Community building at Pine Ridge: A 30-year project comes of age

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A well-directed and executed project of community building requires at
least a full generation to mature. There are not enough of those in Indian
country, but there are some always worth emulating.

To build over generations is possible. However, such efforts must possess a
mature dedication to the empowerment of people from the ground up.
Involvement in community grassroots movements requires work with all kinds
of families from which emerge leaders who will encourage and help guide the
people toward common goals over the long term.

To build upon a community culture that can focus on behalf of the children,
grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will inherit the Earth and the
responsibilities of the nations: this is the task of community organizers
of the highest order.

Such is the track record of the Pine Ridge Homesteads Initiative, long
known as the "Slim Buttes Agriculture and Development Project." This
project involved a long-term commitment by a core group of families and
working people based in the Slim Buttes community in western Pine Ridge
Reservation, but with practical extension work with approximately 500
families across the reservation. The project assists in building grassroots
facilities and living conditions for Oglala-Lakota families long destitute
in remote lands and reservation districts.

Pine Ridge, S.D. - home of the Oglala Lakota people - is a place poor in
goods and capital, largely sidelined in the federal responsibility roster
for proper health and education services. It is always the first or second
most impoverished jurisdiction in the United States. It is also a place,
like too many reservations, where unemployment is up into the 80th and 90th
percentiles and large sectors of the people are beset with grinding
poverty, food and health insecurity and family dissonance.

Dismal living conditions, poverty and attending malnutrition and obesity
create acute health problems and, very prominently, diabetes. It is hard to
exaggerate how difficult it is to build lasting programs that can be
sustained in a community-based way.

The Slim Buttes Agriculture and Development Project, after 25 years, is an
initiative worth supporting if you have an interest in assisting a proud
people rebuild their working groups of competent adults who can shoulder
such a responsibility. The initiative is a major antidote to the depression
and sense of dependency of many decades of deteriorating conditions at Pine
Ridge.

The overall initiative is one of building the spirit and ability of the
tiospaye, or extended circles of families, toward a self-sufficient and
independent life. It believes in a better economy through stronger
families. Now allied to Billy Mills' Running Strong for American Indian
Youth program, the Slim Buttes working group is sprouting as a grassroots
ray of hope at Pine Ridge.

The project coordinates the work of nearly two dozen socially committed
grassroots workers and activists who are the backbone of the initiative.
These Indian adults are all local (often well-versed in Native cultural
values), dedicated and capable workers. While the gathering and consistent
growth of such a working force may seem a simple thing, in fact it
constitutes a huge effort of networking and organizing over many years,
including the sharing of long-term experience and a grounding in respectful
approaches.

The Slim Buttes initiative, based in that western district of the
reservation, nevertheless extends substantially, radiating its services and
various projects throughout several key districts and sectors of Pine
Ridge. Several emerging centers of capacity, involving one or more of the
initiative's community participants and their families, are making a
positive contribution to their people.

Every year, the Slim Buttes project:

Develops home gardens. It leads some 500 families in planting and tending
family gardens. These gardens spread out across the whole reservation. Home
to some 25,000 Indian people, the gardens are the lifeblood for fresh and
healthy produce for some 10 percent of the reservation over several summer
and fall months each year. This wonderful initiative has grown year by year
since 1982.

If diabetes is the new Indian plague, a project like this one, which helps
get hundreds of Oglala Lakota families into active communion with a source
of healthy food, is one helpful antidote. As Milo Yellowhair, a project
manager, said: "A family garden is a place where young and old can work
together and break a sweat. Break a sweat every day and you can beat
diabetes."

Repairs and constructs houses. Begun in the 1990s to fix and build homes
for elders, it has developed substantial expertise in various methods of
home construction, including log construction and healthy insulation
techniques. On a reservation where homes suffer significantly from black
mold infestation, the initiative's building designs and crews have
introduced innovative energy-saving techniques that don't simply wrap homes
or trailers in plastic, where moisture builds and molds grow.

The home-building initiative has established a project with Oglala high
school students, who volunteer by the dozens to undertake building theory
and practice workshops. The potential of the home-building program is for
these young people to find employment once they are trained in practical
and much-needed skills at Pine Ridge.

Organizes cultural and ceremonial events for tiospaye members. This
includes an annual Sun Dance in the Black Hills and innovative programs
such as an inspiring Wild Horse Sanctuary in the country known as the
"heart of all that exists."

We encourage tribes and foundations to assist the Slim Buttes Cooperative
in every way they can. This is a grassroots development initiative that can
serve as a model capable of being reproduced in many corners of Pine Ridge
and other Great Plains communities throughout Indian country.

Through directors Tom Cook and Milo Yellowhair, the community elders have
called for funding of proposals from their grassroots families who are
building viable enterprises in the sectors of carpentry and home building,
emergency health response, vehicle mechanics, water systems and
agriculture.

They write: "This package of combined community proposals represents the
constantly emerging plan to enhance and mature our community-building
initiative at Pine Ridge. After 25 years of working diligently to build
this practical, collaborative community network of activist-workers, we can
attest that this preliminary task has been achieved by the Slim Buttes
initiative. We have herbalists, farmers, equipment mechanics, gardeners,
carpenters, plumbers. It is important now to gather and deploy
infrastructure-building resources.

"As we see the capacity building grow among our related points or centers
of skills-gathering, more services and easier opportunities become
available for more and more tiospayes and individual families in the
reservation communities. Our commitment is to the rebuilding of the
Nation's economic and cultural vitality, from the ground up."

Interested individuals and institutions can connect with the remarkable
Slim Buttes Agricultural Project by e-mailing Tom Cook at
slmbttsag@bbc.net.