Cultural Movement of Change Underway at Thunder Valley

Nick with map

Nick Tilsen

On a recent visit to Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Porcupine, South Dakota, something extraordinary was evident. A spark had been ignited and a cultural movement of change was happening at Thunder Valley CDC, which has become a powerful catalyst of innovative change for the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and all across Indian Country.

As an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in Rosebud, South Dakota (neighbors to Pine Ridge), and being part Oglala Lakota myself with family still living in Pine Ridge, it struck me how Thunder Valley has been able to create considerable change in the area. What once used to be barren prairie land, a pathway out of poverty has been created with a master-planned community being built at the Thunder Valley Community Development center site.

Thunder Valley Logo smallFirst Nations Development Institute (First Nations) saw this cultural movement of change first-hand while attending a planning design meeting for phase II of the Thunder Valley community development project on February 8-9, 2016. Three members of First Nations’ staff – Senior Program Officer Catherine Bryan, Grants & Program Officer Kendall Tallmadge, and myself (Program Officer Tawny Wilson) – were able to attend this important meeting with Thunder Valley Executive Director Nick Tilsen, Deputy Director Sharice Davids, Director of Advancement Liz Welch, and Director of Design Kaziah Haviland. Other attendees included BNIM Project Manager Christina Hoxie, BNIM Associate Principals Vincent Gauthier, Laura Pastine and Adam Weichman, KLJ Engineering’s Dana Foreman, and Art Space’s Senior Vice President of Asset Management Greg Handber, as well as Allen Orechwa, Chief Financial Officer of Clearing House CDFI (community development financial institution). Rural & Native American Initiative Director Russell Kaney and National Renewable Energy Lab’s Engineer Chuck Kurnik were also an integral part of the phase II planning meeting.

mapThe plan involves building a sustainable community powered by wind energy and solar panels with strategically designed dwellings aimed at reducing energy costs and improving efficiency. In phase one of the community development plan, a community center and single-family homes will be built at a cost of $9.5 million, and is projected to take three years for completion. Within 10 years, when phase II is fully completed, the community will house approximately 1,000 people. The community development efforts of the people at the meeting and their partners across the country have contributed to this innovative and unprecedented community development project’s growth on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The Thunder Valley CDC project is the development of a 34-acre planned community with single- and multi-family housing, emergency youth shelter, food-growing operations, grocery store, powwow grounds, youth recreational areas, community and educational facilities, as well as retail spaces for local businesses. As Thunder Valley notes: “It’s not just about building homes. It’s about building up a people and, in the process, creating a national model to alleviate poverty and build sustainable communities.”

TV buildingNormally hope and inspiration are not easily found in one of the most economically challenged places in the country, but what is happening on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is not considered normal by most standards. Thunder Valley began as a movement and cultivation of being empowered spiritually and taking responsibility for the future by creating a movement to build a healthy and sustainable community. Instead of just talking about creating change, the team members at Thunder Valley have rolled up their sleeves and are making it happen by doing.

First Nations has been an ongoing supporter of Thunder Valley since 2005 and has awarded the organization with various grants and technical assistance through our Native Youth and Culture Fund, Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, and Native Arts Capacity Building Initiative. In addition to providing funding, First Nations administers technical assistance to Thunder Valley CDC.

Thunder Valley has proven that a little bit of funding and a whole lot of hope, belief and sheer determination go a long way.

By Tawny Wilson, First Nations Program Officer

35 Years of History: A Look Back at Some Milestones

In observing our 35th Anniversary during 2015, we’ve been taking a look back at some of our history. We’ve been sharing some of these historical tidbits over the course of this year. Here’s our third installment:

  • In 1986, First Nations testified before Congress on land, trust funds reform, and BIA asset management.
  • In 1987, the Umatilla Land Project begins. Based on the model established at Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, First Nations provides technical assistance for land consolidation efforts at other reservations.
  • In 1991, First Nations is a founding board member of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity. That same year, First Nations initiates a series of tribal investment workshops.
  • In 1993, First Nations provides information that the U.S. Justice Department will rely on in bringing successful legal actions against two border town banks for their lending policies toward Native Americans.
  • In 1998, First Nations formed its Native Assets Research Center, consolidating the organization’s long concentration on research as an instrument of policy reform.
  • In 1999, First Nations created a program called International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP). Today, IFIP is a separate 501(c)(3) organization based in San Francisco, California.
  • In 2002, First Nations establishes its Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, or NAFSI.
  • In 2003, First Nations launches its Native Youth and Culture Fund.
  • In 2013, First Nations acquires its own building at 2432 Main Street in Longmont, Colorado.
  • By mid-year 2015, First Nations had given 1,039 grants totaling $23.7 million to Native American projects and organizations in 37 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Territory American Samoa. (We announced our 1,000th-grant milestone with this press release on July 16.)

