Courtesy Thunder Valley CDC
Workforce Development participants build the frame for the Workforce Development pole barn.

Thunder Valley CDC Begins Grassroots Housing and Community Construction on Pine Ridge

Sarah Sunshine Manning

“We are focused on creating our own pathway out of poverty by building local skill and leadership capacity, exercising our sovereignty, and creating a space that empowers our community to realize its fullest potential.” Thunder Valley CDC Website

This spring, Thunder Valley CDC will be commencing construction of housing for a masterplan community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. After nearly 12 years of community engagement strategies, and planning, the diligent work of Thunder Valley CDC is coming to fruition, as the first houses of the masterplan community are slated to be complete by fall/winter of 2016.

Thunder Valley CDC is a grassroots organization based on traditional Lakota philosophies, and formed after a group of sundancers on the Pine Ridge reservation recognized a need for grassroots action to address issues of poverty.

“In the beginning, we wanted to do something good for our people,” Thunder Valley CDC Executive Director, Nick Tilsen, told ICTMN. “We had no idea what that meant, truthfully, but as we learned more and began to understand the root problems of perpetual poverty, we refined our vision.”

What began as passionate visions for a healthy Lakota community grew into the development of a non-profit organization and a master-planned community, where language, culture and the traditional “tiospaye” family structure of the Lakota would be central. Sustainability, Earth-consciousness, and food-sovereignty practices are also permanent guideposts for the development of the community.

Thunder Valley CDC has developed a workforce training program, where construction students participate in the construction of homes, and future homeowners have the option of participating in the build of the house to save on construction costs with sweat-equity.

This spring, the infrastructure work for 21 home sites will be complete, and by the end of the summer, there will be 21 single-family home sites ready for housing construction. Of the 21 homes, 15 are set aside for low income families, and the remaining six homes are for tribal members looking to buy.

“We are working to build an ecosystem where homeownership is a possibility for Native families,” said Star Means, Thunder Valley CDC homeownership coordinator.

To better prepare families for homeownership, financial literacy classes are held on site at Thunder Valley CDC. Classes on homeownership education are also offered, such as the Pathways Home curriculum which is specifically designed for Native American communities. Thunder Valley CDC also partners with local organizations who offer home ownership classes (Lakota Fund, Lakota Federal Credit Union, Partnership for Housing, Wild Horse Butte CDC, Mazaska Inc.).

Next to the single-family homes, a sustainable agriculture education center will be built in the form of a small demonstration farm for the community to grow their own food and establish their own food systems. This demonstration farm will include a community garden, chickens, perennials, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

“This will be a place where people can come learn about sustainable agriculture,” Tilsen told ICTMN. “We will be able to produce huge amounts of food, and it will feature a center where we can bring kids, families, producers, schools, and learn about sustainable agriculture systems and return to a more healthy diet. And of course, there are economic benefits of creating our own food.”

The tiospaye family structure of the masterplan community brings people together in ways that traditional Lakota lifestyles facilitated, through community gathering, food sovereignty practices, language and cultural learning, and shared community work.

Richard Tall, Food Sovereignty Intern, remarked, “I want good things for my daughter, Bella, my pride and joy.  I know the things I do here will benefit her.”

Another current project of Thunder Valley CDC is the Lakota Language initiative. “The values of our people are in the language,” said Dusty Nelson, a second language learner at Thunder Valley CDC.

Pre-school children from the Thunder Valley CDC Lakota Language child care center in Oglala will be transitioning into kindergarten this coming academic year. Thunder Valley CDC is partnering with Red Cloud School to transition those students successfully, so their Lakota language acquisition continues to be built upon.

The organization is also working on the development of curriculum materials to keep up with the kids going into kindergarten, and the Lakota Language Initiative is being expanded with the development of language books in the fall of 2016.

In addition to homes to buy or rent with little to no utilities cost, the finished community will include high quality food options from the community garden, greenhouses and a grocery store, powwow grounds and a cultural center, Lakota language education options, youth spaces such as a playground, skate park, and  basketball courts, retail spaces for local entrepreneurs, a workforce development training center, employee owned construction company, an outdoor amphitheater for concerts or other community events, artist market and farmer's market, daycare and fitness center, walking paths and community gathering spaces, a youth shelter, and more.

Intensive community engagement ultimately informed Thunder Valley CDC's masterplan. "By partnering with values-driven collaborators like the design team, we are able to expand our capacity for community engagement," Tilsen said. "The design team was able to take the community’s input and come up with a masterplan that truly was a reflection of the culture, identity and spirit of the people here on Pine Ridge. This is an example of how architects, engineers, and planners should be engaging communities everywhere."

The ultimate goal of Thunder Valley CDC is to create sustainable systems change on the Pine Ridge Reservation as a model for how change is possible across the country and internationally.

“The society you want to start, if you do it, do it wholeheartedly,” Tilsen said. “Now is the time for change.”

More can be learned about Thunder Valley CDC, at their website here.

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