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Development from the inside out

Oglala Lakota culture, always based on the family and time-honored
interactions with relatives, food sources and the universe, has both
persisted and undergone profound alterations since the people were forced
into the federal reservation system 125 years ago.

From the outset, ill-conceived government policies to "pulverize the tribal
mass and preserve the individual," as Theodore Roosevelt argued, pressured
the people to lose their group identity and disappear. Oglala societies and
ceremonial associations, outlawed in 1882 for having been "formerly
associated with armed hostilities against the U.S. government," were
disallowed in public life. With their suppression, much of the social and
spiritual cohesion the people had in their community culture was thrown in
disarray. Within the decade, the people became sustained in poverty by
payments and rations controlled by government agents.

The dismantling of Lakota society -- characterized by the 1890 massacre of
350 men, women and children at Wounded Knee -- resulted directly in the
mass of the populace being overcome by alienation, insecurity and
malnutrition endemic to the new world order. Compounded by the
turn-of-the-century tuberculosis epidemic, a widespread biological and
cultural collapse took place.

During the 50-year period in which the Code of Indian Offenses criminalized
spiritual ceremony, this culture continued as out-of-sight as possible
among the kin groups residing along creeks and bottomlands on the large
reservation. There, the families survived by cooperative effort and concern
for one another. Besides livestock, they had communal gardens, household
root cellars and irrigation development continuing since 1903. Despite the
semi-arid land, food production was a community wealth enterprise.

It was at the allotment containing the Slim Buttes tiospaye (family group)
garden of those years that the present agricultural development project
began 20 years ago addressing basic services, but was chronically
underfunded to be able to do more.

In the past two decades, with the encouragement of the people, the elders
of several major families and the financial and structural support of Billy
Mills' organization, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, the
agricultural development project has grown to be involved in all manner of
homestead rebuilding. This is along the lines of what the families request,
as Indian people strive to make their dream of living on their lands come
true.

It is not easy on the barren lands of the South Dakota Plains. It is not
easy keeping families together long enough to begin to prosper. Thus our
project gathers the strong adults from the nearly 500 families that put in
gardens and work their lands. Housing and building skills, educational
programs, potable water, wells and windmills, family counseling and craft
sales assistance go along with seeds and gardens because the objective is
the strength of our families to work together for the common good of our
children. Thus, our style of community development is working because the
common people can see that their families can benefit, can not only
survive, but begin to create hope for themselves again.

In our case, as we survey our community, we realize that the only source of
hope is for the families who make the commitment to nurture and develop and
learn together to improve health and living. We need jobs and we are
working to create jobs but it is not only about jobs. It's about rebuilding
the health of our Indian homesteads, to build from the home out.

The strengths of Oglala identity are those of the tiospaye, the natural
groups wherein culture lives and is transmitted. The action of doing
something together marks Lakotas at their strongest; and when a tiospaye
does something together that community is happy, jovial, connected and
unified. Culture and its concomitant social patterns of cooperation,
sharing and reciprocity are transmitted and renewed. The strengths that
bound Oglalas together persist today and are needed for revitalization to
occur within all tiospayes.

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Poverty, hostile dependency on government programs, isolation, and the
resultant powerlessness and hopelessness require activities like tiospaye
gardening to counter the effects of negative societal alterations and
longstanding underdevelopment. To restore the health and vitality of the
culture, tiospaye development is essential, timely, and made possible at
"ground zero" by the present land-use program.

For community and national development beyond food production, tiospayes
are necessarily the avenue for inherently harmonious and historically-based
continuation toward sovereignty, a heartfelt goal for all self-respecting
Indians, which means -- after all -- to feed yourself, to feed the people.

Empowerment is both a process and an outcome. Self-development of the
people, coming from within the tiospaye, is what we, Billy Mills and
Running Strong, work to achieve. By developing long-term programs led by
the Indian people they serve, Running Strong honors our sovereignty.
Community knowledge, interpretation and networks are valued equally with
the funding and technical assistance Running Strong can provide. And so,
like our gardening project, Running Strong has been working for 20 years;
but 20 years is just part of our experience as we benefit from knowledge
thousands of years old.

We have a modest program on the western end of the Pine Ridge Reservation,
probably the poorest grounds in all of North America, run by a people
thoroughly trampled for 13 decades by the modern world and certainly by the
expansion of the American dream, which took their animals, their minerals
and most of their good lands.

The resistance to genocide has been real; otherwise, genocide would have
worked. The poverty and the destitution have a history, but the people have
something more -- they have their memory. The people know how to pray and
they know how to wish, which kindles hope. They know how to steam clean,
physically and spiritually, together for better health -- and everyone who
remembers gives thanks daily for the lives of the elders, who pass so
abruptly, week by week.

We -- and that's a big "we" of more than 100 people -- see that as our
source of hope. We put in 500 gardens last year across Pine Ridge, almost
one for every year since Columbus. We ran workshops and built houses,
started tours and made alliances with people of good will from every race
and ethnicity.

On April 22, there will be a celebration recognizing Running Strong's first
20 years of committment to the people of Pine Ridge and programs throughout
Indian country at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington,
D.C. Tickets and more information are available at gala@indianyouth.org or
(703) 317-9179.

We are just one group based in a corner of the heart of Lakota country,
working with a concept and a process that values what makes us a people.
Honoring these values is what, in this cleansing time of mid-winter, we
send in our greetings to the four directions.

Tom Kanatakeniate Cook, Wolf Clan Mohawk, director of the Slim Buttes
Agricultural Program of Running Strong for American Indian Youth, can be
reached at tcook@indianyouth.org.