“Make Something Out of Nothing”: Hope on Pine Ridge

  • Blog Post by: Gary Cunningham
  • March 29, 2010 - 10:27 PM

They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept only one; they promised to take our land, and they did. — Chief Red Cloud (1822–1909)

 “Make Something Out of Nothing”: Hope on Pine Ridge
Standing on a hill overlooking a vast prairie on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is a tall, lone, leafless cottonwood tree, encircled by a man-made wooded corral and fence. Blowing in the stiff cold spring wind from the tallest branches down to the base are hundreds of multi-colored prayer flags. Long, thick, yellow ropes hang from the strongest tree limbs, intertwined and wrapped together around the trunk.
Standing in front of the cottonwood tree is a young Native man, Nick Tilsen. He is telling us about the power of the Sundance ceremony and the spiritual tradition that has changed hundreds of young people’s lives in the Pine Ridge community. Born out of these spiritual roots, the young people of Pine Ridge have created Thunder Valley Development Corporation to empower Lakota youth and families to improve the health, culture and environment of their community by healing and strengthening of their cultural identity.
A few of my colleagues and I were visiting Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, as guests of Lori Pourier, president of First Peoples Fund. We were accompanied by Kelley Lindquist, president of ArtSpace and his staff. Our goal was to learn about the culture and great heritage of the Lakota people and build relationships with the Pine Ridge community.
The vision that Nick paints—and what I witnessed on Pine Ridge Reservation—stands in sharp contrast to a New York Times article I read in December, 2009, titled “Gang Violence Grows on an Indian Reservation.” In his article, New York Times writer Erik Eckholm, depicts Pine Ridge as “This stunning land of crumpled prairie, horse pastures turned tawny in the autumn and sunflower farms…marred by an astonishing number of roadside crosses and gang tags sprayed on houses, stores and abandoned buildings, giving rural Indian communities an inner-city look.” Eckholm goes on to describe the rise of gangs and violence on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After first reading this story back in December, I felt a certain amount of despair and hopelessness.
This was on the heels of a photo essay I reviewed about Pine Ridge Reservation in the New York Times in October, 2009 by James Estrin, titled Behind the Scenes: Still Wounded. While some of the photos were beautiful, others were sensational: Pine Ridge as a nation of tragedy. A Native American colleague of mine said “It depicted a depressing prospect for Pine Ridge tribal members.”
Lori was an excellent guide and teacher. , In the van on the way to meet Nick Tilsen at Thunder Valley, Lori talked about the statistics on young adults committing suicide, dropping out of school and using drugs. She contrasted this with the youth who are finding their way through education, community projects and entrepreneurial development. Lori indicated that a lot of "healing that needs to take place." Lori and others are building the bases for a new renaissance in Indian country.
Once we reached Thunder Valley, Nick Tilsen provided a powerful presentation on building community, empowering young people, and on civic and spiritual engagement. He explained that Thunder Valley Development Corporation has a bold vision of building a planned community on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They have already begun to implement a number of the projects, including the development of the Thunder Valley E-TANKA café, a partnership between the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and Native American Natural Foods, creator of the TANKA bar.
At the conclusion of Nick’s talk, we had lunch at the Thunder Valley Tanka Café and were treated to fantastic TANKA DOGs! I think it might have been the best hot dog I ever had. Okay, I had two.
We were then given a tour of Native American Natural Foods, which was founded in 2005 on the Pine Ridge Reservation by owners Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen (Nick’s father). According to the Native American Natural Foods website, Tanka means "delivering your best with all your heart, mind, body and spirit. It is the choices that you make and the actions that you take to be who you are. Whether you're Native, white, black, yellow or brown, it is your ability to overcome, to extend a helping hand for those in need, to defeat racism, to protect our Mother Earth, and to love all others on our planet. It is your ability to acknowledge "Mitakuye Oyasin" -- we are all related.”
We then visited the beautiful campus of Oglala Lakota College, the first tribally controlled college in the United States. In our meeting with President Thomas Shortbull, he provided us with an overview of the college and its special place in the Pine Ridge community. President Shortbull stated that “Oglala Lakota College is an accredited college which offers Baccalaureate degrees and a Master’s degree in Lakota Leadership along with certificates and A.A. degrees.
 As a result of having a college on the reservation, Lakota people are now employed in teaching, nursing, human services, business, computer, and vocational educational positions, among others. This last semester we saw a large increase in enrollment, from 1,100 to 1,400 students, with a full-time equivalency of 900 students per semester.” He acknowledged and praised the deep sacrifice of many of his staff and students who travel long distances on sometimes dangerous and icy roads to get to work and class.
