The Thunder Valley Regenerative Community sits on 34 acres of land within the nearly three million acres of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Nation, in South Dakota. Designed and built using traditional Lakota values, the process of developing this sustainable community utilizes innovative, homegrown Native solutions, to address a variety of social, cultural, environmental and economic challenges. It’s Lakota culture materialized in a built environment.
The first buildings are taking shape: the Thunder Valley Community Center and Guest House by BNIM will soon break ground, and the first phase of single family homes by Pyatt Studio, with support from engineers KLJ and Studio NYL, have begun construction. Infrastructure plans for high performance water collection and reuse, ecological wastewater treatment, and onsite renewable energy creation through solar, wind and geothermal energy, are underway. Recently Nick Tilsen, executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC), and Christina Hoxie, director of the BNIM’s planning studio, talked about their unique collaboration.
CH: Christina Hoxie
NT: Nick Tilsen
We’ve been working together, BNIM and Thunder Valley, since 2009. What’s the origin story there?
Scott Moore, a former colleague, had been talking about BNIM for a while, and I’d just been nodding my head, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” But one night I was watching the Weather Channel and they interviewed Bob Berkebile. He was talking about Greensburg, Kansas, and the tornado that destroyed the town, and the work they were doing there to rebuild. The next day I circled back to Scott, and said to him, “Okay. That was inspiring. I think I’m ready to meet Bob Berkebile.”
I remember the first conversation I had with Bob. He asked some deep questions, because he had attempted to do work in Indian country before. “Where are Indian people in their healing process?” he asked me. Since so much of our work at Thunder Valley involves healing and reconnecting to our culture and identity, I thought that was a profound place to start.
Then when you visited the office, you shared this vision of a healthy, stable, economically and environmentally sound community. The vision was so big—it involved energy and water, attitude and capacity of human spirit, economic transformation—that we had to step back to take it all in. It wasn’t just about the Pine Ridge Indian community. It was about Indian country at large, and the way that we could think about creating a model for all sovereign nations within North America.
In our first conversation, I told Bob, “You know, we had a tornado hit our community, too. It landed on our shores in 1492, and it’s been pretty messed up for indigenous people ever since.” But through the example of Greensburg, Bob helped me to see the process. I was pretty impatient, “Let’s get the planning out of the way!” “Let’s get this going and build our community!” Eventually I realized that it was not just about creating a “regional plan,” even though that was crucial. It was about creating a mechanism that gave us the ability to organize our people, so that we could determine our future. BNIM embraced the idea that it had to come from us. Even with a team of professional planners, we had to have people from our community on the ground, helping to facilitate the process.
You taught me a great expression, which I like to borrow from time to time, “Progress moves at the speed of trust.” It’s about creating that foundation of trust, creating a kind of reciprocal learning experience. We were teaching your team how to be planners, and you were teaching us about the culture of the Lakota, the challenges, aspirations, and values of the people on the plains.
I remember there was a brand new BNIM employee and he came with you to Pine Ridge. One of our cultural traditions involves prayer and purification. So we asked your team to be part of that by going into the sweat lodge with us. It’s something that we do with our own people: “If we’re going to embark on something big together, first we purify and pray together.” To me, it meant a lot that you guys were vulnerable enough to do something that maybe you’d never done before. It made me feel like: Okay, I can be vulnerable, too, and do stuff that I’ve never done before either.
It was Thomas’ first day! We flew to Pine Ridge and he climbed right into that sweat lodge. That was a powerful experience for all of us. Which brings us back to this question about the unique challenges of working in a sovereign nation within the boundaries of the United States.
There are a few different parts to it. One part is the reality that the poverty that exists here is systematic, historical, isolated in nature, and the most entrenched of any other place in America. So when you start looking at challenges, you realize that it’s about breaking a mentality. We’re dealing with people, my people, where every treaty, every agreement, every promise that has ever been made to indigenous people has been broken throughout time. So, in order to create solutions, the collaborations do have to meet at the speed of trust.
But there are practical challenges too. Only sixteen percent of the land on Pine Ridge is taxable. All of the other land is either settled Indian trust land, tribal trust land, or federal surplus property. Also, the governmental system that we have in place was not designed by us. It was created by our colonizer, the U.S. government, who imposed this system on us in 1934, through the Indian Reorganization Act.
We have layers and layers of historical trauma: war, genocide, disease, addiction, forced resettlements, the eradication of the buffalo, the Indian boarding schools, the separation of children from multi-generational living situations. And layered on top of all that, we have these assets and resources, almost three million acres on Pine Ridge, most of which we can’t leverage for economic development because those assets are not leverage-able. This is what I call entrenched poverty-by-design.
And because of these unique issues, it became difficult to find reliable information about the people and place. We had to find a different model for how to do our analysis. We couldn’t rely on existing sources of data for accurate demographic, economic, health or infrastructure conditions. Instead we went to trusted community members, health centers, schools, tribal department leadership, as well as employees, and collected all of the records and research we could find to determine a true picture of the state of health. Then we worked with the same large group of advisors to determine the key initiatives that would have the most impact on daily life and a resilient future.
On our end, we were dealing complex, archaic financial and funding structures that are not conducive to innovation. At one point, I remember one USDA employee saying to me, “We are not the agency of innovation here, Nick.” But having partners that are willing to challenge each other helped us. We didn’t agree with everything you proposed. BNIM also pushed back and challenged us, but was healthy, and it was the same thing with our other design partners at Pyatt Studio and KLJ. Every single one of our partnerships has been tested at one point along the way. Each one of us has made mistakes and then gotten through those mistakes. We actually struggled with each other, but we never gave up on each other, and that’s the difference.
A big part of this is making sure that learning remains reciprocal. That it’s grounded in mutual respect, where there’s not a power dynamic, with the lawyers, planners and designers up here, and the community down there. It’s more of a flat plane, and what’s in front of us is the goal we’re willing to fight for and work towards.
We have also worked together to create evaluation systems for achieving goals and sharing progress. You’ve now formalized that process.
Yes, we have a director of evaluation now. Every aspect of this—the programmatic, the design, and the organizational—is constantly being evaluated. We’ve built this system for the intentional purpose of sharing our information with other tribal communities.
What’s exciting is, the variety of programs you have for language, food, the built environment, living systems, job training—it seems like you’ve created a new evaluation system with the right community metrics to assist you in achieving a healthy system.
This is definitely a work in progress. I don’t think we can proclaim, “Hey, world, we’ve now developed a system of metrics for what we’re defining as Net Zero!” We hope that our iterative process does eventually result in something like that. But in the meantime, we’re setting big, bold goals: one-hundred percent water reclamation; one-hundred percent energy generation; we want to produce our own food.
It’s a step by step process. Even when we were working on the infrastructure component in the first phase, it was clear that it was going to be an incremental process. For example, designing the wastewater treatment to irrigate the land and clean the stream, holding and reusing the rain and snow that falls into your land, and then getting all of that to work as a single system, will take time. But you can’t stop. You can’t not make progress, because of a few challenges. We have to push forward in order to make the case for Net Zero one step at a time.
I also think we’re at an interesting time in the trajectory of Indian people. Because of the movement at Standing Rock, there’s a broader understanding of the issues confronting indigenous people. If we’re going to achieve a truly equitable America, Indian people have to be a part of that conversation. But within our own communities, we have to fight for our sovereignty, people, communities, and rights, but we can’t do it at the cost of our environment, and we can’t do it at the cost of other people’s rights either.
Photos courtesy of BNIM and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.