The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with a diverse landscape of grassy plains, hills and wooded areas, covers more than 2 million acres in southwestern South Dakota. It is home to the Oglala Lakota Nation. Federal statistics estimate the reservation’s population to be more than 20,000, while the tribe and various organizations on the reservation estimate the number of people living there closer to the 40,000 mark.
Statistics show rates of 85 percent unemployment and more than 90 percent poverty, and like other reservation communities across the United States, Native Americans on Pine Ridge are more likely to struggle with poor health outcomes compared to other demographic groups.
Mainstream news reports often highlight the struggles on the reservation, and statistics show the challenges facing community members. However, the Oglala Lakota people persist, and have created for themselves an organization to address a wide array of economic, health and cultural challenges.
The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation was established a decade ago by young people and families who were reconnecting to cultural spirituality and identity through ceremony. They wanted to create lasting systemic change and work to end poverty on the reservation.
“And then that spiritual process became a call to action,” said Andrew Iron Shell, a spokesman for Thunder Valley. He explained that the organization stemmed from people venting about the various needs of the Lakota people.
“So really pointing fingers back at ourselves and asking ourselves as community people, as citizens of this tribal community, what’s our role? And what’s our responsibility?” said Iron Shell. “From those thoughts started this conversation about do we have the capacity to create change among this small circle that’s doing this complaining? When we looked around and acknowledged each other’s talents and virtues and things like that, (we recognized) let’s do something together.”
Iron Shell added that the key to Thunder Valley’s development was realizing from the start that there would be challenges with personalities, politics and available resources. Supporting each other helped in that process, recalls Iron Shell. But, understanding that change would take time and having the patience to accept that has been equally important in Thunder Valley’s success, he said.
Now, 10 years later, Thunder Valley programs incorporate Lakota values and culture in workforce development, food, housing, language immersion, community development and youth leadership. Local leaders point to home ownership, several new Lakota entrepreneurs, and building the capacity of individuals and families to achieve their goals as some of the results of Thunder Valley programs.
Thunder Valley leaders believe they have arrived at a place where they finally have the capacity to build their own community – at Thunder Valley’s headquarters, where a food demonstration farm is housed and space is used for training, and across the reservation.
Thunder Valley’s momentum has created a ripple effect across Pine Ridge, said Iron Shell. He adds that Thunder Valley may be a model for the outside world to learn from and may help other rural communities address some of the challenges they face.
This article is part of the State of Change project, a multi-newsroom examination of the challenge of building resilient rural communities — and what some in New Mexico are doing right.