Thunder Valley CDC, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota (U.S.)

I arrived on the Pine Ridge Reservation on a glorious morning last October eager to meet the folks of Thunder Valley CDC and be on-the-ground with them in their community. Soon after arriving, several members of the Thunder Valley CDC team, including Nick Hernandez, Food Sovereignty Director, and Ernest Weston, Food Sovereignty Coordinator, took us to the Thunder Valley Sun Dance site, a few miles from the main project site. We were welcomed there by a local Lakota spiritual leader, Jerome LeBeaux, a young man with a soft voice and warm presence. The site, which is located near the summit of a ridge, is surrounded by golden rolling hills and, that day, a brilliant blue sky and pleasant cool breeze. The Sun Dance site itself is a rustic circle of wood pillars covered with tree boughs for shade. In the center of the circle, about 100 feet in diameter, a cottonwood prayer tree stood tall. Jerome invited us to touch the tree and offer thoughts and thanks we might have.

Then Jerome told us the story of how Thunder Valley CDC came to be. Ten years previously, Jerome and Nick Tilsen (Executive Director) and several of their peers were returning to their spirituality and building a community of young people ready for change. One evening, as they were getting ready for an Inipi ceremony (the sweat lodge) Jerome and Nick and several other of their peers, then in their early 20’s, found themselves discussing a common complaint of young people everywhere; how the community elders seemed to be holding back progress.

The enlightenment that ensued was essentially a realization that it was their time to act, not by disrespecting their elders but by working with them. One of their first actions was to name their movement. They’d learned from the elders that the valley where the Sun Dance site is located was historically called Thunder Valley, so hence the name. As Jerome explained the origin story of Thunder Valley CDC, a very beautiful and healthy-looking coyote appeared on the ridge not more than 200 feet from us, stared right at us, then trotted away into the gulch. Jerome smiled as he explained what a rare appearance this was, that coyotes normally do not come so close to people, especially in the early morning. But, he was quick to add, coyotes are messengers, and this was a good sign.

Thus Thunder Valley CDC was created and grown from a reconnection to Lakota spirituality among young people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Its strategy is to collaborate with Lakota youth and families to heal and strengthen people’s cultural identity, using traditional Lakota culture and spirituality to bring social and economic systems change to the Pine Ridge community. It strives to nurture an ecosystem of opportunity which community members can access. Its Food Sovereignty Initiative uses Lakota culture, knowledge, and spirituality as the basis for developing local regenerative food systems throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation.

My experience at the Sun Dance site was inspiring in itself but there was much more to see, namely the Regenerative Demonstration Farm. It includes a poultry production unit, paddock system for poultry foraging, geothermal greenhouse, and organic vegetable gardens. At the Farm, Thunder Valley CDC staff are able to engage community members in learning small-scale regenerative farming to grow nutritional food for their families using seeds that are culturally relevant. The Farm is a model operation ─ 1.3 acres in size ─ revolving around a free-range poultry unit of 500 hens whose primary role is providing manure to improve and maintain soil quality and fertility. The hens also produce eggs as a by-product for sale and consumption, including use by local day care centers and schools. The Farm has traditional nuts and berries, and vegetables too, all for local sale and consumption. It is committed to using Native heirloom seeds and plants that have local cultural significance. Its larger vision is to create a learning environment to increase people’s ability to make healthier food choices.

Thanks to the warmth and graciousness of the Thunder Valley CDC team and the work they do, the optimism that filled me on one gorgeous October day at Pine Ridge has stayed with me. Their vision of what Pine Ridge will be someday soon – a healthier community better able to address and resolve basic social and economic challenges – remains profoundly inspiring.

Return to the August 2018 Newsletter Index