Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation
Nick Tilsen is the 34 year old founder and executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, an oasis of positive change just off BIA Route 27 in Sharps Corners, SD – on a particularly bleak stretch of the Pine Ridge Oglala Nation.
Tilsen, whose parents met during the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, has spent the last 10 years working with the community to come up with a comprehensive vision for systemic change on Pine Ridge, one of the most economically deprived areas on the continent.
Working closely with the Obama Administration and major foundations, Tilsen has secured millions in grants to begin building 21 units of owner occupied, sweat equity, sustainable energy homes at Thunder Valley, to begin to put a dent in Pine Ridge’s 4,000 unit housing deficit.
That is just one of the many aspects to Thunder Valley’s work.
When I visited on Wednesday, I helped apply joint compound to new sheetrock walls on what Cicely Engelhart, Thunder Valley Director of Communications, ( Ihanktonwan Dakota, and a recent graduate of University of South Dakota who studied "food colonization" of Native Nations at university) called the "chicken palace." This glorified chicken coop now houses 600 chicks, one part of a program to increase food self sufficiency on Pine Ridge.
Thunder Valley’s Nick Alvarez, another of the 55 full time and roughly 50 stipended youth employees at CDC – which is a very youth driven organization, fully independent of the Pine Ridge IRA tribal government – said the current statistics show that Pine Ridge imports about 95% of its food from outside – and that food is too often high sugar, low nutrient convenience store fare . "With these gardens, the geothermal greenhouse, the chickens, we hope to begin to reverse those statistics," said Alvarez. The CDC plans to open a grocery store featuring Native grown foods, to compete with the nearby convenience store just down the road in Sharps Corners. "We got them to start stocking a few vegetables in the back recently," noted Alvarez. But Thunder Valley plans to do better.
Among the other programs Engelhart said the organization is working with community support to develop are a Lakota Immersion Day Care, Lakota language grade school instruction at a nearby elementary school (with English as a second language classes offered), a youth shelter, and artist live work studio space. There will be space for outdoor concerts (indeed, Thunder Valley just celebrated a big 10th anniversary last weekend, with a roster of Native bands headlined by Indigenous!) and other events that can help bring the broader Oglala community together on Pine Ridge .
Tilsen said among his next efforts is a plan to reach out to other Native Nations across the continent to tell the story of what Thunder Valley has been able to accomplish, and to seek foundation backing to help other Native territories develop similar community development initiatives.
He is also working locally to bring back buffalo herds, a better source of protein and more suitable link in a sustainable local food chain than the calf – to – cow, ship to slaughter ranching that dominates the area. "That model really does nothing to contribute to a local food economy," Tilsen noted.
Changing the way of thinking about an endemic pattern of poverty and dependency at Pine Ridge that has been a characteristic of Oglala life for more than a century, since the federal government forced a free and nomadic and prosperous people onto an arid "prisoner of war" camp, (as many Lakota I talked to refer to the "reservations,") – that is Tilsen’s larger goal.
"How long are you going to let other people dictate your children’s future?" he asks.
Thunder Valley is working with qualified Oglala families to build and own new homes at a much faster clip than the tribal government itself. And they are building more than homes at Thunder Valley. They are building hope.