Community-based organizations, philanthropic institutions, and federal agencies—all are needed to support and sustain revitalization efforts on Native American reservations.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota comprises over 2.8 million acres of rolling hills, prairie, scattered pine trees, and creeks, brimming with an abundance of wildlife including buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, and turkey.
The reservation, a sovereign nation, is home to the Oglala Lakota people—approximately 40,000 residents living in more than 50 small communities and governed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The vibrant culture of the Lakota people is apparent there. Our culture is centered on a strong spiritual connection to the land, and our many traditional ceremonies focus on healing the human spirit and honoring all living things.
Although Pine Ridge is a place of breathtaking natural beauty and rich culture, it is also ground zero for poverty in America. Oglala Lakota County, which is entirely within the boundaries of the reservation, is often labeled the poorest county in the United States. Unemployment rates hover between 60 and 80 percent, and 48 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line. The county is also burdened by overcrowded and poor-quality housing, coupled with a severe lack of opportunities for economic growth and progress.
But there are signs of improvement. The percentage of young people on the reservation clearly reflects the area’s low life expectancy, but it also represents an opportunity to transform the region by empowering young people to become leaders who can change the future of their community.
That shift is already beginning to happen. Over the past decade, Native American youths there have begun reconnecting to their culture, spirituality, and identity, spurring the emergence of a movement toward regional equity that will change Pine Ridge forever.
We have adopted a philosophy of regeneration that is both about healing the human spirit and about fixing the unsustainable systems that perpetuate poverty, create health disparities, and fuel the injustice and inequality that affect us every day. It is a culturally based approach to collective problem solving.
So far, our regeneration work has led to the creation of two major initiatives that are catalyzing Pine Ridge to build more equitable communities.
The first, our Regional Equity Initiative, started with a HUD Sustainable Communities Planning Grant in 2011. Through this process, Thunder Valley CDC (community development corporation) partnered with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a 22-member consortium of local organizations to create the first sustainable development plan for this region—the Oyate Ominiciyé Oglala Lakota Plan.
We have the ability to end poverty in Native American communities in our lifetime if the philanthropic community is ready to partner with us, take risks, and invest in long-term, community-led capacity-building programs. Today, less than 1 percent of all philanthropy in America goes to rural Native American communities. We need to change this now, and we need to change it together.
There is a growing nonprofit sector in Native America, the community development finance institution movement is in full swing, and we have powerful, resilient cultures to rely on.
Cross-sector collaboration will be the next step in the pathway forward as we all start working toward a vibrant, just, and sustainable world. The movement is here and the time is now.
Photo credit: Thunder Valley CDC.