Shown at First Nations' 25th Anniversary event in 2005 are, L to R, First Nations President Mike Roberts, Peter and Jennifer Buffett of NoVo Foundation, and First Nations Founder Rebecca Adamson.


Cocopah Tribe Engages & Empowers Boys & Young Men

Young Cocopah student during CPR training. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

For more than a decade, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has had a positive and lasting impact on Native youth. In 2002, First Nations launched the Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF) to enhance culture and language awareness, and promote youth empowerment, leadership and community building.

Recently, First Nations unveiled a new grant initiative that reflects our growing commitment to Native youth and youth development: Advancing Positive Paths for Native American Boys and Young Men (Positive Paths). Positive Paths, created in partnership with NEO Philanthropy and and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, seeks to reduce social and economic disparities for Native American males.

Studies suggest that Native American males are more likely to be absent from school, suspended, expelled or repeat a grade. However, a growing body of research indicates that suspensions and expulsions are not always the most effective means of reaching and disciplining these students.

Often, these punitive measures deprive students of the opportunity to develop the skills and strategies they need to succeed. Positive Paths supports innovative programs that emphasize alternative approaches to punitive measures that have a negative impact on academic achievement and graduation rates.

For years, the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona relied upon the public school system for enforcing truancy laws for its students. This approach yielded little to no results, especially among male students. Educators decided to take a new approach that emphasized engaging and empowering Native American boys and men.

In 2014, First Nations awarded the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona $50,000 through the Positive Path grant initiative to restructure its truancy program. The tribe’s new program has reduced truancy rates among Native American males by nearly 75 percent. As a result, student grades and graduation rates have increased significantly, as much as 25 to 50 percent.

The Credit Recovery and Career Exploration (CRACE) program links at-risk male youth to the people and resources they need to recover academic credits, to pursue future career opportunities and develop leadership skills. Students enroll in online classes and work with tutors to successfully complete their courses and graduate.

Students participate in mock trial. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

Additionally, the program introduces student to careers that have the potential to strengthen and empower their tribal community. Since starting the CRACE program, participating Cocopah students have undergone CPR training, participated in mock trial exercises, and explored career opportunities in medicine and law enforcement.

Students participate in regular meetings with staff and instructors to provide feedback and discuss future plans. During the first meeting, education department staff members noted that many students seemed unsure about their future plans and goals. Over the past year, many students have narrowed down their focus, applying to college or preparing to enter the workforce.

Additionally, staff members have noted that this program helps instill students with a sense of pride in themselves and their community. One education department staff noted, “This program has helped make our students, their families and the community stronger. The program has already shown we can make a real positive difference in our students’ lives. This year we have had a dozen participating students make a 180-degree turnaround in regard to their grades, school attendance and personal attitudes.”

CRACE has received support from the tribe and the tribal community. According to the education department, tribal council members often act as mentors to at-risk youth. They also note that the tribe has recently passed a resolution that makes it mandatory for every tribal member to receive a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for benefits. This resolution sends a strong message to students: education is the key to strengthening and empowering their communities.

The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona’s CRACE program demonstrates the success of alternative techniques in inspiring students to achieve their education and take personal responsibility for their journey. CRACE brochures send the message loud and clear to students who utilize the service: “Your dreams are within reach. You just have to graduate high school to realize them.”

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator

23 Groups Receive Native Youth & Culture Fund Grants

In October, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) announced the selection of 23 American Indian and Alaska Native organizations to receive grants totaling $400,000 through First Nations’ Native Youth and Culture Fund, which is underwritten by the Kalliopeia Foundation with contributions from other foundations and tribal, corporate and individual supporters.

The Native Youth and Culture Fund is part of First Nations’ effort to strengthen Native American nonprofit organizations, with the intent to preserve, strengthen and/or renew American Indian culture and tradition among tribal youth. The grants support the projects and provide capacity-building and training to the organizations’ staff members. All of the funded projects demonstrate creative and innovative approaches, whether through traditional knowledge, art, language or a program or business enterprise.

The complete list of grantees and their project descriptions can be found here: The projects cover a variety of areas, including youth-elder intergenerational programs, cultivating responsibility and leadership, language programs, traditional foods and farming, wellness, history and cultural documentation.

Tribal entities represented in this year’s awards include the Northern Cheyenne, Cochiti, Dakotah/Dakota, Lakota, Euchee, Mohawk, Grand Ronde, Lumbee, Lummi, Menominee, Diné/Navajo, Nez Perce, Santa Ana, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Quinault, Santo Domingo, Haida and Zuni.

