Thunder Valley CDC: Liberation through Language, Lifeways, and Spirituality | Pine Ridge
Tatewin Means and Kimberly Pelkofsky discuss Thunder Valley’s whole-community approach in creating different pathways to liberation and healing.
Listen to Tatewin Means describe the values and ethos that sustains Thunder Valley CDC’s work.
This audio recording is excerpted from the conversation that has been transcribed and edited in the interview below.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros interviewed Tatewin Means and Kimberly Pelkofsky in 2020.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros (AC and ZM): Can you describe the ‘ecosystem’ at Thunder Valley and give us an outline of the projects you’re developing and how they work together?
Tatewin Means (TM): If I am to describe Thunder Valley in one word, it’s liberation. Our vision as an organization is liberation for the Lakota people through language, lifeways, and spirituality. We see those three things as our foundation and the vehicles that we use in this liberation journey. Our organization started from a spiritual place, deeply rooted in our Lakota spirituality, and that is a tenet that remains constant in our organization to this day. It distinguishes a lot of our work. A lot of organizations, even Indian organizations that operate in Indian Country, just try to perform the services. It’s almost like culture, spirituality, language are add-ons. They’re electives in school. We’re trying to center our identity as Lakota people, because inherently, that is the way we will heal ourselves as a nation, that is the way we will continue to resist and persist in this nation, in this world.
Liberation: It’s something that we are actively working for. To do that, we have to fight every day against colonialism. That is what started all of the issues that we see today in many of the Indigenous communities across the world. A lot of the work of liberation is about finding freedom from those chains of colonization, the messages of colonization that still remain in our communities, and [in doing so] really redefin[e] who we are.
The work that we’re doing at Thunder Valley is a whole-community approach in creating different pathways to liberation and healing. We understand that the first step of someone’s liberation is healing. That starts with the self. Self-sovereignty, self-liberation is the very first step of a nation being liberated. If we are not healed ourselves, or we are not well and whole and free from historical traumas and existing traumas, we can never be fully liberated. Never really able to make that full connection to our identity as Lakota people.
Some of our work is really weaving the importance of healing through each of our eight initiatives.1The eight initiatives are: regional equity, youth leadership, Lakota language and education, workforce development, social enterprise, housing and homeownership, regenerative community development, and food sovereignty. How do we foster it in our community? How do we foster it within our organization, with our staff? Because we are not exceptions. We are not fully liberated individuals. We are also on this journey with the community. So we are really writing our liberation story, and we’re writing our community’s healing story, through this work. I think putting that at the forefront of everything we do is the only way we’re going to effectuate the next mindset shifts that are needed. We have become accustomed to this pervasive culture of poverty in our communities because it’s been here since colonization. In order for us to really overcome that, we have to create a massive cultural shift in the community from survival mode, from the scarcity mindset, to one that is plentiful and liberated. We’re not creating “pathways out of poverty.” That’s some of the old narrative that was used at Thunder Valley. We’re really conscious and cognizant about our language and the narrative that we share with the community, because we are the drivers of how our story is told.
We have eight initiatives, and our regenerative community development, RCD, is one of the eight. It is the most visible, because it’s the actual construction, planning, and design of our 34 acres in the Pine Ridge Reservation, but it’s just one piece. Liberation is a balance. Not one initiative is more important than another. They all work equally, really taking aim at the social determinants of health that affect our community. Every initiative, every employee, has its place and purpose for this work, and it’s important to tell the whole story. With that, Kimberly can talk more specifically about our RCD initiative.
Kimberly Pelkofsky (KP): The way that I see the regenerative community development is [in] more of the physical place where that liberation occurs, where our eight initiatives really interact to create those mindset shifts. It’s where we change those colonial narratives in community planning and design, urban design, in aesthetics and how we interact with the land, and the relationship that we have with the ecosystems that are there: microscopic up to very visible things that we can see. We want to build safe, healthy buildings and abide by codes, but also question things like, is this really appropriate for our region, or our area, or the people here? Why is this material getting priority over that material? How can we connect back with traditions and lifeways, but in a way that is not stagnant and not tying people into that museum-type feeling or a tokenistic, theme park kind of setting? Really making sure that what we’re doing feels like it belongs here and wasn’t transported from another location. Anywhere in the US, or the world, or even another community on this reservation might approach it very differently. We’re taking our engagement to a level that is inclusive and rigorous.
