BOZEMAN, Mont. - Robert Young, an urban Irishman, was an unlikely candidate
for challenging the status quo on Indian reservations, but times have
The former Seattle-area clothing entrepreneur was visiting a New Mexico ski
resort client more than a decade ago when he read an Indian Country Today
story about tribal members freezing to death in substandard housing on
South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. He recalls thinking such a tragedy
shouldn't be happening in America.
The disturbing article prompted Young to start researching an array of
Native issues. It also led him to Pine Ridge elder Katherine Red Feather,
who was involved in a unique adopt-a-grand-mother program.
"I didn't like the idea of just sending a check to somebody," Young said in
a recent interview, so he began corresponding with Red Feather to learn
more about her and the program. The next thing he knew he was traveling to
Pine Ridge to meet her.
"I hadn't been on a reservation before except as a kid to buy fireworks,"
he said. "She was living in an old trailer, the kind that you would tow for
camping. They'd taken the wheels off, and the trailer was just sitting
there. She was hauling water. It was very tough for a 75-year-old woman to
be living that way."
Young found out that Red Feather had been on a waiting list for tribal
housing for years. But he didn't see any sense in her waiting any longer.
With Red Feather's agreement, Young organized a campaign with his friends
to help construct a simple straw-bale home for her in 1995.
"If my own grandmother was living like that, I'd want to do something about
it," he explained. "If this was going on anywhere else in the United
States, you hear about it. But these communities are so invisible."
Young also created a new non-profit organization - the Red Feather
Development Group - in his hometown of Bellevue, Wash., and with her
permission, named it in honor of the Pine Ridge elder. In 1996, Young sold
out his interest in the clothing firm and started working full time as
director of the apolitical, non-religious organization, which is dedicated
to helping tribal members improve their way of life through better housing
and related economic development. Young plowed nearly all the money from
the sale of the business into Red Feather and went without pay the first
"It was a shaky start," he explained, "but we were really fortunate to get
some key people in the Seattle area involved," including Stone Gossard, a
co-founder of the band Pearl Jam who still serves on the group's board of
directors. "They're the only reason we're around," Young said of Red
Feather's pioneering volunteers and donors.
In the years since, the group, working in direct partnership with
reservation residents, has completed more than 40 "housing-based" projects,
from modest, two-bedroom, one-bath homes to handicapped-accessible ramps,
education facilities and community centers. The organization, which
relocated to Montana last year, now has staff of five, including Young's
wife, Anita, and a $300,000 annual budget. But the future, Young said, is
"There have been many times when we've said this is the last project," he
noted, but businesses, foundations and individuals always seem to show up
in time to keep the program from shutting its doors.
In 2002, the group was given a prestigious "Use Your Life" award from
television personality Oprah Winfrey, and last year Young was the $50,000
grand prize winner of Volvo's "America's Greatest Hometown Hero" award. The
automobile company donated another $50,000 to the organization after Young,
43, agreed to serve on the celebrity-studded panel deciding this year's
award winners. Filmmaker Robert Redford and wildlife conservationist Jane
Goodall also have lent considerable help to the cause, as have the Bosch
and Stanley tool companies.
One of Young's greatest hopes is that the concept of affordable,
sustainable and environmentally friendly reservation housing will continue
to spread as more and more tribal members learn of the program and start up
operations of their own. By the group's estimate, more than 300,000
reservation residents across the United States live in substandard housing
or are homeless.
"We can't solve it, and by no means are we making a dent," Young said. "But
we can have a ripple effect." He added that he believes secure housing
inevitable helps lead to community stability.
"You can kill a lot of birds with one home," he said. "Housing is our
mission, but it takes more than housing to make a community. Our main goal
is to help individuals create a better life for themselves. It's strictly
charitable, humanitarian work. Native American people are not looking for a
handout; they want a hand up. We're not a give-away program. We want to see
grassroots things happening on the reservations."
To qualify for Red Feather's help with a home, tribal members need to
secure a loan to cover the cost of building supplies. For the standard,
1,000-square-foot straw-bale structure, that figure runs between $45,000
and $50,000, Young said.
Straw-bale technology was chosen because of its low cost, durability, high
insulation values and that fact that straw is readily - and cheaply -
available in most areas of the country. The bales are tightly stacked to
form the core of each building, which is then covered with stucco. Cultural
considerations - such as facing a home entrance to the east - are decided
upon by the future owners and incorporated into each project.
In addition, the group helps participants sort out financing options
through private and governmental entities, as well as clear up land titles,
which can be complex when the tribal acreage is allotted between many
owners. "Sweat equity" is required if the participants are able, and the
homeowners-to-be typically work side by side with Red Feather staff members
and volunteers who come to their reservation from all over the country.
"You get a cultural exchange at the same time," Young said. "That is
probably more important than the house. It's all about us working together.
These are families that are desperately wanting to change their situation,
and here's the opportunity. It's not us coming in and taking over. It's
never on our own."
While some folks may be a bit suspicious at first, Young said a decade of
service by the organization has helped convince people the offer of
assistance is real, with no underlying strings attached.
In fact, Red Feather now has about 3,500 active Indian and non-Indian
members. Young said he hopes that number will continue to grow as word gets
out about the unusual program. He also emphasized that donations, either
cash or in-kind, are constantly needed - as well as appreciated.
"We're only around for one reason - because people are willing to build and
to donate," he said. "We need and want people to get involved."
So far, most of Red Feather's efforts have been aimed at Montana's Crow and
Northern Cheyenne reservations and South Dakota's Pine Ridge and Turtle
"Instead of taking a shotgun approach, we're trying to focus on just a
couple of areas," Young explained. Next spring, however, the group plans to
construct a straw-bale house for an elder who lost her home to fire on the
Hopi Reservation's Third Mesa in Arizona. Other potential projects are
being looked at in other areas of the Southwest, as well.
"I didn't think it would be a life-changing experience," Young said of his
initial encounter with the sometimes-harsh realities of reservation life.
But he added that he has no regrets about leaving the corporate world
behind to help those in need.
"You walk away from this and you're part of the problem," he said.
For more information about the group and its activities, go to