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

Woodland Indian Art Gains Capacity & Elevates “Status”

As a cultural asset for Native communities, art has been an integral part of sustaining Native nations, their cultures, their languages and their traditional beliefs, thereby shaping community and family ties and cultural pride. First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) believes the continuing development of Native American art is an indispensable component of Native community economic development and the retention of Native cultures.

In 2014, First Nations launched the Native Arts Capacity Building Initiative (NACBI) to significantly increase the organizational, managerial and programmatic capacity of Native organizations and tribal government art programs. NACBI provides direct grants, technical assistance and training to Native organizations and tribal government art programs so they can continue to carry out essential work for Native American arts and artists.

NACBI is supported by the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation along with contributions from tribal, corporate and individual supporters. In October 2014, First Nations awarded six $30,000 grants to Native art capacity programs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Woodland Indian Art, Inc. (WIA), a community organization located on the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin’s reservation, is one of six inaugural grantees. WIA promotes and educates the public about the unique artistic styles of Native Americans in the upper midwest and northeastern regions of the United States.

For eight years, WIA has existed as a volunteer-driven organization, with no full-time employees on its staff. Since there was no full-time management staff, it was often difficult to coordinate activities of volunteers and obtain much-needed funds for volunteer activities. Even so, WIA volunteers continued to grow the organization and move forward.

NACBI has enabled WIA to formalize its organization, achieve 501(c)(3) status and launch new marketing and fundraising campaigns to increase revenue to support and expand WIA’s activities. “We know that a diversity of funding is the key to becoming a sustainable organization,” said WIA Board President Rae Skenadore.

Achieving 501(c)(3) status has enabled WIA to diversify and expand its funding base. For example, the new status has enabled it to request funding from the Oneida Community Fund. WIA has leveraged those funds by submitting a proposal that doubled Oneida’s donation with matching funds from Wisconsin Public Radio.

These funds allowed WIA to reach its target market and increase awareness of its upcoming event: The 2015 Woodland Indian Art Show & Market. WIA secured more than $10,000 in promotion and marketing services to help increase awareness of the event.

During the past six months, WIA has also developed a new fundraising campaign to increase its presence through mailings, social media and email marketing. New board members and interns from the College of Menominee Nation led the campaign. “By participating in this campaign, a whole new generation is learning how to participate in and be successful in the Native nonprofit sector,” noted Skenadore.

The success of this campaign has allowed WIA to expand the Woodland Indian Art Show & Market from a small event to a large-scale festival that includes an art competition with performing artists, classes and demonstrations. The newly expanded festival will be held June 12-14 at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

As an organization that is approaching its ninth annual event, WIA’s current success reiterates the importance of consistent funding and institutional support for Native American arts and artists. “NACBI has allowed us to move one more step forward in achieving our vision of becoming a trusted, internationally-recognized organization,” said WIA Board Treasurer Loretta Webster. “It has helped jolt us to the next level.”

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator

Grants Get Our 35th Year Off to Good Start

During 2015 First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is observing the 35th anniversary of its founding in 1980. Several foundation grants have been received recently that will help us celebrate the year in a good way — by allowing us to continue or expand our work in several areas across Indian Country.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

In the continuing effort to improve the health of Native American children and families and boost the economic health of Native communities, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) has awarded First Nations a grant of $2.95 million to extend First Nations’ work in the area of Native agriculture and food systems for three years, 2015 through 2017.

First Nations will use the continuing funding to support additional projects that advance the building and strengthening of local food-system infrastructure in Native American communities. A request-for-proposals process was recently announced for the first year of projects under the new grant. All NAFSI projects aim to enhance Native control of their local food systems – especially in addressing issues such as food insecurity, food deserts, and health and nutrition – while simultaneously bolstering much-needed economic development in those communities.

WKKF has been a significant and longtime supporter of First Nations’ work under its Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI), including supporting the creation of NAFSI in 2002 and ever since. In 2012, WKKF provided $2.89 million to First Nations for a two-year period to support NAFSI efforts.

