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This Community Is Striving To Rebuild One Of The Poorest Places In America

HuffPost logo HuffPost 6/6/2019 Julian Brave NoiseCat
Willy Roberts sitting on a bench: Alan Jealous, co-owner of Thikaga Construction, kneels on a house his company is building for the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation on the Pine Ridge Reservation. © Tailyr Irvine for HuffPost Alan Jealous, co-owner of Thikaga Construction, kneels on a house his company is building for the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

PINE RIDGE, South Dakota — Alan Jealous, a 27-year-old construction worker, dreamt of building and owning a home. Homeownership is the cornerstone of the American Dream. But for this citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation living on the Pine Ridge reservation, a community that regularly tops the list of the poorest places in the country, having realized this dream is a monumental achievement.

Pine Ridge, a 3,500-square-mile landmass home to nearly 20,000 people, mostly Oglala, has one of the worst economies and some of the weakest infrastructure in the developed world.

The unemployment rate stands at around 75%, compared to a national rate of 3.6%. Four in ten do not earn enough to meet their basic needs. A quarter of adults, like Jealous’ parents, never graduated from high school. Dark humor about doctors who prescribe Tylenol as a cure-all and federal service providers with no useful services to provide abounds, satirizing the divide between Oglala life and the rest of America. One study describes Pine Ridge as a post-disaster landscape.

The community needs to build about 4,000 homes to replace substandard structures and meet the demands of a young and growing population. Extended families routinely squeeze into single or double-wide trailers. In Oglala, a reservation town on Highway 18 that traverses Pine Ridge from west to east, residents have lived in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers since a tornado hit in 1999.

Last summer, golf-ball-sized hail blew holes in the sides of many of these mobile homes, which owners patched with plyboard. As much as one-fifth of the reservation’s population could be counted as homeless or nearly homeless by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) standards.

The climate crisis has made punishing circumstances far worse. When I visited in March, historic floods exacerbated by a series of climate factors — wetter seasons, frozen soils, record-breaking blizzards and heavy rains from a bomb cyclone — battered the reservation, inundating homes and marooning families on the far side of impassable dirt roads. Floodwaters broke and contaminated water systems. The New York Times reported 8,000 without potable water. Tribal officials attributed at least three deaths to the deluge and declared a state of emergency. 

a large building with a mountain in the background: A group of homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on May 31, 2019. © Tailyr Irvine for HuffPost A group of homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on May 31, 2019.

In this plain of despair, Jealous is an outlier for hope. On a reservation with little to no work, he is a workaholic. In an economy with little to no capital, he owns a business. In a community where homes are decrepit and in short supply, he is a homeowner. And in the wake of disaster, he is helping his people rebuild.

Jealous’ future is promising because of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC), a community-based nonprofit on the reservation. It’s in the process of developing a 34-acre plot of land, which will include 33 housing units and eventually a community center, food-growing plots, a school and retail spaces for local businesses.

Set up around a decade ago by a group of young people wanting to tackle the root causes of the crushing poverty in Pine Ridge, Thunder Valley CDC is well-known throughout Indian Country for its path-setting model for Native self-determination.

The organization — which gets most of its funding from government programs as well as philanthropic foundations like Newman’s Own, Doris Duke and Surdna — takes a broad approach to community development. Focusing on a wide range of service areas including housing, food, workforce training, education, youth leadership and Lakota language, it aims to become a template for the whole Oglala Nation.

“Our vision as an organization is liberation,” Tatewin Means, 39, an Oglala citizen and executive director of Thunder Valley CDC said. “Liberation for Lakota people through our language, culture and spirituality.”

Jealous is a co-owner of Thikaga Construction, a worker-owned cooperative financed by Thunder Valley CDC. Thikaga means “to build homes.” In July of last year, Jealous became the owner of a home he built himself. He credits the Thunder Valley CDC for helping him achieve this dream. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be an owner of a construction company. I wouldn’t be a homeowner,” he says. “They opened up my eyes and opened up a lot of doors for me that I thought were unreachable.” 

a man sitting on a bench posing for the camera: TOP: Tatewin Means, executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. BOTTOM: Alan Jealous, co-owner of Thikaga Construction, stands in front of housing units his company is building for Thunder Valley CDC on the Pine Ridge Reservation. © Tailyr Irvine for HuffPost TOP: Tatewin Means, executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. BOTTOM: Alan Jealous, co-owner of Thikaga Construction, stands in front of housing units his company is building for Thunder Valley CDC on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Jealous grew up with five younger brothers, a little sister and his mother in a log cabin built by his great-great-grandfather in the 1930s. The cabin had a dirt floor, no bedrooms, no bathroom and no plumbing. When the family needed water to cook or bathe, they hauled it from nearby Porcupine Creek. When they needed to stay warm in the winter, they chopped wood. “We had to kind of live in hardship a little bit, but that’s what helped me become who I am today,” Jealous says. “That’s what made me want to build houses.”

On Pine Ridge, material hardship rarely comes without a spiritual toll. Five years ago, Jealous’ younger brother Alex, a student at Oglala Lakota College studying to become an automotive technician, killed himself in the basement of his family home. He was 20 at the time. More than 100 young people on the reservation have died by suicide or attempted suicide in the years since. Harsh realities make somber poetry of the meaning of Oglala: “Scatter Their Own.”

