Community development work stays true to Native culture
Walk into the Thunder Valley Community House on any given day and it will be bustling. You might find a class in traditional language taught by Lakota elders, or a meeting of the youth mentoring group. Maybe you'll find a community gathering to talk about plans for a business complex that would be a base for Native entrepreneurs.
Cultural programs... social services... community development... it's all integrated in the innovative work of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC), located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest areas in the country.
"We take a holistic approach to our work, because people have a lot of interconnected needs," says 26-year-old community organizer Nick Tilsen, Executive Director of TVCDC. "One of the ways we support Native youth and their families is with programs that strengthen their connection to cultural traditions and spiritual life. But our people are poor and don't have infrastructure. They don't have jobs, or proper housing, or access to health facilities. So we're also working to create the conditions in the community for people to flourish."
With help from a $10,000 grant from Seva, TVCDC is now laying the groundwork to build community enterprises that keep the roots of culture and spiritual identity alive.
The Urgent Need at Pine Ridge
Thunder Valley is one of the communities on the Pine Ridge reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota people. This is a very young and very poor community. Half the families have incomes below the U.S. poverty line, the unemployment rate is somewhere between 17-45% (depending on which statistics you believe), and half the residents are age 19 or younger. The South Dakota Department of Health estimates that Pine Ridge has the highest infant mortality rate in the state, and the lowest life expectancy in the U.S.
"Our group started as the Lakota Action Network in 2003," Nick explains. "It was mainly a youth-led activist organization that raised awareness about sacred sites and other issues. But after a series of community meetings, we shifted our focus to include sustainable community development on Pine Ridge. That's why we formed the Thunder Valley CDC." In order to make true change, Nick says, the community must integrate a renewed cultural identity with a strong infrastructure — including adequate housing, job opportunities, and access to healthy food and medical care.
Building a Better Future
One of TVCDC's first projects was to build the 1750-square-foot Community House — a home for traditional Lakota ceremonies on the weekend, and a center for youth to gather on weekdays to learn songs, language and culture. The construction work was done by community volunteers and was completed within a year. Now the space is used at least five days a week for a variety of programs and community events.
TVCDC's long-term community plans include a housing development using renewable energy technology; a business complex to support local entrepreneurs; and a solar-powered, state-of-the-art wellness center with a gym, swimming pool, indoor hockey, and classrooms. “Building the Community House was an amazing accomplishment for us,” Nick says, “but this is just the beginning."
For more information about the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, please visit http://www.thundervalley.org/.