Project Reconnects Hopi Youth, Elders, Language & Traditions

Kaya and Hospomana making piki

In northeastern Arizona, Mesa Media, Inc. works hard to revitalize the Hopi language by distributing Hopi language learning materials – created by Hopi people, for Hopi people, in Hopi communities.

With a $20,000 grant from First Nations Development Institute’s 2012-2013 Native Youth and Culture Fund application cycle, as well as with funds leveraged from other sources, Mesa Media held several youth-based trainings and workshops and worked to create a set of conversational Hopi audio CDs and workbooks based on first-hand agricultural knowledge from Hopi elders.

From July 2012 through March 2013, Mesa Media held three language classes for more than 100 community members (mostly youth) from all 13 Hopi communities and three surrounding towns. During the classes, instructors used hands-on activities to introduce the youth to a variety of subjects, from improving vocabulary to aspects of Hopi foods and agriculture.  In addition, each participant received a complete set of Mesa Media’s Hopi language CDs, DVDs and books to use at home and to share with their families.

Traditional foods workshop

During the course of the grant, Mesa Media also offered a series of five hands-on workshops for Hopi girls to learn about traditional food preparation. The workshops were primarily held in the Hopi language and taught many traditional skills, including how to make piki (a thin bread made of corn). With the aid of instructors, the girls made the piki batter, built the fire and prepared piki using the ancient technology of spreading batter to just the right thickness on hot piki stones.

As a result of the workshops, Mesa Media has recorded a Hopi language CD that teaches about piki making. On the CD, one of the youth participants uses her new Hopi language and food-preparation skills to escort the audience through many of the steps in the process to make piki.

“In order for our youth to establish a sense of place in the world, they must first know who they are and where they come from. They must have a sense of their history and why their ancestors chose to live the way they did. Sometimes these things take a lifetime to explore and the elders are instrumental for passing on this knowledge,” Mesa Media noted in a report to First Nations. “With the introduction of modern schools and wage labor, Hopi youth no longer spend extended periods with their elders. Projects like this one help to re-establish the connection between youth and elders by engaging them in cultural activities and encouraging them to speak their language. From here, Hopi youth will gain the confidence to build their skills, seek an education and share with the world the teachings of their ancestors.”

Caden shows his effort at a workshop

At First Nations Development Institute, we know that our Native youth represent the future success and well-being of our people and our communities. The Native Youth and Culture Fund makes grants annually to support Native youth and culture programs throughout Native American communities in the U.S. The fund is supported by the Kalliopeia Foundation, along with contributions from other foundation, tribal, corporate and individual supporters.

Nooksack Youth Carry On Traditions

“We hope to see our youth become engaged in cultural activities that will become a life-long pursuit for them. We want to offer them traditions that will help them reconnect to their Nooksack heritage. Our youth, in particular, need another avenue to step away from unhealthy behaviors and addictions. We need to mentor tomorrow’s leaders and we need to equip them in our ways so that they can lead future generations.” ~ George Swanaset, Jr. — Director/Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Nooksack Indian Tribe

During 2012, the Nooksack Indian Tribe based in Deming, Washington, was awarded a $20,000 grant under First Nations’ Native Youth and Culture Fund, which is part of our effort to strengthen Native American nonprofit organizations. In particular, the fund looks for projects that focus on youth and incorporate culture and tradition. They can include efforts to preserve, strengthen or renew cultural and spiritual practices, beliefs, values and languages, or which engage both youth and elders in activities designed to share or document traditional knowledge, or increasing the leadership capacity of tribal youth.

The funds support the renewal of Nooksack traditions through intergenerational activities with youth. Through the grant, numerous tribal youth ages 14 to 19 are engaging in three workshops that are intended to fuse Native traditions with the community. The workshops are canoe building, net making, and cultural awareness. The cultural awareness workshop also involves intergenerational Nooksack members, and includes activities such as traditional games, drumming, singing, talking circles and healing events.

“The canoe-building and net-making workshops are specific to our youth, as these skills need to be passed down to this generation in order for them to be sustained for future Nooksacks.” George noted. “Traditional Native war canoes and salmon-netting are a part of our cultural identity and build leadership. Today, many tribes in the Pacific Northwest race against each other in these canoes in annual races, and we join them for this important reconnection to the past. We see much value in performing this series of workshops for the extension of cultural preservation and awareness within the Nooksack tribal community.”

And while the youngsters learned – and are learning – much from the workshops and from construction of two canoes, there was a lot more going on in the background. The effort bolstered the future success and well-being of the Nooksack people and their community by preserving traditions and providing mentoring and leadership skills to the youth group.

The Nooksack Indian Tribe is a federally recognized tribe of 2,000.  Its culture is preserved through multiple disciplines including language instruction, canoe journeys, elder programs and a variety of cultural events.

By Montoya Whiteman, Senior Program Officer