Resilience, Self-Sufficiency, Economic Independence & Cultural Revival on the Pine Ridge Reservation

The prairie lands of Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux in South Dakota, are storied with resistance and resilience to colonialism, both past and present. Recently, community members are channeling their ancestral knowledge of the land to address food sovereignty, housing and poverty on the reservation. Community members founded Oglala Lakota Cultural Economic Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI), designed to “restore resilience, self-sufficiency, economic independence, and cultural revival among the Lakota people” through a broad range of Lakota-led projects grounded in principles of permaculture.

Part of this initiative is the annual Indigenous Wisdom & Permaculture Skills Convergence, a six-day gathering hosted on Pine Ridge that welcomes builders, healers and community change makers to work together on Lakota-initiated projects that address food scarcity, poverty and lack of housing. Come to Life returned to the Convergence in August of 2019 to share OLCERI’s inspiring vision and the powerful stories of attendees.

Lolly Bee, from the Motilones People of Colombia: 

“The way to get to unity is not by saying we are all the same, but by acknowledging the differences and then coming together. Get familiar with whose lands you’re on, you’re living on occupied territory. When showing up as white person on Indigenous lands, you are responsible to dismantle the unequal power race has, not everyone in our society is having their basic needs met and that is a form of violence when food, shelter, and water are not accessible.” Lolly shared her experiences with strong allyship in practice. “I’ve been in spaces where everyone has taken responsibility for the identities they carry and I notice there is constant communication and questions, a readiness to step outside of your own comfort zone, a willingness to serve beyond the individual needs” 

Mesiah, an organizer of this year’s Convergence: they @wombinrising 

“Permaculture is social freedom, we are connecting as humans, how do we see each other? Right now, we are forming and reshaping community, a lot of times how we interact gets overlooked. Our interactions with one another should be mapped out with thought and intention in the same we way map out the land. What is it that we want to create in our connections? Everything that happens in the small world happens in the large world. I’m learning a lot from the plants, we live in a time detached from that which takes care of us. Supporting each other to do the work, to learn the land of our ancestors is a beautiful way to come into community.

Freedom to me means to know one’s self, good understanding. Freedom is change. When I think of freedom I think of commitment, respect, walking alongside each other. Freedom feels like growing pains and nourishing too, I have faith in freedom.”

Nate, Diné. The first principle of permaculture is thoughtful observation, and Nate reminds us that the deep consideration and compassion for ourselves, our community, this earth and spirit are inextricable components of permaculture: 

“Like most young Natives I left the Rez to get an education. But I got caught up in the glitz and glamor of city life and became a drug addict. I moved back home to the Rez with depression and I felt like a failure. I always loved to plant so I started planting what I remembered from my childhood, just putting my hand in the dirt it brought me back to a time when I was a child, when I was innocent. It felt like being reborn, like Mother Earth reached out and said ‘you’re back and that really matters.’ I want to give people hope that there is another path. I do understand permaculture is the appropriation of Indigenous cultures, but truth is also paradox and permaculture is the tool to decolonize the western mind because it takes you out of the linear and back into relationship with everything. It’s empowering to realize how simple and brilliant these things are. Diné systems are high science, sacred geometry, it’s so advanced that it’s simple and it’s simple that it’s new. When scientists reported burning sage kills bacteria in the air, I’m like, duh. My main concern is my community not getting enough nutrients. We can restore the land but it takes communal effort, that’s Diné. As Indigenous people we understand true freedom, it’s written in our bones.”

Shannah Bupp, she/her, born in California 

This is my fourth time back to OLCERI. I came in the late winter early spring to help start seeds. It was a small crew of us with some very helpful and dedicated friends who would come up whenever they could from Fort Collins or Rapid City and helped plant. I spent a lot of time here planting, digging, mulching, just really tending to all the plant starters. And then just taking care of the animals the chickens and the pigs.

A big goal here for folks on Pine Ridge is to have food sovereignty and I mean this is how we go towards it and to be here in this space and see that the food is growing and then it’s going to the kitchen and we’re eating and it gives real hope like this is how we can live.

There’s a lot of jargon that I think comes with permaculture. I see the value in permaculture I see the value in designing these systems but all these things you coin and categorize in our western perspective, it’s just nature existing and permaculture is just trying to replicate it. The coming together of people from all nations to be able to work together and realize that this is our survival. It’s not a game. It’s not what if, it’s not 100 years from now, it is now. So if we are going to survive and not just survive but actually move forward in life you know we have to come together.

A lot of people here were all at Standing Rock, the same circle together. It’s like the movement never really ended from Standing Rock, it’s just a different place. 

Aaron, organizer for OLCERI

I felt like when I found permaculture it gave me an avenue to to actually put things into action and changed my life in a way that I can be more in line with my values and actually try and make a difference. 

I’m more of a systems thinker. I know these things together. So it just really made a lot of sense to me, it gave me a way to channel all that negativity and put it into something good. 

I mean here at OLCERI you’re literally working with such limited resources. Three days after we got here, the power company came and cut the power. So everything we did, we had to go fundraise, get generators and then it was a daily struggle to have enough money to put gas in a generator and power tools. But we were just so resilient. People freeze to death every year because it is just so cold and they can’t heat their homes. It gets negative 30 negative 40. This place was flooded. So I mean like food and with climate change and how quick everything is moving it’s just become a lot more chaotic. And all these are like the nightmare scenarios that kick off you know is this points of no return. And it’s happening.