Despite many resource constraints, Oglala Lakota College is making a real difference by building future leaders and workers for tomorrow. 
After leaving the college, we visited with the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce and Lakota Funds. The Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce represents over 135 Indian-owned businesses that are dedicated to “Improving the quality of life on the Pine Ridge and Indian Reservation."Lakota Funds is a “community development financial institution which assists tribal members in better understanding of their finances, their options for saving, and for asset growth. Lakota Funds gives tribal members immediate opportunities to use this information by improving their credit scores, growing an asset, utilizing Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) through our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, and or Individual Development Accounts (IDA), and generally taking positive steps to manage finances and build family assets.” Currently, Lakota Funds is leading an effort to establish a reservation-wide credit union that will provide members with enhanced and more accessible financial services."
Our next stop was the stunning campus of Red Cloud Indian School, which includes the Red Cloud Museum and Heritage Center. The school was established in 1888 at the request of Chief Red Cloud. It serves over 600 students from pre-K through 12 grades. Since 1999, 39 of its students have been awarded scholarships in the Gates Millennium Scholars program. Father Peter Klink, president of the school, led us through the beautiful complex. He indicated that over 90% of the students go on to post-secondary education. According to Father Klink, "Students cannot only have mind smarts, but must have heart smarts to know a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.”
The integration of Lakota language and culture within the school was very moving. I was also very impressed that the school has built two new science labs and will focus on math and science. The goal is to strengthen student’s knowledge so that they can be college-bound. The experience at the Red Cloud was certainly extraordinary; there are many families who have high hopes for their children on a waiting list to be admitted.
Robert Braveheart, Sr. Superintendent of the Red Cloud Indian School, indicated that the school’s key success factors are:
·        Compassion
·        Accountability
·        A stable curriculum
·        High expectations of students with positive feedback and encouragement
·        Emphasis on Lakota values and culture
Of course with all things, there are never enough resources for something we know works. I am disappointed that all children could not receive this type of high quality of education, no matter where they live in this country.
The visit to the Red Cloud Museum and Heritage Center was, in a word, fantastic! I would definitely recommend a visit to anyone who has an appreciation for Native American fine arts and Lakota tribal arts. This is one-of-a-kind collection and it rivals some of the art shows I have seen in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I would recommend attending the 43rd Annual Red Cloud Indian Art Show,June 6 to August 15, 2010. 
Our final stop on this quest was a visit to First Nations Oweesta, in Rapid City, South Dakota. First Nations Oweesta is a national organization whose mission is to provide opportunities for Native people to develop assets and create wealth by assisting in the establishment of strong, permanent institutions and programs, that contribute to economic independence and strengthen sovereignty for all Native communities The First Nations Oweesta Corporation provides training, technical assistance, investments research and advocacy for the development of Native CDFIs and other support organizations in Native communities. It is working with tribes throughout the country to build a financial infrastructure one individual, one family, one business, one community at a time. This is powerful work!
I was deeply moved by the whole trip. Where some see despair, others see hope and opportunity. Where some people exploit for commercial purposes the hardship that American Indian experience, others are working in their community to make a difference.
The article and photo essay in the New York Times attempts to tell a complex history using a myopic lens. While there is certainly deep and pervasive poverty and lack of opportunity on the Pine Ridge Reservation, this is only part of the story. There is no question that the broken promises, broken treaties and broken dreams have played a large role in the continuation of economic and social inequalities on reservations throughout this country. There are also many people, like Nick Tilsen, who are working to make a difference in these communities. They are working with vision, drive and tenacity to, as my grandmother would say, "Make something out of nothing."
This does not mean that Nick and Thunder Valley Development Corporation need to do this alone. We can all work to make a difference. Contact some of the people and organizations that I have listed in this post and see what you can do to help make a difference.
Thank you to all the people who took time out of their busy schedules to make our visit a powerful learning experience.


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