovative business-formation and housing programs.

Related stories:

Crow Creek Sioux Boycott Border-town Businesses Over Banned Honor Song

Freeloaders! Crow Creek Boycott Shows State, Town Dependence



terry o'brien's picture
terry o'brien
Submitted by terry o'brien on

It's good to see the young people at work, and all they are doing to raise money, they were also quick learners, this is a sign of good teaching, I wish all well.

Julie Garreau's picture
Julie Garreau
Submitted by Julie Garreau on

I am the executive director for the Cheyenne River Youth Project and its almost impossible for me to convey the gratitude our home owners feel for the help they receive. One home owner who had been experiencing electrical problems for several years now has new outlets, bedroom lighting etc. In some areas of the home they were moving an extension cord and portable light from room to room. She was so grateful for the help. The cost of retaining a electrician is prohibitive for someone who has a family and exists on a modest income. They are hardworking people and this type of support just gives them a break. Its a good thing.