The need for better housing is dire for some Native Americans, but for many people, like Leola One Feather, keeping ownership of long-contested land remains the first priority.
In June 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the Lakota Nation $106 million for 7.3 million acres surrounding the sacred Black Hills.
The Lakotas refused the money, saying, “The land is not for sale.”
Through decades of often violent confrontation that reopened vast tracts to non-Indian settlers for pennies on the dollar and forced the tribes onto reservations, the Lakota case would have been the largest settlement for lands taken by the U.S. government. Despite the Court’s decision, which still stands, the people of Rosebud, Pine Ridge and other Lakota communities have seen neither money nor land returned. Instead, the land is divided, as are the people.
Leola One Feather’s relatives were among those who chose the land and the future ostensibly guaranteed by treaties. She is now trying to create that future by building a home for her family from the hard soil. The past is ever present to her.
“I think if my grandfather was here, I think he’d be real proud of me because I speak the language, and I live on this land; but I really feel that’s the strength of being who I am, and nobody can tell me different because they made me really strong – those historical facts: how hard our people fought to keep their land.”
It’s important to her that she build this house on her own without funds from Housing and Urban Development or other federal aid. Experience has taught her that those kinds of houses come with their own price and no guarantee of a better life.
“They put us in the same kind of blueprint houses in a cluster with a little-bitty yard. We’re almost Americans because they do that to us, but we’re not,” she explained. “When we’ve had presidents come here, like when President Clinton came to Pine Ridge, [HUD] just refurbished all those houses on the outside so they looked all right. They looked all spic-and-span, but on the inside, that’s another story.”
Instead, One Feather lives in a used trailer on family lands away from central tribal housing in Wounded Knee. The trailer becomes less livable each year, and it’s clearly past time for a change. “They’re very hard to heat, and the floors are so cold and drafty that you have to have multiple layers of clothes on to survive here,” she said. “It would actually be easier for us at this point to live in a tent.”
One Feather spent much of her childhood in a tent, after the family cabin gave way to weather and regular shifts in the earth, a common issue in the fault zone of the western Dakotas.
Now she is ready to put in sweat equity and materials on a self-sustaining earthen house – an eco-dome – with help from Colorado-based nonprofit Tiospaye-Winyan Maka. One Feather will be using some of the wood from the homestead, which hides among sunflowers and old appliances next to her trailer. It’s more of a practical consideration than sentimental, as aged wood is not easy to come by in a community that lies 100 miles from the nearest supply store.
The short building season is quickly giving way to the icy winds of another Dakota winter in her threadbare trailer. But she’s using the time to put her thoughts toward the future.
“What I always imagine, in my earth house, that one day I’m going to sit in a circle with all my kids and all my grandchildren, and I’m going to have a ceremony, and I’m going to thank God that I have land that my grandparents gave me.”
Jamie Folsom is an independent, multimedia journalist who covers rural life, science and First Nations issues. Videographer Nat Kramer contributed to this series. They are currently developing a set of in-depth multimedia stories on eco-housing projects in Indian Country. Contact for syndication: [email protected]