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From Tipis to 21st Century Lakota Architecture

The homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation were never built with the Lakota lifestyle in mind. That is about to change with low cost, sustainable housing

The current homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation were never built with the Lakota lifestyle in mind. That is about to change with low cost, sustainable housing that includes cultural features. A new way of life is coming to Pine Ridge through the efforts of the Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Development and the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative or NASHI.

According to Nick Tilsen, Thunder Valley Development Corporation executive director, the Pine Ridge Reservation needs close to 4,000 homes. Families routinely house as many as 17 people in substandard homes that are often in dilapidated condition.

“An architect asked about traditional Lakota architecture and the tipi. I said the tipi was common sense. We needed something practical. But we are not nomadic anymore. We now have the opportunity to design what our culture, our spirituality, and our communities will look like,” Tilsen said. “We get to define 21st century Native architecture, which has to do with the practical needs of our people today. We have big families, we need to accommodate big gatherings; we want homes that are not so compartmentalized, with more open spaces.”

Thunder Valley has planned a community of 31 houses and as many as 60 rental units on 34 acres of land, but it isn’t only housing that Thunder Valley is hoping to revolutionize. The business plan also shows retail space, childcare, a youth shelter, pow wow grounds, and an Empowerment Center for programs and other community uses.

Thunder Valley Development Corporation

The plans for the Thunder Valley Community.

Specialists from three colleges—the South Dakota School of Mines, Oglala Lakota College and the University of Colorado—have teamed up to create housing that works with the elements rather than against them. The goal is to reach “net zero costs.”

“This country has been built on an unsustainable system,” Tilsen said. “Projects like this in Indian country make sense. We are leading the way with ideas that are really in keeping with our Lakota beliefs.”

The work began with the visions of local youth after the Thunder Valley Sundance, and further evolved from conversations within the local communities. “Architects, engineers, applied science students, scientists, social workers, elders, and the rest of the reservation were involved from day one,” reports James Sanovia, faculty member and researcher at Oglala Lakota College.

Through those conversations and further research, new issues were discovered. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 5,000 people employed people on Pine Ridge. “Even based on the conservative numbers, over 51 percent of the currently employed people do not live on Pine Ridge because there is not one house for sale,” Tilsen said. “People who are currently employed are leaving the reservation, so it’s not just that we need to create more jobs. We need to create communities that people want to live in.”

Among the working families who live on the reservation, many are earning low incomes.

Tilsen did his homework and said, “The USDA has a 502 Direct Loan for construction of new homes for low income families, with interest rates as low as 1 percent over 38 years. If you can get a house subsidized for under $100,000, you are talking $300 to $400 a month. That’s attainable! People living in run-down trailers are paying that much in utilities,” Tilsen said.

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Reducing utility costs is the key. Tilsen said, “Where you put the doors and windows, where the house sits on the land, whether it’s made out of sticks or straw,” all will effect the cost of running the home. “You want the house to be based on the longitude and latitude. It can save 40 to 50 percent in utilities just in the way it faces the sun. In the wintertime, the sun passes through the southern sky, so you want to take advantage of that and put all your windows on the southern side. In the summer, you want your overhang long enough to block the sun to keep the house cooler. Even before you consider solar panels, you have you look at the basic pathways of design,” he added.

Thunder Valley Development Corporation

The south side of the house is the best place to capture sunlight with windows and solar panels.

Rob Pyatt, executive director of NASHI, and senior instructor of Environmental Design at University of Colorado, Boulder, said they will continue to reduce utility costs. “It’s kind of ancient and kind of new,” he said. “The first house is insulated with straw bale and made of local materials.”

The possibilities for sustainability are endless. “Instead of straw bale insulation they might use compressed earth. All will have solar panels. There may also be wind turbines one day. We are also doing hoop houses with sustainability in mind,” Sanovia said.

Thunder Valley Development Corporation

The crew at Thunder Valley puts the final touches on the installation of solar panels.

As the first house nears completion, Sanovia said solar panels mark an ending for this house but a beginning for a new way of living, communicating and thinking on Pine Ridge. Construction on the next house will begin in the spring of 2015.

The local response to the project has been positive. “People are walking in every day that want to be a part of this. We are hoping to administer a program where people can build their own houses by putting in their sweat equity. We would like to hire a construction trainer to work with families. Their house will be cheaper, and when it comes to maintaining their home, they will be more familiar with their house,” Tilsen said.

Literature for the program states, “You will not find one propane tank, not one utility bill you can’t afford. What you will find, for those willing to roll up their sleeves and work towards it, is an opportunity and a new way of living that is better for the environment, and better for the physical and economic health of the family.”

Read more about the program at

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