It started many years ago with the Oyate Omniciye, the Oglala Lakota Plan, which identified community needs. Some of the most powerful statements from those sessions were people saying, “No one’s ever asked me before what I wanted.” We make sure that we continue to do that and to continue to have community input in a real way. Sometimes it can be difficult, because you’re navigating a lot of nuances with funders and regulating agencies with community vision or organization directives. The point is to create something that when people are here, on our property, in our spaces, that they feel like it’s always been there, it’s a part of them, they feel connected to it in a way that they wouldn’t connect to another space. There’s interpersonal healings, there’s healing from the health perspective. We look at healing with the relationship with Uŋčí Makȟá, with Mother Earth, through sustainability, through building design and innovative materials.
Download a PDF of the master plan map.
For example, the initial idea for the playground was recycled tires and logs propped up here and there, taking the “what we can afford” approach. But just because that’s what we can afford right now, it is not necessarily what the children deserve. It’ll take us a little while to get there, but what’s really going to be something is where I feel like I’m a child, I can play, I can interact with our teachings, with our stories, and, and learn about my people. Through the design process, we liberate our mindsets a bit more and challenge ourselves as well.
The playground is now based off of the story of the Great Race and the Seven Sacred Sites. At each site, representationally in plan, is a play structure that relates to teaching or story or even has a visual similarity to that sacred site. You can travel that journey on the Red Road. It’s multigenerational, so we have a place for adults, elders, and the youngest babies up to teenagers. We’re also ADA accessible, making sure that it’s really inclusive. The playground is next to our apartment building, to our single-family homes, and directly outside of our community center. It creates a kind of pocket of playfulness for children that’s really accessible for them and is easy for parents to find them if they’re in a meeting. Children often come with adults. When you have a community meeting, it’s not just adults that are there. We’re creating spaces that accommodate how the social fabric of the community is.
The nearest communities, Sharps Corner and Evergreen, both have playgrounds, but what they don’t have is an organization that is caring for them. They’re in a bit of disrepair. The access is not conducive for elders to get there. They have barriers, tightly closed-in fences, there’s not much room to play around, there’s no seats, there’s no lights, there’s no benches. They’re really very limited in what they offer.
For our outdoor spaces, the extremes and blowing wind are really difficult to plan for. We didn’t even have ninety days between snows this year. We are fundraising for rubberized surface, but in the meantime, we have to use woodchip fiber. We have sometimes 80-mile-an-hour wind gusts, and we’re very concerned that they’ll all blow out.
We plan to have a commercial space, more housing, educational, ceremonial, and spiritual places. We’d like to have a place for energy production and a microgrid and develop this idea of a liberated community from within. We’re looking as if it’s alternative housing models or maybe a different kind of style of home.
The vision for the regenerative community development is a vision of the community. It’s not just Thunder Valley’s idea, and it’s certainly not just my vision. I’m just kind of the translator/interpreter for it.
AC and ZM: Can you talk about the term sustainability and what that means to Thunder Valley, both in terms of the environment and in terms of sovereignty?
TM: One of our organization’s five strategic directions is ensuring sustainability, and that is multifaceted. One aspect is environmental sustainability. There are 21 single-family homes, seven complete, 17 still under construction. The community center, bunkhouse, and apartment buildings were underway and under construction when we came on board [two years ago]. We inherited these projects, which are really exciting for the community—but in full transparency, there were a lot of issues financially, with the funding.
For instance, operation and maintenance of the property. We are on fee-simple land2On “fee patent” (also known as fee simple or, colloquially, as privately owned land) land, the owner holds the title. Land transactions are not subject to US government approval. The property is subject to state and federal taxes., not tribal trust land3Tribal trust, the model set up for reservations, cannot be sold or defaulted outside the tribe. It is exempt from state and federal taxes. The title is held by the US government in trust for tribal use. All land transactions must be approved by the US government., so the tribe does not have any responsibility for maintaining infrastructure. We are not an incorporated community, so we don’t receive state tax dollars. However, on fee-simple land, we have to pay state taxes, whereas with tribal trust, we wouldn’t have to.