I think it’s so important to be connected to the land and part of that is learning how to feed yourself from learning how to harvest water and learning how to live in harmony with everything around you so that you can maintain that bounty. You know most people forget that, they just think we can extract and extract and extract. You know wealth isn’t ones and zeros on a computer. Wealth is the land that you’re on, the food you put on the table. So to me that is freedom, freedom that can be shared. Freedom from chemicals come from all this crap that they’re putting in our bodies.

I think empowering people to take on some of these just simple is growing their own food.You know I showed my friend and his family how to compost and just seeing going back you know months later how excited they were doing like plants started sprouting out of it.

Rex

Permaculture is from what I can tell the future. It’s the way we should be taking care of land and growing our food and using natural systems. Natural gas is obviously just more fossil fuels. I see solar as the bridge fuel and I feel like at least for the short term we could utilize solar power to kind of transition ourselves into a more passive type of economy and sustainable economy. Wanting to get away from using gas I decided to build an electric bike and I got a 100 watt solar panel and the first year of the convergence I brought out that bike battery and a 100 watt solar panel and that was kind of my my first round with testing it and seeing that it actually could power a freezer.

So I decided the next year I’d have have some goals of hopefully reducing the fossil fuel consumption to 40 or 50 percent and it worked out. Last year I brought five hundred watts of solar and two E like batteries and probably about 40 percent solar powered last year.

My goals for this year were 90 percent solar and so far it looks like we’re at at least 90 percent solar for the conversion side of things to run the two freezers, we have the power tools, rechargeable batteries for phones, we’ve kept the lights on and we’re powering the P.A. system and the stage. My larger vision is to remove at least my house from using the grid electric grid next year. It looks like so far I’m in line with that. My hope is that we can transition ourselves to the right way, as in transition away from needing to use gas for any generators to use only renewable resources and reuse components [of?] the building materials or anything else that we’re using right now.

Right now if you need to feed yourself you have to go out to a grocery store and buy that food in order to buy that food. You have to have a job to make the money so that you can eat. So I think there’s a huge degree of freedom in growing your own food and allowing yourself that comfort as well as knowing that if you’re hungry you can just go out to the garden or you can go to the cellar and you can grab that food that you’ve been working towards building up and the story for the next year. It’s just amazing like how there’s really a space for every single person in this movement—everyone’s different skill sets and the different way that people show up.

Tahera

I’m from India but I now live in New Jersey New York area but three years back I was working in the corporate world and very much living a life style that was in accordance with the idea to find a job, get a successful position in society and that is “success.” But I deferred from that because I very strongly wanted to build community through local food systems and I had no idea how to really do that. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I started searching because I don’t belong to any particular community or have a very strong place based identity because I was raised as an expat.

I came across permaculture, I did my design certification and then I couldn’t find very good models of where community based transformation was happening in a repeatable kind of way. And especially being driven by things like food, shelter and things that are really our sovereignty. It started from sovereignty for me because when I realized that I had a decent salary pretty good access living in Manhattan that I still didn’t have really any food sovereignty that I couldn’t just easily grow my own food or know all the people who were growing my own food and then everybody in the whole food system.

So it started for me from a very personal place of what you know how to get sovereignty. And I think the land based sovereignty and all of the other systems like food housing all of that sovereignty has been so abused over here by the settler government.

And I think that’s what the desire for it is, what creates resiliency. The Convergence is not just a demo site, a lot of us come here to be reminded of what we’re trying to build elsewhere. This keeps our dreams alive because we’re with each other.

Wakinyah 

This convergence perfectly aligns with our vision. Its been a really amazing experience meeting other natural builders from around the world and getting hands on experience for building homes, the vision of OLCERI is to build a thousand homes around the reservations. 

The first year at the Convergence, I got to help build the rocket stove and that was really empowering, it is a great solution for heating and cooking homes on the reservation since a lot of people rely on propane to heat their homes. When people can’t afford propane there is a lot of death and struggle, to learn how to build heat infrastructure was really empowering. Housing and food sovereignty are the major issues people are struggling with on the reservation.

We really want to move out here on the reservation and dedicate our lives to helping our people. So I wanted to move out here to the experience building homes, we’re just trying to continue moving out here and gain experience of working with Brian and building homes, we want to be on the reservation, build our lives here and be more involved in the community. 

Every time I come back to Pine Ridge it’s been like this amazing feeling of coming home. It’s really difficult to explain but it’s just like feels like you’re home, feeling that connection to the land and to the people. I felt really good being able to make new connections with the community, to be more involved in the culture like the youth camps we do which are centered around Lakota tradition. It feels like I’m not alone anymore. I feel like I’m coming home to my family and to my people. Our  people were a sovereign nation and we didn’t depend on anybody else except for within our own community. So taking away our ability to travel and to provide food for ourselves and going from a state of interdependency of our community to a state of total dependence upon the federal government to take care of us, takes away our sovereignty. We have so many people dying or suffering from diabetes and cancer and obesity from all these different things that really affects people’s mental and emotional and spiritual states. You know food has a huge effect on us. And it really affects people’s mental states especially dealing with the intergenerational trauma that we’re suffering from. I think food is extremely important and I think it’s just a basic human right to have access to good food and decent housing where you’re not in this constant state of struggle from a lack of resources or from natural disasters.

I think food and housing sovereignty is really empowering and can be really healing for our people and that’s when once those those problems are beginning to be solved that people are able to focus more on healing, unity and relationship in returning to a place. I was raised with with an idea of leaving the world better than when you came into it, leaving it a better place for the future generations not just thinking about yourself but also thinking about your children and children’s children

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