September 1st, 2017
Just 7 Miles North of Wounded Knee, the site of two of the most violent and tragic standoffs between The Great Sioux Nation, supporters, and The US Government, stands Thunder Valley Community Development Center, deeply set in the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala band of the Nation. Porcupine, South Dakota, set between them is one of the poorest towns in the country. Many people do not have running water, electricity, and strained community health services to rely on.
When I first visited Thunder Valley a few weeks back everything was in a hustle, everyone was busy working on the Thunder Valley Fest, an open house inviting people from all over to attend and learn about this model for a sustainable community.
I had come to meet for the first time with Lauren TwoBraids Howland and Andreanne Catt-Ironshell, two of our team, who want to learn how to create community awareness and create support for youth who are threatened by extractive industry developments for the KXL pipeline, Uranium Mining in the Black Hills, and fracking in Lauren's homelands of Chaco Canyon. The young women had told me some about the Thunder Valley Community, sharing that it is the first of five planned projects, meant to provide sustainable long-term housing for large families that will run on minimal energy use, offer community activities, and foster healthy lives for the people. They had both learned about installing solar power on homes and excitedly told me how it all worked. After our first meeting, Andrew Catt, Andy (Andreanne's Dad) offered to give me a tour.
Andy told me that the houses are arranged in a "U" shape, in more of a traditional way. The original development plan had been rejected by community members, when Thunder Valley held a meeting to include them in the creative process. One person had said. "it looks like a concentration camp, all the rows lined up like that." That insight was received constructively, Thunder Valley has been very proactive about consulting people about what features should be included. The goal is to inspire and support the reemergence of Lakota Culture. Elements of that are seen everywhere.
This is a whole-system approach to helping the community, offering housing that is far more affordable once developed than standard reservation housing. The power bills in the older homes are outrageous, the walls are too thin to hold heat if there is power available. The homes are built with prefabricated panels that come complete with insulation, the solution they found worked best.
There's an organic farm there, part of their food sovereignty project, complete with Native plants of the region, and a diverse mix of vegetables found in the practice of sustainable farming, including tomatoes, peppers, kale and herbs like basil and oregano. Corn and squash were flourishing at the time as well. Community garden farms like this one offer members a good way to come together, to provide food for each other. Working with plants in this way brings its own healing. I come from a background in promoting healthy food systems, based on organic farming, and got choked up at this point in the tour. Diverse farming practice, is so rare in the middle of the country.
The Native plants are trees that will provide berries and traditional foods and medicines. They're also working on a poultry program (best price on farm-fresh eggs I've ever seen).
The day after the festival the largest storm I have ever seen swept through the Badlands, hitting Porcupine, SD the hardest.
Everyone was surprised that it didn't become a tornado. Baseball sized hail hit the region and hit Thunder Valley. One of the work-vans suffered a busted windshield. The diverse food sovereignty farm was half-destroyed, tomato plants knocked down, corn laid flat in parts. The Native plants remained in tact!
In the tour Andy told me the houses are built to withstand 160 mph winds for a sustained period. Current construction codes most places only have to hold up for 90 mph wind gusts. They are planning for climate change, from construction, to testing various food-growing projects, to the way the soil is graded for drainage. They are planning for 10-12 inches of rainfall in short bursts, and longer periods of drought.
High winds hit the campground I was in that night, just a couple of hours north of Porcupine. They came up out of nowhere. Campers were confused, angry about the loss and damage of their gear, and left with flooded activity areas that were unusable. Most of America is vastly unprepared for climate changes that bring super-storms more consistently each year. The proliferation of extractive industry is what we are fighting, and this is one of the side effects of it's continuation.
Since Standing Rock much of the world is familiar with the Indigenous priority of planning for the youth. There is a high loss rate of students, due to the lack of jobs and activities on most reservations throughout the country. If they overcome the daily challenges that poor communities disproportionately and increasingly face, to make it through high school, they tend to leave home to experience rich lives. The Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people are all working hard to hold space for culture, for traditional ways, for healthy and happy lives for the coming generations.
The adults at Thunder Valley CDC are highly supportive of the International Indigenous Youth Council that was formed at Standing Rock, Lauren is a co-founder. The organizations are supportive of each other, their goals and vision. There is much to overcome to hold space for this hope to continue to grow.
In addition to 500 years of colonial oppression, there is the lateral oppression within Native communities that stifles hope. It is the fault of the colonial-settler mind-set, based on the Doctrine of Discovery, granting all settlers the divine right to take land and resources from the people who already lived in the continents renamed the Americas. The Sioux people are fierce, and like many Indigenous communities across the nation, they've held on to culture and language as much as possible. Thunder Valley CDC was one of the Tribal contractors brought in to help clear the camps of frozen tents and camping gear abandoned in the consecutive blizzards of December 4th-6th 2016. Many of the inhabitants of Oceti Sakowin Camp, native and non, viewed these massive bulldozers as part of the force that was clearing us out. They were, but they were also protecting the land and the water from what would have washed into the Missouri River, if someone with such machinery had not been able to clear it.
Andy told me that many of the workers operating the machinery struggled for a long time with the feeling of that anger from their own people.
What I found at Thunder Valley, in the Badlands of South Dakota, was the best example of a sustainable community project I've ever seen. It brought tears, and an upswell of emotion. After Standing Rock I had imagined I would find only devastation upon returning to the area. I am so glad I was wrong, and bound and determined to continue supporting hope as it lights up throughout Indian Country.