My Journey to The Pine Ridge Reservation

Building a Home for the Fast Wolf family - Pine Ridge, SD 2000

I cried when my plane flew over “the build”. It was an unexpected and appreciated gift as the fly by gave me one more chance to say good-bye. And, I was having a very hard time saying good-bye.

The place I was seeing was Red Shirt Table on The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota - the year 2000. Flying over I reflected that my arrival there 7 days earlier felt like a lifetime ago, and my route to Red Shirt Table was a circuitous one. When I arrived in Denver from Chicago to meet a connecting flight to Rapid City, SD, I was grounded by an air strike. With no strike end in sight, I rented a car and set off for Rapid City on my own. What should have been a 6 ½ hour drive ended up being 8 ½ because of wildlife on the road as I traveled through beautiful national forest. Already feeling out of my comfort zone by even considering this “come to South Dakota and help build a house” insanity, the new twist in my plans had me really nervous about what I was getting into! The driving time, while dodging deer, gave me time to reflect about the chance meeting in 1998 that launched this journey. But for now, seeing the build from the air surprised me. The place, the camp and work site, my home for the past 7 days, looked small from the air and yet that rugged, isolated campsite was the place where my life irrevocably changed.

I was working with Red Feather Development Group building a home for Lakota elders Josie and Larry Fast Wolf. And by “we” I mean a group of volunteers many of whom, like I, had never built a home in our lives. The home was to be constructed of straw bales under the guidance of Red Feather Development Group’s staff and the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture. This type of building is volunteer friendly and is also friendly to the environment and the extreme weather fluctuation in the northern plains. A simple explanation is that the thick bales are stacked and then covered with stucco, providing insulation values that keep the home warm in winter and cool in summer. All this without the horrendous utility bills associated with the poorly constructed traditional homes commonly found on Indian reservations. Josie and Larry were foster parents to numerous children and sadly lived in a home that was dilapidated and even unsafe. The cost of their new home was funded by donations – a gift to a worthy family.

Housing on Indian reservations is a complicated and controversial subject and is, along with numerous other social problems, a place where Pine Ridge has fallen through the cracks. Each administration has the chance to make a difference but most choose indifference instead. The Pine Ridge reservation in southwestern South Dakota, home of the Oglala band of Lakota Sioux, initially contained over 60,000 acres as part of the Great Sioux Reservation that was established by the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868. After a series of offensive and illegal decisions by the US government, the Great Sioux Reservation was divided up in to 5 smaller reservations and The Pine Ridge Reservation is one of these. The greatest challenge to housing on any reservation is that the majority of land is held communally. If everyone owns the land then nobody owns it. Not being able to get a clear title to land means the land cannot be used as collateral and therefore it is next to impossible to establish credit or borrow money.   The long history of this problem goes back to the changing policies of the government, one of which was to assign a fractional share of reservation land to any Indian who did not have a clear title to land back in 1934. A fractional share means that all of the descendents have rights to the property and a parcel of land can be divided by potentially hundreds of people. Many of those people are unknown or difficult to find, making it next to impossible to get permission to build on a piece of land.

I am often asked, “Isn’t the government supposed to provide housing?” Yes, the responsibility of housing falls to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the oldest bureau of the United States Department of Interior, established in 1824. However, during the build I learned that much of the land is isolated and the cost of bringing in construction crews can be prohibitive. This means that housing is built in clusters near the center of the towns on the reservation and not necessarily on the land where tribal members call home. Also, with more population than usable housing, the homes that do exist are overused and, adding the plaque of poverty and alcoholism, abused. There are often months of waiting for repairs and getting to the top of the waiting list for a new home can take many years. These are the statistics that touched Robert and Anita Young, the founders of Red Feather Development Group.