Comcast NBCUniversal

Comcast NBCUniversal has provided airtime valued at $2 million to promote First Nations’ public service announcements on cable channels during March and December 2015.

This is the third year in a row that Comcast NBCUniversal has made a significant contribution of broadcast time for First Nations’ 30-second television spots. During 2014, Comcast NBCUniversal also donated $2 million in airtime, and in 2013 it donated more than $1.5 million in airtime, along with $20,000 in cash for production of the two TV spots. As in 2014, the 2015 spots will run in 30 different Comcast markets nationwide.

The Comcast Foundation also has supported other projects of First Nations, most notably providing $150,000 over three years toward First Nations’ Urban Native Project.

Walmart Foundation

The Walmart Foundation has awarded First Nations a grant of $500,000 to support a project aimed at building the organizational and programmatic capacity of Native American tribes and organizations focused on cattle and/or bison ranching. The one-year project will also focus on improving their management of natural resources, engaging younger community members in ranching businesses, and/or expanding access to new markets.

This is the second time the Walmart Foundation has provided a significant grant for First Nations’ work in the area of Native agriculture and food systems. In 2012 the Walmart Foundation granted $500,000 to First Nations to develop or expand locally controlled and locally based food systems in numerous Native American communities while addressing the critical issues of food security, family economic security, and health and nutrition, along with promoting American Indian business entrepreneurship.

Under the new project, First Nations will work with three selected Native ranching groups or tribal organizations as primary project partners. They will receive financial grants that can be used for infrastructure improvements, equipment, training or consulting services to advance their operations. They will also receive instruction on improving herd health, improving land-management practices, and accessing new markets.

Further, the project partners along with an additional 10 Native ranchers will be sent to the Third Annual Native Food Sovereignty Summit that First Nations and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin are co-hosting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in October 2015. This will generate significant networking and learning opportunities for the individuals as well as strengthen the capacity of the entire rancher group.

Margaret A. Cargill Foundation

First Nations was awarded a significant grant for a project to explore and inform tribal ecological stewardship practices in the Great Plains of South Dakota and Montana.

The grant will allow First Nations to provide a forum to consider the relationship between responsible ecological stewardship practices and economic development strategies for tribally controlled areas of the northern Great Plains region. Longer-term goals include visioning and actively moving toward implementation of economic-ecological models developed for and by the tribes in the region.

Further, First Nations will provide capacity-building and networking activities that will build the tribal capacity and ecological sustainability in the region, as well as addressing dynamic situations and issues for long-term planning and stewardship of tribally controlled natural resources.

This project is supported in part with a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation of Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Agua Fund

First Nations was awarded a $50,000 grant from Agua Fund, Inc. of Washington, D.C., for a project under First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI).

The grant will allow First Nations to provide financial assistance and capacity-building training to two Native tribes or organization focused on ending hunger and improving nutrition and access to healthy foods in Native communities. Participants will be located in the Sioux communities of North Dakota and/or South Dakota. Priority will be given to projects aimed at increasing the availability of healthy, locally-produced foods in Native American communities; reducing food insecurity; entrepreneurship; and/or programs that create systemic change by increasing community control of local food systems. Priority also will be given to organizations that can assist in the development of emerging and promising practices in strengthening Native food systems.

Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment

The Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, based in Oakland, California, has awarded First Nations a grant of $40,000 to fund a project aimed at improving the financial capability of Native American families.

With the grant, First Nations will work in partnership with its subsidiary, First Nations Oweesta Corporation (Oweesta), to update and revise its well-known and widely used “Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families” (BNC) curriculum, including the instructor guide and participant workbook. An advisory group of experts in Native American financial education will guide the process as well as the culturally appropriate content, which was last updated in 2010. The BNC training is easy to use in tribal programs, schools and Native nonprofit organizations. Since its creation, nearly 20,000 people have been reached, and it is used as a curriculum at several tribal colleges.

