Alan Jealous stands in the doorway of his future home, which is part of the planned community being developed by his employer, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.

Courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Corp.

It's About More Than Just a Pipeline

For Standing Rock protester Nick Tilsen, there's long-term community sustainability at stake.

Midway into Donald Trump’s third week in the White House, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a stunning reversal on a decision made during the waning days of the Obama administration. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1,170-mile duct to carry oil from North Dakota fields to an Illinois refinery, will proceed without an environmental impact review. Despite protestors camping out for months, the final phase of construction—burrowing underneath the Missouri River, which provides drinking water to the Standing Rock Sioux less than half a mile away— resumed last week. One of the pipeline’s most devoted protestors, however, is making his strongest stand back in his hometown.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Nick Tilsen, a 34-year-old member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and founding executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, is breaking ground on nearly three dozen homes and other amenities on 34 acres of land. The planned community for Porcupine, S.D., nearly a decade in the making, will incorporate the latest in sustainability: energy-efficient buildings, a local food network and a walkable, self-contained neighborhood — all elements of the traditional Lakota lifestyle made modern. As debate over the pipeline rages, Tilsen’s fighting on two fronts: protecting the waterway that will provide today’s drinking water to residents and preparing for a “post-petroleum future” tomorrow.

In an act of civil disobedience, Nick Tilsen secured himself to an excavator at a Dakota Access Pipeline construction site in North Dakota. Photo via Morton County Sheriff's office

A Regenerative Community Development

Judged by per capita income, Oglala Lakota County, one of five counties within the Pine Ridge reservation, is among the poorest places in America. With wages at a paltry $9,150 per person, almost half of all residents—44.2 percent—live in poverty. Only one-tenth of teenagers graduate from college, and barely half of adults are employed. Proponents argue that the pipeline would jumpstart the region’s economy, creating up to 12,000 direct jobs during construction and supporting up to 81,500 more workers tied to the petroleum industry.

Tilsen, however, believes a pipeline that rips through the landscape to deliver an increasingly antiquated energy source cannot restore economic independence. Infrastructure is needed, he agrees, but destitute pockets in the Dakotas need to bolster themselves by building sustainable communities instead.

Rising against what they see as a century of their people’s subjugation for gold and oil, Tilsen and other Lakota youth proposed the development in 2004. “People are facing the threat of resource extraction in many communities, in the form of dams, in oil and gas drilling, in nuclear storage,” he says. “But in the same breath that we talk about what we’re against and what we’re resisting, it’s important that people take back what solutions they want to have. If we’re against this pipeline and unsustainable projects, it’s just as important for us, as indigenous people, to define what we’re for, double down and start working toward the kinds of communities we want.”

An artist's rendering of the planned Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Development in Porcupine, S.D. Courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Corp.

At numerous gatherings sponsored by the Thunder Valley CDC throughout 2006, members of the entire tribe debated what features make up an ideal town and whether to pursue constructing one. A few tribal elders scoffed at what looked like foolhardiness and doubted that Tilsen’s young cohort could overcome Pine Ridge’s longstanding poverty; others believed the youth needed to focus on pressuring the federal government to uphold existing obligations, not divert attention to a new project.

Tilsen’s persuasion proved effective, and the conversation shifted to what should be built, a discussion that lasted 10 years. As part of a grand vision articulated by the community, Thunder Valley CDC installed the infrastructure — roads, sewers, electricity and broadband internet — in the newly planned development, which is located in Porcupine, a small town roughly midway between the entry to South Dakota’s Badlands National Park and the Nebraska border. During the next decade, 30 single-family homes, 48 apartment units and up to 10 artist studios; a market, a geothermal greenhouse and coops for 400 chickens; a youth shelter and powwow grounds will be constructed. Foundations have been poured for the first seven houses, and one has a roof. This summer, construction will begin on a 4,000-square-foot community center, reports Kaziah Haviland-Montgomery, an architectural fellow.

In line with Lakota values, the affordable houses are highly insulated, both to keep out the bitter Dakota winds but also to retain energy from heating. Each will be built with a five-kilowatt-hour solar panel on the rooftop, installed by locals.

A Sustainable Form of Resistance

Thunder Valley’s plans gained momentum as the Standing Rock movement grew. Those who couldn’t join the protestors viewed working on the development or becoming more conscious of waste as their own forms of organized resistance, notes Cecily Engelheart, Thunder Valley CDC’s communications director.

“Instead of styrofoam or paper plates at a community feed, we [have discussed] bringing our own picnic box of plates and silverware…It’s those smaller scale actions, really individual choices,” Engelheart explains.

If Thunder Valley ends up alleviating the desperation, both economic and environmental, its lessons could be adopted well beyond tribal nations. “If we’re pulling up our sleeves to do it here, then absolutely New York City should do it, as should Boston, Houston and Los Angeles. Everybody should be finding the right way to build equitable and sustainable communities in their city. It’s not just for Indian Country, as much as for humanity,” Tilsen says.

Averia Fast Horse, a participant in Thunder Valley's Workforce Development Program, learns how to use a circular saw. Courtesy of Thunder Valley Community Development Corp.

In Lakota mythology, there’s a prophecy about a great black snake that slithers across the heartland. Where it burrows underground, the tale goes, the serpent will poison the earth. To many tribal nations, the warning is clear: the impending Dakota Access Pipeline, which will travel under the Missouri River, embodies the creature that elders warned of. Protestors gathered at Standing Rock talk about massing together to kill the black snake.

But there’s a lesser-known story about how the serpent must be vanquished. Tilsen grew up hearing that its blood must be drained. In other words, to defeat the pipeline, Americans need to sever their dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic. Otherwise, “the black snake always rears its head,” Tilsen says.

The Dakota Access Pipeline may be built, endangering Lakota Nation’s water and sacred lands. But with Tilsen’s strategy, any construction will be a temporary setback. The snake can be outmaneuvered still.

MORE: How Do You Breathe Life into a Neighborhood That’s Been Forgotten?

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]