Red Feather Development Group was born out of a trip to The Pine Ridge Reservation when Rob and Anita went to visit elder Katherine Red Feather. Katherine was matched with Rob through an organization called Adopt a Grandmother and after months of communication, Rob and Anita accepted her invitation to visit. Katherine warned that her home was not very nice but they were shocked at her living conditions. Running water and indoor plumbing were two missing amenities in her dilapidated trailer which appeared ready to blow away during a strong wind storm. Katherine, already in her 80’s, had to leave her trailer several times a day, even in the midst of severe winters, to tend to her most basic needs. Rob and Anita were saddened by this situation and wanted to help. And, they did.

I met Rob in Arizona at the Oasis Southwestern Gift Show in 1998. I was shopping for my gallery and Rob was in a booth selling products to support the non-for-profit organization he and Anita started and named in Katherine’s honor – Red Feather Development Group. Rob’s booth was hard to pass as his engaging and enthusiastic efforts to grab the attention of every show attendee were impossible to ignore. I ended up staying in the booth talking and ultimately buying products to sell. In addition, I was intrigued and inspired by the story of how he and a group of friends built Katherine a home. “How can I help?” I asked. Rob’s answer, “Tell everyone you can about this situation, we have to find a solution.” So, I did. I created a presentation, began a speaking campaign and started to raise money for RFDG’s efforts. Rob, Anita and I became friends and it was because of his urging I found myself on The Pine Ridge Reservation camped in a small tent among a rag tag group of volunteers from all over the country.

When I arrived in Rapid City from Denver it was too late to head into the remote build area of the reservation so I stayed in town. Heading out the next morning, my crude map and intense excitement were my companions. I could not wait to get there and even though the only people I knew were Rob and Anita, from the stories he told, I knew wonderful people were waiting. I was not disappointed! As soon as I pulled in, Rob came running to greet me and take me around introducing me to the gang. He turned me over to seasoned Red Feather volunteers who helped me choose a camp site and put up my tent. Out of nowhere someone added huge sturdy nails to my tent stakes and I received the warning to secure my belongings as there might be some strong winds. That warning could not prepare me for the raging 70+ mile an hour winds and rain that ripped through the camp in the middle of the night. I hid dry and secure in my sleeping bag as I heard tents, coolers and clothes blowing around the campsite and campers running and screaming as they chased their items and tried to hold on to their tents. I was certainly grateful to the nameless volunteer who shared those huge nails with me!

The next morning I was assigned to a work detail that involved painting the home. I did not want to reveal that I had never been on scaffolding, so I once again pushed through my comfort zone, climbed onto the scaffolding and began. At first I was timid and nervous but by the end of the day I was reaching, stretching and climbing like a pro. I was dirty, sweaty, covered in paint and the happiest I had ever been. I cleaned up in a make shift shower made of stacked bales of straw with a doorway created with a simple paint tarp. The water source was a camp shower bag filled with water and heated in the sun. I soon learned that one camp shower bag would not be sufficient to wash and rinse, especially with long hair. Before the next shower I got my hands on some gallon water bottles and that helped, except for the days without sun…then it was a very cold and unpleasant shower!

The friendships created during the time at Pine Ridge, and on each subsequent build, have the potential to last well beyond the short time spent together. And many have lasted from my first build at The Pine Ridge Reservation to this day. To name a few, beyond Rob and Anita, Robert, Becky, John, Penny, Reid, Erin, Marilyn and Stone are all Red Feather volunteers who helped to make that 7 days in June 2000 one of my life’s best memories, and they remain special friends.

The work was difficult and, with the added challenge of weather, it would be easy for tempers to flare and patience to wear thin. I do not remember anything like that. What I remember is dedication to the mission in the spirit of friendship and community. Each night a huge fire was built and we gathered around it to sing, dance and share stories. Tribal members and non-Native volunteers worked together sharing purpose and pride in the work, transcending the differences of race and background. 

Red Feather Development Group’s founders Robert and Anita Young, visionaries with heart, were able to capture the true spirit of the Lakota blessing, Mitakuye Oyasin, translated “All My Relations” – meaning; we are all connected in the intricate web of existence.

So true.

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