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Economic Development Revs Up on Pine Ridge Reservation

A story about economic growth on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Visiting businesses around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation these days is like sitting in a jet just before it streaks down the runway. 

Though the U.S. Census Bureau has repeatedly shown the community is one of the poorest in the nation, its rolling, pine-fringed hills are also dotted with something that seems to elude the official figures: many creative enterprises, run with enthusiasm, energy and an eye on a better future. Some are tribally owned, like the just-opened East Winds Casino on Highway 18 in Martin, South Dakota. Other businesses are owned by tribal members who operate everything from myriad home-based crafts operations to restaurants, B&Bs, motels, gift shops, galleries, adventure outfitters, gas stations, convenience stores and the latest addition to the growing economic family—a building supply company, offering hardware and lumber in Pine Ridge village, on the south side of the reservation.

Supporting them is an expanding infrastructure, with public transit throughout the 2 million-plus-acre reservation, good cell-phone coverage in most areas and wireless Internet widely available. Approval of a federally backed credit union is imminent, said Whitney O’Rourke, Oglala, of Lakota Funds, a community development financial institution in Kyle, South Dakota in northern Pine Ridge. There is currently no bank on the reservation, and off-reservation banks make few loans there because much of the land that might act as collateral is held in trust by the federal government or is tribally owned. That will make a credit union the game-changer, easing access to cash and encouraging business formation and homeownership. “The reservation has 40,000 residents ready, willing and able to participate in the regional economy,” said Mark St. Pierre, chief executive officer of Wounded Knee Community Development Corporation (CDC). 

Set in Pine Ridge’s central Manderson Valley, a bucolic sweep of hills bounded by pale cliffs, Wounded Knee’s CDC is one of several community groups and nonprofits with seed grants and creative ideas. They’re where the real economic action is, says St. Pierre, with plans ranging from small businesses to housing, a critical need on Pine Ridge. His CDC is looking for funding to build a destination resort on the 600 acres it owns in Manderson Valley and a factory that would make high-end caskets, then expand to other types of millwork. Thunder Valley CDC, in Sharps Corner, South Dakota, hopes to break ground next summer on what will eventually be a live-and-work community. “We’ve even planned the streets to make it easy for kids to ride their horses over, tie them up and play some basketball,” said the president of the group’s board, tribal member Jennifer Irving. The first Thunder Valley projects will include housing units and a green-technology, inexpensive-to-operate emergency shelter for children who have been taken into foster care.

bottom). Photo Credit: Joseph Zummo

Sen. Johnson left); Tilsen top); Wilson

“We welcome the idea of a shelter,” Oglala Sioux Tribe president, John Steele, told South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson in a meeting with Thunder Valley CDC’s executive director, Nick Tilsen, Oglala, and board members during the Senator’s visit to several Pine Ridge groups in early May. “We have some emergency units and safe houses for children, but we need more.” Keeping kids on the reservation prevents the emotional and cultural disruption that occurs when they’re taken out of the community, Steele explained.

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Thunder Valley CDC is part of a consortium with Oglala Lakota College’s (OLC) Applied Science Department, in Kyle, and the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative, a project of architect and University of Colorado instructor Rob Pyatt, of Pyatt Studio, in Boulder, Colorado. Starting this summer, OLC students will construct four houses—one conventionally framed and the others built of insulated panels, straw bales or compressed-earth blocks. The students will then place sensors throughout the homes to see which one offers most energy efficiency at least cost. (Privately, the OLC professors are betting on the straw-bale home.)

Thunder Valley CDC will use the winning construction method for its building projects. Nowadays, experience with alternative building techniques is good for a builder’s résumé, whether he or she wants to work on or off the reservation, according to OLC Applied Science Department chair Doug Noyes. “This project is creating trained crews, ready to work on the Thunder Valley buildings or any other,” said general construction instructor Leonard Lone Hill, Oglala.

Construction instructor Lyle Wilson, Oglala, opened notebooks of student work he has documented, from small homes to commercial construction. OLC senior and tribal member Jared Shangreaux said, “I’m in this program to get a job.”

Pine Ridge may be ready to participate in the regional economy, but is the region welcoming them? asked St. Pierre, of Wounded Knee CDC. Pine Ridge and other South Dakota reservations already contribute generously to the state’s economy—too generously some say, as money arriving in Native communities is typically spent immediately in nearby border towns, without changing hands and producing income in reservation businesses first. “Keeping money on the reservation and supporting our mom-and-pop businesses is the big issue,” said Emma Featherman-Sam, Oglala, coordinator of Oglala Sioux Transit.

Even worse, much of the spending goes to down-market, predatory vendors, according to O’Rourke. She described payday lending as a terrible problem, along with deed and title loans, through which cash-strapped tribal members put up home and car documents in return for short-term loans at sky-high interest rates, as much as 650 percent. Border town stores sell goods at inflated prices, knowing reservation residents may not have gas money to drive further to find bargains, and alcohol sales in retail stores and bars ringing Pine Ridge—just beyond the dry reservation’s jurisdiction—further empty tribal members’ wallets. “The border towns have a parasite–host relationship with the reservation,” said Tilsen.

Other restrictions on Pine Ridge’s economy are more subtle: When visitors arrive at the Rapid City airport, rental-car companies provide maps of western South Dakota showing a narrow slice of the state along the western border, guiding tourists to state and national parks and neatly eliminating all the reservations. The same map is available in shiny, laminated form at the Badlands National Park visitor centers, a federal operation, where you can get a map of the adjoining Pine Ridge Indian Reservation only if you know to ask for it.

Though cultural tourism is widely considered the wave of the future, browsing South Dakota’s tourism website reveals little about the state’s reservations and their attractions, including pow wows year-round. Entering "Native American" into the search box pulls up assistance for tour companies wanting to organize coach trips to reservations and directions to off-reservation Crazy Horse Memorial—ways for outsiders to look at Native Americans, but little support for Native people’s own enterprises. Simply finding the reservation can be more difficult than it needs to be; those heading from Rapid City to Pine Ridge will discover that major turnoffs are not well marked. “We’re working on that,” said Featherman-Sam. “We’re talking to the state about installing more signs.” Featherman-Sam’s can-do spirit is typical on Pine Ridge. Tilsen said, “Our people are tackling many issues and coming up with their own solutions. For the first time, they’re being asked what they want, not being told what others think they need.” 

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