Courtesy Andrew Iron Shell
Lakota Immersion Childcare Program's Little Lakota Learners pick out their colors by saying them in Lakota.

A Community Self-Empowerment Model for Indian Country: Thunder Valley CDC, PART I

Sarah Sunshine Manning

“Our vision has to be as big as the challenges we are faced with.” –Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota- Executive Director, Thunder Valley CDC

Thunder Valley CDC, a non-profit organization on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota, has become a major source of hope and inspiration for Indian country, and most directly, the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge. Thunder Valley CDC is bravely taking on the challenges of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and their comprehensive vision is unlike anything yet realized in Indian country.

Today, indigenous people throughout America suffer from challenges vastly disproportionate to the rest of society, and they often seem insurmountable. Poverty, unemployment, addictions, youth suicide, and low-life expectancy, among many other issues, plague tribal communities today as direct products of colonization and historical trauma. Addressing the tangled web of challenges within tribal communities becomes just as complex as the problems themselves, and nothing short of innovation and loving commitment can solve them.

Thunder Valley CDC seeks to address the many interrelated challenges of the Pine Ridge community, and what you will see at their work-site is a blend of 21st-century innovation, complete with solar powered “green” buildings, sprawling designs of master-planned and indigenized communities, workforce development programs, youth leadership, and food sovereignty practices, all of which are carefully blended with traditional Lakota value systems. And there is even more to come.

The story behind Thunder Valley CDC and how it came to achieve success is worth the attention of all community organizers, philanthropists, social justice workers, and all individuals throughout Indian country.

The story of Thunder Valley begins in prayer. Executive Director Nick Tilsen told ICTMN, “Thunder Valley CDC was inspired through the Lakota way of life. Before Thunder Valley was a community development corporation, Thunder Valley was a sundance circle.”

The Thunder Valley sundance was established by Jerome Lebeaux, his mother and father, and his sisters. “Jerome was really young when he began to lead the sundance, and the helpers were also young,” said Tilsen. “This attracted a lot of young people back to the sundance, and eventually, thousands of people back to more traditional ways. This was a cultural shift that inspired many, and without that cultural shift, the work of Thunder Valley CDC wouldn’t be possible.”

Alan Jealous, Assistant Construction Trainer for the Workforce Development Program, works on finishing the new porch and outdoor classroom. (Courtesy Andrew Iron Shell)

Up until 1978, Native American religious traditions were outlawed on reservations. Yet on the heels of the Thunder Valley sundance, many among the younger generation of Pine Ridge and surrounding communities came to recognize the value of practicing traditions in which their parents and grandparents could only practice in hiding, if at all. Moreover, this became an opportunity to reconnect with Lakota spirituality which once stood at the center of Lakota well-being and community health.

Many young men and women of Thunder Valley committed themselves to living the life of a sundancer, giving of themselves physically and spiritually to provide for their community. They began learning the Lakota language and ceremony songs, cutting wood, building sweat lodges and sweatlodge fires, and erecting and maintaining beautiful ceremonial grounds.

As sundancers, they pledged their lives to the health and wellbeing of their people, and this gave life to deep spiritual introspection, and ultimately, a vital epiphany.

“Each time we came out of ceremony, we were becoming empowered culturally,” Tilsen said. “Yet when we became empowered, we began to recognize a disconnect in what was taught in ceremonies, and what was happening out in our communities. We recognized a welfare mentality. We were holding our hand out, waiting for people to put something in it.”

While tribal nations historically stood completely self-sufficient, the early reservation era of the late 19th century was designed, in large part, to create dependency among tribal nations on federal government rations. This forced dependency disempowered once mighty and spirited tribal nations.

“On the outset, we made it clear that we didn’t want to continue dependency,” Tilsen said. “As an organization, we weren’t going to do things to create more dependency among our people. We wanted to create opportunities for people to help themselves, instead of create an institution for people to depend on. As we began to examine and understand the root problems of perpetual poverty, we continued to refine our vision, and sharpen our arrow.”

Thunder Valley CDC is not willing to risk the gamble waiting for government agencies to come in and fix the damage that they have inflicted. “Through ceremony, we came to ask ourselves, would our ancestors be doing this?” Tilsen said, “waiting for the government to fulfill their responsibilities and honor the treaties?”

What this means, then, is providing for their own community, with their own grassroots solutions, with their own hands, their very own blood, sweat, and tears, and visions from their own hearts and minds. This is what Thunder Valley CDC is grounded in. True self-determination.

“In the beginning, we wanted to do something good for our people,” Tilsen said. “At first, we had no idea what that meant, but as we learned more, we recognized that our strength has always been to have the humility to admit what we don’t know, so we are always in a constant place of learning.”

Today, Thunder Valley CDC is in its eighth year of operation, employing 26 staff members who devote their working hours to the empowerment and development of the Pine Ridge community. In the last eight years, they have encountered the expected challenges and setbacks of a start-up organization, yet they have remained steadfast in their commitment to healing their community, from the inside out.

“There is nobody holding you back anymore. If you want something to happen, you have to start from within.” –Jerome Lebeaux, Oglala Lakota

Stay tuned for PART II: Thunder Valley CDC: ‘Are we not warriors?’ - Taking Ownership for Today, and the Future

Part II will cover the community organizing efforts that gave life to the non-profit organization, Thunder Valley CDC. This will include stories of the first community listening sessions, challenges to incorporating themselves as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, past and present project highlights, and the community impact of Thunder Valley CDC today.

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