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

Rebuilding Community & Food Systems on Pine Ridge

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, collaboration, partnerships, alliances – call it what you will – but it’s working, and the community is reaping the benefits of its efforts “to saturate Pine Ridge with healthy vegetables,” which is a goal of Steve Hernandez, who manages the Lakota Ranch Beginning Farmer/Rancher Program in Kyle, South Dakota. (First Nations has supported the program with grants.)

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Incorporated in 2011, the Lakota Ranch Beginning Farmer/Rancher (BFR) Program has been facilitating and coordinating collaboration among local community groups in Pine Ridge with the intent of strengthening local food systems, reviving the economy and increasing access to fresh foods. Through local collaborations it has provided classes and workshops to local community members on horticulture, food preparation, irrigation and business planning, which has re-engaged the community in growing its own food, teaching kids where their food comes from, and increasing access to fresh foods.

Steve Hernandez, while being videotaped at First Nations' 2014 L.E.A.D. Conference

Over the last few years, the Lakota Ranch BFR Program, in partnership with other local groups, has been instrumental in organizing and implementing a local community garden that has led to the development of a farmers’ market located at Oyate Teca Youth Center in Kyle, in addition to a mobile farmers’ market. With the garden and market located at the youth center, students are able to participate in the garden, learn how to prepare the produce, and have immediate access to fresh vegetables and healthy foods. For the community, the farmers’ market and garden provide a place where community members can purchase raw vegetables as well as value-added products. (First Nations has also supported Oyate Teca.)

While the garden provides learning for the kids, the Lakota Ranch BFR Program also works to coordinate with other organizations like Oglala Lakota College and Oyate Teca in providing adult courses in financial literacy, business planning, food preparation, and horticulture.

In three years of operation, the Lakota Ranch BFR Program and its partners have achieved a great deal, but they insist they have only begun as they look forward to the goals of a mobile commercial kitchen, supplying local produce to Pine Ridge schools, increasing the number of farmers in the community, selling value-added products, and reviving the local economy.

The strategy to collaborate with others, centralize efforts and utilize resources efficiently is proving that Native communities are capable and innovative, they just need a little help in planting the seed.

By Jackie Francke, First Nations Director of Programs & Administration