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A Plan To End The Cycle Of Native American Poverty With A New Kind Of Community

An ambitious sustainable community in South Dakota aims to revive life on the reservation.

A Plan To End The Cycle Of Native American Poverty With A New Kind Of Community

Native American reservations are hotbeds of poverty and alcoholism, with residents often struggling to find employment or basic housing. On many reservations, residents often do what they can to leave.

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is emblematic of the situation. Some 55% of residents travel 50 miles each day to work—and those are just the residents that have jobs. Poverty is so dire that it's not uncommon to find up to 20 people living in a trailer with two or three bedrooms.

A community regenerative plan, led by Nick Tilsen, a young member of the tribe, is aimed at changing all that. Tilsen and his Thunder Valley Community Economic Development Corporation are trying to build an entirely new "regenerative community" on 34 acres of empty land on the reservation. Tilsen's ambitious plan for a sustainable community consists of a number of affordable single-family residences, lofts, townhouses, and co-housing spaces; a daycare center; onsite wind power; an aquaponics greenhouse, and other amenities that residents don't currently have access to. In his vision, residents will do all the construction themselves via a new native-owned construction company, providing much-needed jobs.

Here's how Tilsen envisions the community, which was developed in conjunction with green architect Bob Berkebile of BNIM:



The plan, now a finalist for the 2014 Fuller Challenge, still faces a number of hurdles. While Tilsen's development corporation already owns the land, there isn't much of a functional county in the area due to a checkerboard pattern of land ownership (some land is government owned, some is tribally owned).

"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," explains Marjorie Kelly, a director of special projects with The Democracy Collaborative, which is helping out with the regenerative community plan. "Nick has some good financing possibilities in the works now." That financing includes some federal funding in the pipeline.

In the first few years, Tilsen hopes to build 30 residences. But his vision extends beyond Pine Ridge. "It's a model for Indian country—how can you do sustainable development and affordable housing that’s really ecologically sustainable? A number of federal agencies that work with Native Americans are watching it," says Kelly.

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