Native Americans, homes, housing, families, South Dakota, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, Oglala Lakota Nation, Thikaga Construction Company, poverty, Workers Lab, philanthropy, Marguerite Casey Foundation, photojournalism, youth, construction
Joe Sierra, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, hugs his son Kyrie, in September, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Mike Kane for Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice News

Equal Voice

The Future Builders: A Native Community and Family Homes

November 29, 2018

By Mike Kane and Brad Wong

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, youth from the Oglala Lakota Nation are building energy-efficient homes to support generations of Native American families. The houses, as tribal members and allies say, do more than just provide shelter.

On the plains of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a homeownership transformation is taking place for Native American families.

Youth and older generations from the Oglala Lakota Nation are working together to build two-story, energy-efficient homes so people can have sustainable jobs and career paths – and so Native families can have safe places for the future.

The Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. – located about 85 miles southeast of Rapid City, South Dakota – is paving the way for this transformation. It runs a workforce development initiative that gives youth between the ages of 18 and 26 – and young people, leaders say, make up more than half of all residents on the reservation – opportunities in construction, education and personal development.

“The broader goal of Thunder Valley is really that revitalization, that reclamation of our culture, our cultural identity,” says Tatewin Means, the community development corporation’s executive director.

“Because that’s where our true empowerment and exercising of our sovereignty comes from,” she adds.

Video by Mike Kane for Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice News

Thunder Valley, which is collaborating with the worker-owned Thikaga Construction Company on this effort, estimates about 4,000 homes are needed for families on the reservation.

Instead of growing down, you got to grow up and get to the top.
Joe Sierra, 21, with the Thikaga Construction Company

The Workers Lab, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, California, is a supporter of this project. The organization invests in experiments and innovation efforts for working families and provided a grant for the housing project through its Innovation Fund.

The Innovation Fund grant helped Thunder Valley launch the Thikaga Construction Company, which hires graduates of the workforce development initiative, as well as a women-owned quilting company.

Through the Fund, The Workers Lab “provides flexible capital to entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations, worker organizers and public-sector leaders to experiment and find solutions to issues facing workers,” according to a summary from the Oakland-based group.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and throughout the region, some residents are navigating social and economic challenges such as finding well-paying, long-term jobs and safe living environments.

Means believes the homeownership project – and the safety for families that comes with it – fills an important need on the reservation.

“Pathways out of poverty and all of those associated difficulties lie in our own culture and spirituality,” she says.

“This development is a ‘show me’ place, to prove what is possible on the reservation,” Thunder Valley leaders say on their website. “It is a result of hundreds of hours of community engagement and a belief that the answers to the issues here come from our community and not from outside agendas.”

The project also dovetails with a growing movement in the U.S. for affordable and quality housing for families, as many face gentrification, high rent, expensive mortgages and displacement.

For Angel White Eyes, a first-time homeowner in the Thunder Valley development, it means greater peace of mind. “Getting my own home makes me feel I’ll be more secure in having my own family. I’ll be able to provide for them,” she says.

“…I’m confident that they’ll grow up healthy and loved and taken care of. I want them to be able to be around our relatives, our culture and our language,” she adds.

The homes the youth have built are just one step toward a larger goal for residents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In the future, Oglala Lakota Nation members, Thunder Valley allies and area residents envision more homes on this land, including multi-family residences.

They also are working toward building a youth shelter, child care facilities, retail and office space and places for Native families to come together as a community.


Mike Kane is a Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. He shot and edited the video. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Mother Jones and The Guardian. On Instagram, he is @kaneinane. Brad Wong, who wrote the text, is content editor for Equal Voice. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

      2018 © Marguerite Casey Foundation

The Future Builders: A Native Community and Family Homes