There are outdated water allocation agreements between tribes and the federal government that really hinder and do not account for development in our communities. In creating this community development, we are directly impacting some of the sovereignty issues, like water rights as far as taxation.
Just the fact that the community is going up is a challenge, and is an inherent act of sovereignty. What we’re doing at Thunder Valley is our own expression of sovereignty. It’s our own expression of self-determination and liberation. Taking all that into account, there’s a lot financially that we have to be aware of and plan for in order for our organization to remain financially viable. We want our organization to be there for generations to come. A lot of times in our communities, you see really great, excellent programs start, but because the grant ends, the program ends. That’s a gap in resources for our community that they’ve come to rely on. We don’t want to do that. We want to show consistency and resiliency but to have a pragmatic approach to how to be sustainable as an organization.
AC and ZM: How did you pick fee-simple, and what do you see as the benefits versus negatives to be on fee-patent versus tribal trust?
TM: I think in some of the conversations with former leadership, it was the hope that building Thunder Valley on fee-patent land would give autonomy from the tribe or the BIA.4The BIA is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is a federally funded agency that manages the relationship between the US government and tribes at both a federal and local level. Because the BIA regulates trust land, it’s a statement of sovereignty to be independent of the BIA. The BIA is a very paternalistic agency that was put in place to control Indian affairs. However, you replaced one colonizing institution for another with the state. There are pros and cons. One, you don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of BIA, which is tremendous. However, you do have to deal with State bureaucracies and the auditors, and the equalization offices and the taxes and all of those things which have very real consequences for our homeowners. If they were to build on trust land, they wouldn’t have to account for those things.
We’re strategizing internally about how we might be able to remedy some of that, because the taxes are pretty overwhelming for the homeowners. This is a community unlike any others, and so even the county is having difficulty determining the taxes. We live in one of the most impoverished areas but have a tremendously high tax percentage. It just doesn’t make sense.
KP: Jurisdictional issues really complicate things that seem like they should be straightforward, like, “Just call Rural Water and have them come and fix the water main.” We can’t do that. Independence definitely has its benefits, but I also think we’re looking at some of those long-term implications in a bit of different way. With the property taxes, for example, Thunder Valley, as a nonprofit, is able to have some of that land tax-exempt. But as soon as we sell it to our homeowners, then that burden becomes a part of what they owe. We’re trying to be more careful about understanding what those long-term repercussions of our being on fee-simple land are, not just for us as an organization, but for our residents. If they get priced out because of property taxes as we continue to build amenities, we’ve missed the whole point of development. If they foreclose, they have to leave the community. That’s not the intention.
AC and ZM: Has there been any discussion of converting land back to trust once people buy?
KP: It becomes a challenge, because you would have trust land within our fee-simple development, and an overlap of services. How do we allocate water if some of the homes are on trust and some of them aren’t? What group is maintaining roads?
I think that idea of moving away from trusts and having individual sovereignty over land comes into play too. We’ve thought about community land trusts, which is a shared-equity affordable-housing model where Thunder Valley retains ownership of the land. It’s more like a lease-hold model.
We haven’t identified the best solution yet, and frankly home ownership is not where most of our community members are at right now financially. Right now, the price point of the houses is for a two-income household at a more professional level. That’s not the makeup of most of our community. We’ve been questioning this price point over the last two years. Is this product we’re offering actually meeting the needs of the people and the intention of the community if we’ve created a kind of upper middle-class neighborhood? How do we get that price point down? How do we get people to a place where they can get great mortgage terms? How can we keep the people who already bought into the community in their homes and not be overly burdened with taxes?
AC and ZM: Have you started construction on the commercial space?
KP: If we were to build the commercial hub, we would take all of the water that is allocated for everywhere north of our development. Until that issue is resolved, we need to be very careful about what we build, because we’re kind of at the limit right now. We’ve also needed to upgrade the sanitary lagoon that’s just down the road from us at Sharps Corner. In order to accommodate the number of people planned for our community once we’re fully complete, it would need upgrades that are quite costly.
