Approximately 75 miles southeast of the Black Hills in South Dakota is the 2.1million acre Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Nation. The community resides among the grass prairies and the dry terrain of the badlands and is one of the poorest reservations in the United States. The Oglala Lakota are no stranger to the plight experienced by Native Americans across the country – high mortality rates, a slew of mental health concerns ranging from substance use and abuse to suicide and depression, extreme poverty and unemployment – all trending higher than national averages.
Much of what those on Pine Ridge experience was prescribed to them by the systems that put the Oglala Lakota onto a reservation. Policies were written, treaties were overturned, land was sold. Life on a reservation was defined early on. In the early 2000’s, a group of young Lakota men and women came together to participate in ceremony. On one evening, community members began comparing Pine Ridge to other reservations – Why weren’t they advancing like others? Why did Pine Ridge lack so much in so many areas? During ceremony, these young people were called into action and propelled to look beyond the poverty that was so ingrained on the Reservation, and instead look into systemic changes that could shift the wellbeing of their people.
Some might say the project of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC) was philosophized by the ancestors of the Oglala Lakota. The community on the Reservation began to strive for more than what was in their hands and under their feet. For the past decade, Thunder Valley has been taking pie-in-the-sky dreams and digging in deep, getting their hands dirty to begin the building of a regenerative community. Community leaders believed that homeownership was key to asset building, both providing a pathway out of poverty and enhancing a comprehensive approach to wellness on the Reservation, and began a plan to show what was possible with the work ahead of them.
THE BRIGHT SPOT
Thunder Valley CDC has staff representative of all nine districts on the Pine Ridge Reservation, working together to uphold a solutions-based thinking approach to the issues at hand. Thunder Valley staff sees their role as both a convener and connector, building relationships with federal partners, foundations, and the districts on the Reservation, because, for them, the focus has to be on more than just the work at Thunder Valley CDC.
In Pine Ridge, the housing shortage is so severe, that some single family homes are housing upward of five families. In order to adequately house the residents of Pine ridge, over 4,000 homes need to be built. Thunder Valley knew that housing was an issue to address to improve the lives of residents, and, over time, plans for 21 single family homes and an apartment complex were enacted. In a field with nothing but grassy prairie, Thunder Valley utilized workforce development crews to put in water lines, sewage infrastructure, electrical lines, and – both literally and figuratively – laid the foundation for the future the regenerative community at Thunder Valley CDC.
The future at Thunder Valley CDC includes continued learning from the last several years, and to complete 14 more homes, with the goal of an entire fully functional community up and running as soon as possible. Thunder Valley CDC will also continue to innovate to change the inequitable systems that exist on Pine Ridge. A school is in the plans for the future, with a focus on Lakota language immersion and revitalization. They want to have office buildings, spaces for traditional artistry where artists can live and work, and store fronts where people can foster a live/work/play lifestyle. Future plans also include a museum that weaves together the history of the Oglala Lakota people and the fortitude they have shown on Pine Ridge Reservation, alongside the development of Thunder Valley. The future looks a lot like community.