To pull through, Jealous has committed himself to his family, his culture and his career. With his wife, Kateri Means, he has a son, Nolan, who is 5, and a daughter, Lenora, who is 1. “I wake up every day and look at my son and my daughter,” he said. “We gotta carry on.”

In the sweat lodge, a Lakota rite, Jealous prays for his brother, whose presence he still feels. He avoids substances — save for Marlboro No. 27’s, which he always shares, and the four or five strong cups of coffee he drinks each day. He has a razor-thin mustache and sharp features. Most days, he wears the same uniform: a Carhartt shirt and Dickies with steel-toe boots and, sometimes, sunglasses — the kind made for the worksite, not the beach.

Jealous took extra online classes to learn how to manage Thikaga. He has thrown himself into his work, pulling long hours building homes on the reservation. “Knowing that what we’re doing now is going to end up making an impact on somebody’s life, a family’s life when they move into one of those homes,” he said. “That’s one thing that keeps my eye on the prize and keeps me motivated and keeps me going every day.”

Thikaga has been tasked with building 13 of the first 33 housing units for Thunder Valley CDC. Seven, built through a parallel self-help program that Jealous was part of, have been completed so far. Every home is intended to be affordable and sustainable, built with extreme-weather-resilient materials and rooftop solar. 

a large brick building with grass in front of a house © Tailyr Irvine for HuffPost

Family residences are laid out in semi-circular groups of seven with all doorways facing east, a blueprint that aligns with the way Oglala would arrange their tipis as a Tiospaye, or “extended family.” Stonework at each building’s base mirrors the rocks used to erect a tipi. The community hall has exposed beams evoking the poles on the inside of that traditional Oglala structure.  

All of this can get expensive. Each three- or four-bedroom home costs about $220,000 to build, but the CDC sells them for just $160,000 to ensure that they are affordable — requiring $60,000 to $70,000 of subsidy. Homeowners repay debts in monthly installments of about $800. Foundations, lenders and local banks have not always been eager investors. To build its first 14 houses, the corporation had to piece together capital from many sources, including the South Dakota Housing Authority, a government agency, non-profit developers like the Minnesota Housing Partnership, and philanthropies like the Tamalapais Trust.

Preparing community members to take on $160,000 in debt has been equally challenging. Requirements written into most conventional loans — even subsidized homeownership programs — make it difficult for most Native families to qualify. HUD’s Indian Home Loan program, for example, requires applicants to have a decent credit score and debt-to-income ratio as well as three months of savings. If you have a few missed credit card or car payments, tough luck. If, like many people on the reservation, you deal primarily in cash, you need not apply.

“Some of those conditions and programmatic requirements are not realistic” for Native Americans living on reservations, said Joan Timeche, executive director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona and a member of the Hopi Nation. “Most of the folks we work with are at that area of extreme need.”

Thunder Valley CDC tries to be more lenient with its requirements while also being a responsible lender to community members. Their housing team has also trained more than 800 Oglala in financial literacy, at least a third of whom are under 18. The hope is to create a culture of saving, and a big part of that is helping community members like Jealous break free from cycles of poverty.

a group of people standing on top of a cutting board with a cake: Marie Kills Warrior, 26, applies a second coat of paint to doors in a Thunder Valley CDC affordable housing unit on the Pine Ridge Reservation on May 31, 2019. © Tailyr Irvine for HuffPost Marie Kills Warrior, 26, applies a second coat of paint to doors in a Thunder Valley CDC affordable housing unit on the Pine Ridge Reservation on May 31, 2019.

Yet, the 33 homes opening this year as part of Thunder Valley’s development will meet less than 1% of current housing demand on the reservation. For Tatewin Means, the hope is that cultural change amplifies the impact of those homes — that the families who secure mortgages and the young people who find work and start to save set an example for friends and relatives.

Jealous is, in a way, a test case for this grand social experiment. His example shows what it might mean for the Oglala to rebuild in the wake of a humanitarian disaster. 

One morning before I depart, I rise at 6 a.m. to join Jealous on the job. In one of the unfinished homes at Thunder Valley, I meet up with his crew: Kalo Garrett, 30, Aaron Black Bull, 21, and Donavon Good Shield, 42. The guys turn down the Metallica blaring from their radio and take a short break to talk.

I ask them how Alan is as a boss. “It feels good to see him fulfill his dream,” Garrett said of Jealous. “And he’s younger than me too, so damn!”

“Not working for a white man in the city, working for our own people — it’s a really good feeling,” said Good Shield.

“It’s a blessing to give back to the people,” said Black Bull. “Little kids are going to be growing up in these homes.”

The group turns the Metallica back up, and I linger awhile to watch them work. Black Bull takes a tape measure to mark out cuts in the lumber. Garrett returns to nail-gunning seam-backing into walls. Jealous and Good Shield step aside for a quick chat. The steady thump-thump-thump of nail into wood, the sound of a home slowly but surely rising on muddy turf where there had not been one before — thikaga — fills the air.

CORRECTION: the piece was amended to clarify the number of houses Thikaga was tasked with building.

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