Rural Renewal on the Rez

Affordable eco-friendly housing projects spark hope in America's Poorest Communities

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Part 1: Tiospaye: Extended family

Christinia Eala recalls a day 15-years-ago on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation when she sat at a kitchen table with her sister-in-law, Ethyl American Horse, beading and talking about their hopes for the future.

“Like so many on the reservation, her trailer was in really poor condition. There was no running water inside of the trailer. She only had one electrical outlet. Where her refrigerator sat, the floor buckled and fell through, and her sink had fallen through.

“It was so incredibly sad,” Eala said. “And yet this woman was so proud, and so beautiful, so gentle and so kind.”

American Horse “wished she had a nice house where she could finish raising her five children.”

Jamie Folsom
Christinia Eala, spearhead for the eco-dome project on Pine Ridge, perseveres with her team despite months of delay due to weather and difficulties rounding up supplies.

As director of Tiospaye-Winyan Maka (Extended Family of Women of the Earth), a Colorado nonprofit, Eala thought she knew what to do to help. “You know, we can come in and grow gardens for them. We can say, ‘Oh, if you need support in all of these areas, we’re here for you, OK?’

“But people are saying, ‘And what good does that do? Because we still go home to a house that’s infested with black mold, that’s falling apart, maybe it’s got a lot of plumbing issues and foundation issues.’ So they’re going right back to the same thing that makes their self-worth go down, their self-esteem suffers.”

Pine Ridge includes two of the nation’s poorest counties, Shannon and Jackson, with an annual per-capita income of just over $6,000, compared with $39,138 nationally in 2009. More than 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The majority of homes were built in the late 1970’s and haven’t been upgraded since then, leaving one-third without indoor plumbing, water or electricity. Most have no insulation.

“Housing is so needed, and it’s needed now; it’s not needed a year from now,” said Eala. “Shelter is one of the basic human rights for all people. Everybody has a right to basic, environmentally sound shelters.”

Eala spent several years researching alternative, affordable houses that could withstand South Dakota’s often deadly  weather patterns – tornadoes, intense heat and raging snowstorms. She found earthen homes that made use of the constant wind to control the indoor climate and were fire-proof and rugged enough to last through years of harsh conditions. Two aspects of these “eco-domes” stood out in Eala’s mind as a good fit for Lakota culture: they’re built in a circle and constructed from the earth where they stand.

Eala knew this couldn’t be a project for one family, or something Tiospaye would just sweep in and do. She believes the whole process of building includes more than just the house. “Everything is presented in a workshop venue, so that people can learn how to do these things themselves, and so they can add on as the family grows. They can learn how to build, install and maintain a wind turbine as well as a solar panel. We want them to be as self-sufficient as possible. And, if they’re learning, truly learning these things – even if just one person in the tiospaye learns it – then we’re creating a cottage industry.”

The first halting steps of building an eco-dome are under way with a prototype house, international volunteers and a rocky start finding supplies in a remote area. Although American Horse did not live to see her own dream realized – she died in 2007 – Eala carries it forward for other families. It continues to be her driving passion. 

“It’s really very freeing, not to think about yourself,” Eala said. “You get a sense that we really are in this bowl of soup together. And we can help each other. We have to help each other. We owe it to each other. That’s the way our nation used to be. All indigenous nations were that way, and it’s not so much that way anymore.”

“For me, coming to this place of helping people has been a journey of self-realization, and it’s a journey towards compassion, and it’s a journey towards love.”

Data: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Survey
of Current Business. http://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/relsarchivespi.htm
.
2000 U.S. Census Bureau, Fact Sheet: Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
http://factfinder.census.gov

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]

 

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