Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Plan

“Emerging from its roots in the Lakota culture on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation-South Dakota, the community of Thunder Valley has a vision for building a regenerative community. This development will be the first step toward a dream of interconnected sustainable community systems fulfilled through partnership, innovation and investment.” —Nick Tilsen, Project Lead, Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Plan

SUMMARY: The Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Plan, born of a collective vision, is implementing a comprehensive strategy to build a locally owned and operated housing development in the geographic center of the Oglala Lakota Nation, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Through layered phases of construction and associated programs, their work addresses a critical and dire need in Indian Country for self-sufficiency, economic self-determination and ecological resilience. Through components such as a Native-owned construction cooperative and with outstanding youth leadership, the plan is poised to not only resuscitate the local economy and traditional culture by providing elegant housing in the context of a deeply sustainable community with a net-zero built environment, but also serve as a compelling, dynamic model for the rest of Indian country and the world.

The Thunder Valley team were the recipients of a Special Recognition Award of $40,000 in 2014. This unprecedented Finalist Award was made passible through a partnership with The Surdna Foundation, The Northwest Area Foundation and others.

PROBLEM SPACE: Early in the 21st century, a group of young people, bound by family ties and the love of their cultural traditions, assembled at a common ceremonial gathering. They related experiences of indescribable hopelessness, and were struck by how, in some ways, they were being assimilated into a system of dependence. Faithful, defiant, with almost no organizational experience, the boys were able to fund, and build, a Community House, which would serve as the focal point for the conversations and dreams that would conceive Thunder Valley Community Economic Development Corporation. The young men were determined to take responsibility for their futures, while drawing upon their cultural legacy for every planning decision. Soon, TVCDC, received a planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Program to create a Regional Plan for resource management. The Plan has been adopted by two successive Oglala Sioux Tribal Councils and continues to guide cooperative capacity in the region. Today, few structures on Pine Ridge are built utilizing the power of the sun during the winter and taking shade during the summer. With partnering architects and universities the RCP incorporates new, highly efficient, simple, modular building systems that will create new markets and jobs.

Policies of the United States Government, and resulting conflicts, left the Oglala Sioux Tribe completely without their essential subsistence resource—the buffalo. The region, historically known as “Thunder Valley”, is within Shannon County, one of the seven poorest counties in the United States, and incapable of funding infrastructure costs to meet housing needs. The Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Project will demonstrate how sustainable development can transcend the historic inequities that perpetuate poverty. Pine Ridge faces a critical housing shortage that disavows much of the workforce of the ability to live in proximity to work. It is common to find 15-20 persons living in a two to three bedroom trailer. This housing shortage means dollars entering the reservation become the equity of outside corporations or landlords usually within twenty-four hours. Because the development incorporates sustainable wind, solar, water/wastewater, agriculture and architectural design, local socio-economic and global resource challenges are mitigated. This project will directly alter the cycle of poverty for at least 1,000 persons on the Reservation. Our track record demonstrates we can bridge existing embattled socio-political divisions, and restore collaborative capacity, locally and regionally. We believe our financing and partnership models will pave the way for future regenerative systems.

SOLUTION: Because Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation built its identity and its relationships through a commitment to sustainability, the Regenerative Community Plan will create a model that can be used in future regenerative systems. In this initiative, beginning with its local partners in the SHOP program, Thunder Valley, will demonstrate to emerging markets that the region will have a viable economy, with jobs and housing as keystones. The Regenerative Community Plan model will demonstrate how partnerships, rather than policy or markets alone, can mobilize the most important building blocks to sustainability: strong inner-reliant communities. The Regenerative Community Plan is a starting point, a new paradigm that will play a significant role to transform systemic poverty on Pine Ridge. Later, adapted and adjusted for different contexts, the model will be implemented in other regions. Together Thunder Valley Economic Development Corporation’s initiatives, spearheaded by the Regional Plan project, will create a resilient system in an economy with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. Our partnerships transcend inequity, and together we will democratize wealth.