Allocation is based on a population-demand model, and they’re saying we are not allocated to have that kind of exponential growth in that area. It’s basically forcing development to slow or to not happen, despite the fact that there is a huge contingent of people who live off the reservation and commute. If housing were available, they would live on the reservation. They [the USDA] project the community’s growing at around 2.8 percent, but you have 14 percent more people traveling to the reservation to work, who would otherwise live there. We’re saying that it needs to be reevaluated to allow for more potential future growth.
AC and ZM: What are some of the biggest hurdles to getting the project done?
KP: I think that systemic racism for sure is a massive hurdle. I am constantly surprised by the new ways that people manage to make it an issue. It affects our construction immensely, down to that whole idea of what people deserve. From “expected growth” in the water allocation, from a funder saying they don’t pay for infrastructure. They score projects that are building off of infrastructure higher. So, when you’re in a super-rural community where no infrastructure exists, you’re automatically scoring lower, but your need is higher than it is in the city.5During the selection process for grants funding, one of the factors that is taken into consideration is whether a site has infrastructure already in place. It affects us when we’re paying 30 percent premium on materials and labor because “it’s far” and “it’s not attractive.” Our mobilization costs are so much higher. We don’t have a lot of options here, and you hear the tone that people use on the phone. From materials, from spatial organization, from “We’re saying our families like to walk in this way, so we would want a sidewalk this way”—they will say, “We’ll only give you funding for 20 percent of the sidewalk, because that’s what we have decided is appropriate.”6Pelkofsky explained, “To get sidewalks in the first place was a big deal because funders assume because you’re in the country, you’re on the reservation, you don’t need sidewalks. The infrastructure loans questioned why we need sidewalks.” Or in another instance, “We just wanted a gravel walkway for our homes, and there was pushback from one of the funders saying it must be concrete. But they were only funding two of 21 houses, and if we provide that for two houses, we have to provide it for 21 houses, and the other funders are not going to pay for that, so are you going to pay for that? There’s no trust that the people know what works for them, or what is appropriate.” It’s in building standards, it’s in grants, it’s in how you report. Some of our smallest grants have some of the biggest reporting requirements. I have a five-thousand-dollar grant that had me jumping through hoops that a million-and-a-half dollar grant wasn’t requesting. Why is that? Lack of trust, lack of belief in capacity. So we’re looking at identifying true partners, identifying people who are willing to make those changes or reach an understanding doing the work.
I think building code is incredibly important. I’ve worked on a lot of contracts where people have been in very precarious living situations because things are built haphazardly. Safety is so important, especially in your home. But there are things where that code and the funders, or the state or federal agency, use it as an oppressive tool. They just interpret it so narrowly that it becomes just another way to thwart innovation and creativity. It’s incredibly disappointing, because you look at all of these other buildings that have pushed envelopes, and communities that have pushed envelopes. What’s different between what they’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve? The only thing that I can really think of is that white supremacy mentality.
When we were going through a funding application, we had to work with a partner who didn’t feel like we needed glass doors as the entry doors to the homes. One of the reasons that we use the glass doors is because of connection to the East and because sight lines out to the sky connect people to the mirror world. He said that the requirement is to have one type of door, though we’re still achieving a holistically better energy rating than they’re requiring us to achieve. We did an independent HERS (Home Energy Rating System) test, and it was off-the-charts good, but they were fighting with us on our energy-efficiency requirement because the doors were not the “right glass” for their requirement. That was just one of those things where we were achieving the standard, but also getting to put in this culturally important piece. He was really needling us, saying “I feel like it’s expensive” and “Why are you making it more costly than it needs to be?” It’s that “This is what you deserve” mindset.
AC and ZM: Do you need to file with the building authority, or do your funders outline their code expectations?
KP: There is no planning department here, so we don’t have to get building permits. The tribe has not adopted a building code. Apart from electrical inspections, we have agreed to adopt IBC (International Building Code), and then whatever our funders require above and beyond that. We have developed our own internal design standards, guidelines, and procedures that really put us at the forefront of what we’re doing. We created an appendix that has to do with soil principles and soil health, regenerating our soil, supporting wildlife and other bio-habitats. We currently have solar installed on every building that’s completed, but it’s still not enough.