Bridging the Opportunity Divide

South Dakota’s Sustainable Plan to End Native American Poverty

November 13, 2014
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South Dakota’s Sustainable Plan to End Native American Poverty
A model of a home design from the Thunder Valley Community Economic Development Corporation, which hopes rebuild a sustainable and affordable community on an empty stretch of Pine Ridge reservation. Thunder Valley/Facebook
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As one of the nation’s poorest areas, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is in need of some help. The Oglala Sioux, who occupy the land, often travel more than 120 miles to Rapid City for temporary employment and only one in five has a job. Coupled with a severe housing shortage, 69 percent of Pine Ridge residents live below the poverty line, according to the American Indian Relief Council.

But one of the youngest residents at Pine Ridge is hoping to change the dire conditions by rebuilding a sustainable and affordable community on an empty stretch of 34 acres on the reservation. Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and owner of the Thunder Valley Community Economic Development Corporation, has an ambitious plan to build affordable single-family homes and co-housing spaces with green features including onsite wind power and an aquaponics greenhouse.  

Using a new, native-owned construction company, the project aims to create homes and jobs for the overcrowded and underemployed population. Tilsen’s development company has already acquired the South Dakota land to build the community, but as Fast Company points out, the area is ill-defined as to where it falls in county lines.

“You don’t have a county able to charge property taxes, which is how counties fund themselves. Without that revenue, you don’t have a revenue stream to build lights,electricity, roads, infrastructure and sewage. Usually it’s the county that does that,” says Marjorie Kelly, a director of special projects with The Democracy Collaborative, which is supporting the idea.

But that hasn’t stopped Tilsen, whose teamed up with an architect from Kansas City-based green firm BNIM. The project was a finalist in the Buckminster Fuller 2014 Fuller Challenge. Tilsen’s goal is to build 30 residences within the first few years, but Tilsen is aiming to use it as a model for other reservations throughout the country.

“It’s a model for Indian country — how can you do sustainable development and affordable housing that’s really ecologically sustainable?” Kelly adds. “A number of federal agencies that work with Native Americans are watching it.”

MORE: Could a Basic Income Cut American Poverty in Half?

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