As First Nations and Oweesta roll out the improved curriculum, it is expected that Native American training participants will improve their financial capability and savings/budgeting habits to better accumulate and manage financial assets. Their circumstances will be improved by learning principles of and ideas for best financial management practices that are relevant to Native Americans’ situations and how these may be introduced or incorporated into budgeting, use of credit, use of financial institutions’ services, long-term asset-building, and increased saving for the future.

Compiled by Randy Blauvelt, First Nations Senior Communications 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

Pathways: Dakota/Lakota Youth Camps Keep Tradition Alive

Preserving Dakota Pathways supported traditional Sundance ceremonies (of which photos are not allowed). However, at the Greenwood Powwow, folks were able to witness a wakanijan (sacred little one) learn the “sneak up dance” from adult traditional dancers.

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded the Dakota Indian Foundation (DIF) a $20,000 grant in 2013 through First Nations’ Native Youth and Culture Fund to support DIF’s program called “Preserving Dakota Pathways.”  Over the past 40 years, DIF has funded numerous cultural preservation and social enhancement projects. DIF, a nonprofit organization in Chamberlain, South Dakota, began in 1971.  It supports individuals, groups and organizations dedicated to preserving Dakota culture and language.

Jerome Kills Small, a Hunkpapa elder, is a storyteller at the horse camp sponsored by the Native American Advocacy Program in south-central South Dakota. Kids are able to sleep in tipis, canoe on Ponca Creek, practice archery and crafts and pick medicinal plants.

Last summer, DIF used its First Nations grant to purchase supplies and materials for several different “culture camps” across South Dakota. More than 100 Dakota and Lakota youth participated in the camps, which focused on various cultural practices, traditions and values such as archery, agriculture, equine skills, leadership and a female rite-of-passage ceremony. In many cases, tribal elders and youth interact significantly, which builds strong inter-generational bridges.

John Beheler, DIF Executive Director

“Traditionally, elders were always recognized as the seat of wisdom.  Our ancestors always turned to the headmen of the tiospaye for sage advice or direction for the tribe,” said John Beheler, DIF executive director.  “Unfortunately, our priorities today have shifted and we see too many youth who will forget to shake an elder’s hand.  Our grant allowed us to empower elders who found a voice in the 16-minute video “Preserving Dakota Pathways,” which can be viewed on our website at”

DIF purchased seeds for high school students on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation. At camp, these students learned traditional harvesting and planting techniques. The fruits and vegetables harvested were later used to cook traditional meals that were served at the annual Lower Brule Powwow and Fair.

Flossy Drappeau is an Ihanktonwan (Yankton Sioux) elder who preserves the cultural arts through her quilt-making, and shares her knowledge with the youngsters.

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe also received funding through DIF’s grantmaking program to support a summer equine camp. The purpose of this camp was to help youth understand the important role horses play in Lakota culture.  At camp, Lakota youth learned equine life skills and safety.

Further, DIF helped purchase supplies and materials for a summer camp for Dakota girls on the Yankton Indian Reservation. Specifically, these items were used to help revive the Isnati “Coming-of-Age” Ceremony. During the ceremony, female elders imparted traditional teachings to female youth.  (For more on the Isnati, see the National Public Radio article here: )

The 2013 Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye Ride

In addition to supporting these summer camps for tribal youth, DIF also used a portion of its First Nations grant to fund several powwows, including a special powwow for high school graduates and Sundance ceremonies in Fort Thompson and Martin, South Dakota. Also, a portion of these funds were donated to Dakota 38+2 Wokiksuye Ride to support its annual horseback trek to honor the 38 men hanged in Minnesota in 1862. The horseback ride, which included youth from several different South Dakota tribes, is a reflection of traditional Dakota healing practices.  The group traveled by horseback more than 300 miles from Crow Creek, S.D., to Mankato, Minnesota, in December 2013.

Preserving Dakota Pathways is an innovative program that allows DIF to reach a number of different Lakota and Dakota tribes across South Dakota. This grantmaking program is unique because it allows each tribe to tailor their summer camp to the specific needs of their youth and their communities.

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator