Nick Tilsen (Photo used with permission)

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Nick Tilsen is the head of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in South Dakota.


“Rural Voices” is part of a series of interviews with people who will be participating in the National Rural Assembly, September 9-11, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Read the first three parts of the series:
Timothy Lampkin of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
2. Sarina
 Otaibi of Granite Falls, Minnesota.
3. Frank Estrada of Lockhart, Texas.

If you think rural America gets marginalized in national policy discussions, imagine what it’s like trying to talk about Native American issues, says Nick Tilsen, the executive director of a community development corporation serving members of the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

“A lot of people don’t [even] understand rural issues, and tribal areas are mostly rural,” Tilsen said. Without a background in rural topics, policy makers have a tougher time dealing effectively with Native American issues. “They’re not even in a place to understand tribal issues,” he said.

Tilsen, founder of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, will be attending his first National Rural Assembly next week in Washington, D.C. He said he hopes the event will create connections with rural groups that are working on poverty, development, education and other issues that resonate on Pine Ridge.

“We can potentially share what we’re doing and also learn what other people are doing, so we can improve our understandings of our own work,” he said.

He also said he wants to address disparities in philanthropic investment in Indian Country. “I feel philanthropy has a responsibility to take a bigger leadership role in investing in [Native and rural] places,” he said.

The Yonder asked Tilsen to describe his part of rural America and what he thinks it takes to build stronger rural communities.


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Breaking ground for a Thunder Valley CDC sustainable housing project.


What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
The part of rural America that I’m in is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It’s home to the Oglala Lakota people. It’s a place rich with culture and language. It’s also a place that is experiencing very, very entrenched poverty. Here on Pine Ridge the unemployment rate is over 60%. It’s historic, generational poverty. Oglala Lakota County [formerly Shannon County] has historically been one of the poorest county in all of America. There are high rates of suicide amongst young people. There is an extreme housing shortage: an average family could be having 12 to 17 people living in one home. And you have the impacts that come from that.

But we’re here. We’re not leaving this place.  Our culture and our identity are tied to this tribe and this place. Our work here at Thunder Valley CDC is trying to improve those issues. There is also something in the language and culture of Pine Ridge, something beautiful here: the Black Hills, the Badlands, and this beautiful Lakota culture. And then there is an extreme layer of poverty – isolated, generational poverty.

What do you wish the rest of the nation knew about your community?
One: that we exist. Often people forget about Indian people and Indian Country. There are a lot of people on the East and West Coasts that not only don’t really understand that rural America is part of America, but that Indian people are still here, and we don’t live in tipis. That we’re part of the cultural fabric that makes up America. I would want people to understand that America became America – was really built – through the taking of indigenous people’s lands.

And, two, that that process has really affected Indian people today. That the policies that were created around Indian people were created to keep our people down, and keep us from benefiting in society, because that was part of conquering Indian land and building America. I just feel like America needs to acknowledge that, and that they benefit from it. That the American government and society has gotten a lot from this process, but also that in a lot of ways, it continues. The policies of the past absolutely affect us continually today. Its’ not an accident, the poverty we face today. It’s due to the unsustainable policies for dealing with Indian people. That’s a big part of it.

The other part of what we want people to understand is that we’re not sitting here with a hand out waiting for the government to help us. If we have a hand out, it’s a hand of partnership – to work with federal agencies and philanthropies to build solutions together.

There is a piece of the past – that Indian people, because we were so wronged, because there were so many treaties and agreements were broken (basically every agreement was broken) – that there was a resentment. “Wait a sec, the government owes us this and it owes us that.” Legally and politically the government owes Indian people so much more than they will ever come through with. But now that leaves us with the feeling like, the way we got here can’t be the way we get ourselves out. So now we need to work on solution that focus on collaboration and focus on success.

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Lakota youth riding horses.


What are the challenges and bright spots in your community?
Let’s use young people as an example. Young people are faced with huge amounts of challenges. Our school drop out rate is significantly higher than the national rate. And a lot of the young people have been committing suicide at epidemic levels.

I think the bright spot is that young people are having the opportunity to learn about their culture and their identity, and doing that through our cultural and ceremonial life ways. It’s very, very important that they can know their people, and understand they have a way of life that’s individual, and a spiritual lifeway.

The other bright spot is a program we started here at Thunder Valley called Workforce Development Through Sustainable Construction. It’s taking young people and teaching them a skill through sustainable construction, and focusing on life skills through individual plans, and working to create their own futures. Because this type of program is about young people setting goals, enabling people to build capacity in their own lives, and to take responsibility in their own lives.

There are tremendous challenges and tremendous bright spots, like the workforce development program here at Thunder Valley.

This is your first time attending the Rural Assembly. Why are you attending and what value do you see in attending the Assembly?
We’re coming to the Assembly for one, because we were invited. I rarely sign up from something I’m not invited for. But also, it gave us an opportunity to learn about it, and what it was doing. So one of the big other reasons we’re going is that mainstream America doesn’t even understand rural issue. What I mean by “mainstream America” is where the majority of the resources are: the East Coast and West Coast.  A lot of people don’t understand rural issues, and tribal areas are mostly rural. So they’re not even in a place in to understand tribal issues. The nice thing about the Rural Assembly is that a lot of the panels deal with issues like rural development, food sovereignty… these different topics. These are work areas we find ourselves involved in all the time. We can potentially share what we’re doing and also learn what other people are doing, so we can improve our understandings of our own work. The other thing is really to be able to have conversations amongst federal agencies and funders, not as funders and recipients at the same tables, not as grantees and funders relationship, but as “we’re doing things together.”

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A tipi and horse at Thunder Valley CDC.


How could other rural advocates around the country help you in your work at home? And what do you hope to accomplish at the Assembly?
How others could help us at home is to better understand the complexity of the issues we have: to understand the complexity of the relationship between housing and health, the connection between food and health, education and food sovereignty. That these issues we have in rural America and in Indian Country – they are all connected. And for us as practitioners, the more we share with each other and understand that these issues are interrelated, the better we work to collaboratively solve them. I think in rural America sometimes we’re working so hard on the things we’re doing, sometimes we don’t have the opportunity to look up and look around and understand that we have a lot of allies out there. The more we can share our language with each other, the more we can build champions in each other.

That’s one of the things I hope to accomplish at the Assembly. I hope to make sure that rural advocates out there ensure that tribal representatives are always at the table. And to have rural folks not only include tribal people in the struggle, but to understand that each tribe is a sovereign nation. It’s not like, because you talk to people at Pine Ridge, you have an understanding of Indian Country. You have to be able to celebrate the diversity of every tribe. They’re totally independent, sovereign, and unique cultures and places.

Do you have any last thoughts or reflections? What would you say you’re bringing to the Assembly?
[I’m bringing] a challenge to philanthropy. Less than 1% of philanthropy funding in all of America goes to Indian Country. [Rural America received 6 to 7% of foundation grants from 2005-2010, according to a federal study.] Yet rural America represents some of the greatest challenges in this country. And so I guess my challenge is to philanthropy to look at engaging more, and dive deeper and longer, and rally under the idea that rural America and Indian Country have been part of the past, and part of the present and will be part of the future of America. I feel philanthropy has a responsibility to take a bigger leadership role in investing in these places. At the same time, we’re not saying that in a complaining way, but in a partnership way. We’re not saying, “shame on philanthropy.” We’re saying that as practitioners on the ground, we can help make that [leadership] happen.

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