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As the organization celebrates its 10th anniversary, a Native American community development corporation started by young people is building an ambitious, authentically Lakota rural community from the ground up on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“Whether it’s food poverty, or the lack of jobs, or the huge housing shortage here at Pine Ridge, we start by asking why we haven’t figured it out. Where are the gardens? Where are the homes? It’s like no one had ever questioned these things,” said Jennifer Irving, Director of Regional Equity for the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.
Thunder Valley describes itself as a “grassroots community development corporation guided by the needs and ideas of our community.” The group was established by Lakota “young people that had young families,” according to the group’s website.
Today, those young people who helped start the organization, including Irving, are 10 years older. Irving served first as a board member and is now part of the staff. Irving said the organization is guided by asking systemic questions about making life better for the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota.
To start, Thunder Valley turned inward, looking for homegrown solutions to the challenges faced by one of the most impoverished rural regions on the map. Oglala Lakota County has a 44.2% poverty rate and only a $9,150 per capita income, according to current data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“From 2010 through 2012, we organized a series of community conversations that got input from everyone here, from the kids, from the elders, from our people who wanted to return home to Pine Ridge. The result is our vision for where we are going to go as a people, and a plan for how we’ll actually build that vision into reality,” Irving said.
One of the most important outgrowths of the regional planning effort is an ambitious project to construct a new village from the ground up, the Regenerative Community Development. During the next decade’s buildout, the plans call for Thunder Valley’s 34-acre site to establish 30 single family homes, 48 apartment units, a grocery store, artist studios, gardens and numerous public spaces. The community is designed to be sustainable, using renewable energy and efficient designs, as well as integrating traditional Lakota cultural wisdom.
Irving said the project, which held its groundbreaking ceremony in 2015, is moving ahead quickly. “This is not just some conventional housing development. We’re basing everything on Lakota traditions and values with the needs identified by local people. That means life-giving spaces to live and work and play. That means solar and wind power. Places to grow gardens, and a grocery store, where you won’t have to drive 45 or 50 miles to find one.”
Thunder Valley’s community is also built for economic development potential, looking to food production and artistic expressions of entrepreneurship for future growth.
“Why is that some of our most skilled Lakota artists can’t afford to reap the benefits of the value of their work? It’s because they can’t access materials, maybe don’t have the means to connect with the places that will pay them fairly, or they can’t find studio space to work,” said Irving. Thunder Valley is building 10 art studio spaces in the development to help address these needs, as well as providing workforce and entrepreneurship training to help with local skills development.
And though the project is a lot to take on for a 10-year-old nonprofit community development corporation, Irving says that Thunder Valley understands that Pine Ridge Reservation is not the finish line but a first step. “You have to start small, then show people what can be done. We know this is just a demonstration project, but we’re trying to inspire the change our people have identified and build something real you can touch.”
Thunder Valley held its 10-year anniversary celebration on Saturday, August 12, at their home in Porcupine, South Dakota. The event featured speakers, artists, musicians, food and other public events. More information is available on their website and on the Thunder Valley Facebook page.