For one Lakota family, the harsh challenges of building a home in the country bring freedom and renewed hope
Like many American apartments, homeowner associations and subdivisions, the tribal housing authorities on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota restrict what residents can do on site. House colors are pre-selected and floor plans are limited. Outdoor laundry is OK, but not gardens.
One rule has made an especially deep impact on reservation life – outbuildings are not allowed. Since there can be no barns, no chicken houses, no storage sheds, there’s no way to store tools, spare auto parts or extra supplies to get families through the winter, except in locked cars or in the already crowded houses.
“There’s a huge difference between living here in the housing and living out on your own land,” says Shannon Freed. She came to Pine Ridge in 2006 as a sustainable-home building volunteer and now lives on the reservation with her Lakota family. She has invested the past four years making sure her family has the chance to do better for themselves.
“In the housing, there isn’t anything to do. Nobody has any money to go recreate,” Freed says. “Very rarely do people go out to a movie or to dinner, or even go to a park and play or rollerblade or ride your bike for recreation. There’s cleaning your house and trying to keep your yard straightened.”
She organized the construction of a cob house on father-in-law Gerald Weasel’s land just outside Wounded Knee, in part because opportunities come with living in the country.
“If you live on your own land, you can have your outbuildings, and you can improve your property, and do things to improve your lifestyle,” she says. “You can build a nice garden and put a fence up. You can have horses and use them for things. You can raise cattle or other livestock and sell them. You can create a business; you’re not allowed to have a business in your home in the housing.”
Freed, who has a two-year-old daughter with Weasel’s son Adam Aguilar, sees other benefits to home ownership in an environment where despair is common. “This is [Gerald’s] place. There’s a reason to fix the wall if it chips out. There’s a reason to fix the floor: it’s his. I think there’s a whole different mentality around living in something that’s not yours.”
Weasel’s house near Manderson burned down in 2002. His sons and Freed want the cob house so he can live in a virtually fireproof home and not have to worry about losing his home again.
But, for those who want to live on their own land, she says, the wall of bureaucracy is often too much and has contributed to the housing shortage. “Families can live up to 30 people in a house because they don’t have anything,” Freed says. “However, because of the crazy paperwork and the way that the system is set up to essentially divide families, it keeps them off their land.”
Even starting a project is daunting. Freed notes that in order to improve a property, potential builders have to get 50 percent of all the owners to approve each project because the land is collectively owned and not parceled. The Weasels needed only eight signatures. But, she says, “There are people who own a share with up to 300 people; how are you going to find close to 150 people to sign off on things?”
The second challenge her family faced was obtaining the tools and materials needed to build a house virtually from the ground up. “We literally had a station wagon and a shovel and three sledgehammers,” she says, but at each point in the construction, help came through for them somehow. There were also times when pure sweat was required. To lay the foundation, they needed concrete rubble for proper drainage, but the larger chunks of concrete and rock (“urbanite”) they were able to find were too large to use. Aguilar, his brother and his father then spent a good part of the summer breaking up the urbanite by hand with sledgehammers.
As final details of the house are completed by November, with finished plumbing, a borrowed refrigerator and donated wood stove, Freed acknowledges how important local cooperation has been to their success. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without the people who lent us their wheelbarrows and told us where to find clay and gave us a window or let us use their equipment. So in the end, it was really a big community effort.”
Beyond the goal of a family home, she hopes their work can inspire others and help “create abundance” throughout the reservation. “I really was trying to set this up as a project that people could replicate themselves if other people liked it, liked the idea, and wanted to do it on their own.” She’s created Sustainable Home Designs, a nonprofit company, to help others do just that.
“The conditions in the government housing are so bad that people are willing to deal with these other really hard conditions of living in the country and even doing it illegally, just so they can have a place to live with their family that feels in some way safe or secure,” she says.
“I’m not sure there’s very many people out here that feel safe and secure in their house. I hope that’s what I gave to my father-in-law when I did this project.”
Jamie Folsom, an independent, multimedia journalist who covers rural life, science and First Nations issues, and videographer Nat Kramer are currently developing in-depth multimedia stories on eco-housing projects in Indian Country. Contact for syndication: [email protected]