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The Future Looks Bright on Pine Ridge
~ Mary Burrows

“For centuries, the American Indian peoples have been involved in a struggle that has taken on the proportions of a tragedy. It is a double tragedy, for it is ours as well as theirs, and it is still being enacted today. These original Americans have had, and fortunately still do have, great riches in human and spiritual resources. Yet these riches are either being swept aside and forgotten or are being consciously and actively destroyed by a civilization that is out of balance precisely because it has lost those values We give credit to the Indians for the discovery and development of food, narcotics, and tobacco, yet we choose to forget what they never forgot: that we cannot live by bread alone. By ignoring or denying the spiritual legacy left to us by the Indians, we have contributed to their impoverishment, and we have cut ourselves off from the possibility of an enrichment we desperately need."
- Joseph Epes Brown, The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian, @1982

Rising in the middle of the Pine Ridge Reservation is an innovative and demonstrative community that may very well be the salvation of many. Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) first came to this writer’s attention when president Barack Obama praised Nick Tilsen, it’s first director, on national television with regard to the Thunder Valley project.

In 2010, a HUD grant to undertake the process of creating a regional sustainability plan for the Pine Ridge Reservation, with the intent that it inform decisions made about economic development, youth programs, education, and other areas was awarded to Thunder Valley CDC. A program of listening, visioning, and planning led to six objectives:

- Continue the healing and strengthening of our people by bolstering identity and opportunity through the unique and beautiful perspective of Lakota knowledge, culture, and language
- Reinvigorate a thriving, dynamic, and robust society where all share in the benefits
- Honor our connections with the Earth and seek out ways to protect her environment
- Create meaningful economic and job opportunities that reinvigorate cultural identity
- Promote and enhance public health and awareness of healthy alternatives
- Provide and enhance infrastructure, housing, and social services at an affordable cost

The Obama White House launched an initiative in 2014 that designated thirteen high-poverty urban, rural, and tribal communities as Promise Zones, thereby setting up Federal partnership with and investment in those communities. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was one of two tribal Promise Zones. Application for such a designation was written by Thunder Valley CDC, which became the coordinating agency for the Pine Ridge Promise Zone. The non-profit oversaw a project that invested $15 million to boost economic development opportunities.

Through communication and collaboration between local partner organizations and Thunder Valley, the Promise Zone goals were formulated on behalf of the community:

- Creation of quality jobs on the Reservation
- Increased economic activity
- Improved educational opportunities
- Reduction in serious and violent crimes
- Provision of affordable housing
- Development of systematic approaches to building infrastructure

“The Tribe sees {Promise Zones}as a model for building other energy-efficient planned developments across the reservation as a way to alleviate the housing crisis, create jobs, and move our community forward; and we are looking forward to seeing our community build its capacity to take on this challenge,” said former Oglala Sioux tribal president Bryan Brewer.

“Thunder Valley CDC is honored and humbled to coordinate the Promise Zone Initiative on Pine Ridge in collaboration with the Oglala Sioux Tribe for the benefit of the Oglala Lakota People,” said Nick Tilsen. “We strongly believe that we can overcome obstacles and challenges to create pathways to prosperity that will benefit our nation.”

Pine Ridge Reservation lies within a region whose main enterprises include agriculture, manufacturing, retail, and tourism. The relationship between Pine Ridge and Rapid City, South Dakota, has been economically interdependent, with most of the economic benefits flowing to the city. Tribal members spend a lot of money in the Rapid City economy, and some will make the long commute for employment. Hence, the goal of creating quality jobs on the reservation is part of the plan for self-sufficiency. Thunder Valley's model is to build community power so the Tribe can be architects of its own future. “We find our solutions in the genius of our own people.”

In light of certain prophecies in Native America, including Oren Lyons' recent warning about the coming Earth changes (, the Thunder Valley Food System Survey, undertaken in 2014, has proven to be prescient in its vision. The First Nations Development Institute says goals for a sovereign food system should be:

- access to food as a basic human right
- elimination of hunger and food insecurity
- build local and regional food self-reliance and thriving local economies
- create a more democratic food system wherein communities decide how food is produced and distributed
- make the food system equitable and socially just
- develop environmentally sustainable food production and distribution systems
- teach young people about food production and preparation; connect them to their own food traditions
- preserve and celebrate culture through food

The Survey, supervised by Lillias Jarding, PhD; attempted to get at the specifics of the food system in the area in an effort to determine whether a new grocery store or co-op selling a wide range of foods was feasible, such foods to include local food sources as part of the development of increased food sovereignty, which includes culturally appropriate foods, self-reliant food alternatives, and relationships relating to food and environmental health.

Consequences of the lack of food sovereignty include negative health outcomes. Pine Ridge, at one time, could have been considered a food desert. People with food insecurity get calories from processed foods heavy in carbohydrates, sugar, salt, and fat. Native Americans in general have a rate of diabetes that is three times the national average, and the diabetes death rate is also three times the average. On Pine Ridge, estimates suggest that 50% of adults over the age of 40 are diabetic. While life expectancy among Native Americans runs five years less than for the population as a whole, the number is commonly cited as being much larger on Pine Ridge.

In its pursuit of total food sovereignty, Thunder Valley, among other things, has continued to develop it's gardening program, which is a key element in community health and in the development of food-related programs. They have also developed a greenhouse system in the pit-style, or walipini, which shelters from wind and pests and reduces heating costs, as well as collaborated with other organizations to develop expertise, capacity, and funding needed to sustain three- and four-season greenhouses, with an eye to supplying produce for the store. The future could also include an aquaponic greenhouse for fish and a hydroponic growing system.

A discussion of food sovereignty is not complete without words about the Bison, a main staple in traditional Lakota life. There is currently a herd on the Reservation, but Bison ranchers compete with a market and infrastructure that favors cattle. Bison take longer to raise for market, and they have more complex personalities, and producers feel they are sabotaged by cattle producers, the most powerful economic lobby in the state.

Bison can provide a vital and culturally-appropriate source of protein and other products. There is also a discussion that the current food system lacks cultural depth in that there is very little wild game, timpsila (prairie turnip) and other roots, chokecherries and other fruits within it, along with minimal amounts of medicinal and ceremonial plants, which are currently protected by Tribal government.

When readers were first introduced to Thunder Valley, there was a ceremonial center, the beginnings of a community garden, and four prototype homes being built to determine which materials created the most energy-efficient dwellings. Now there is a community thriving under the guidance of Tatewin Means, JD, MA, and her team as they administer the various initiatives that will guide the Lakota people toward a self-sustaining future.

Thunder Valley is designed to be an example of what is possible. “We provide an 'ecosystem of opportunity' that creates deliberate actions and systemic solutions as large and comprehensive as the historic challenges facing our community. We are building our power to accomplish lasting change through dedicated grassroots practices, by increasing the community's ability to flourish, and by setting an example for Native and rural communities everywhere.” (Floyd Westerman warning)