Real Estate & Construction  June 3, 2011

Deconstructing the Lakota way at Pine Ridge

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — About 275 miles northeast of Fort Collins, two Northern Colorado-based nonprofit organizations are helping build a bridge between the past and the present.

The foundation is trust. The finished products are relationships and dignity.

For more than a decade, Fort Collins-based nonprofit Village Earth has been supporting grassroots organizations on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The result has been more Native Americans seeking to reclaim their ancestral land on the reservation and using it to make a living. This summer the National Center for Craftsmanship will begin work training and helping a family deconstruct and rebuild its ceremonial grounds on the reservation.

Those involved in both organizations have learned some important lessons through their efforts.

“I grew up in the same education system as most Americans,” said David Bartecchi, executive director of Village Earth, based at Colorado State University’s foothills campus. “I grew up thinking that a lot of the problems on the reservations were in the past. But the injustice still goes on.”

Neil Kaufman, executive director of the National Center for Craftsmanship, wasn’t sure what to expect when he forged a friendship with a Lakota holy man that ultimately led to the project that will start this month.

“Their willingness to reach out in spite of everything that has happened to them has been quite honestly surprising,” Kaufman said.

Reclaiming land

Village Earth was born out of a conference at CSU in 1993 that was focused on how to get development aid to the poorest of the poor across the world. The organization doesn’t do projects on its own but supports grassroots organizations already working in areas of need, including Peru, Cambodia and India.

Village Earth’s involvement on the Pine Ridge reservation, located on about 2 million acres in the southwest corner of South Dakota, started in 2000 and has become the organization’s longest-running project.

Bartecchi, who was working on his master’s degree in anthropology at the time, was involved in a research project with the Lakota that revealed a host of problems stemming from complicated land use issues that started more than 100 years ago.

The Dawes Act of 1887 partitioned Native American tribal lands into 160-acre parcels. Every head of household got a parcel, and anything left over went to the government to lease out for various uses including farming, ranching and timber production.

If individual Native Americans wanted to use their land, they had to attend a competency trial. If they were ruled incompetent, the government leased their land out. If they were ruled competent, the land was subject to taxation.

The result: Much of the best land on Pine Ridge was either leased out to non-Native Americans or sold because families couldn’t afford to pay the taxes, Bartecchi said.

Today 60 percent of Pine Ridge is being leased out by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and 20 people control about 46 percent of the land base, according to Village Earth’s website. Although their lands have been in the federal leasing system for generations, more than 70 percent of families on the reservation would like to live on and utilize their allotted lands.

The aim of Village Earth’s Lakota Lands Recovery Project is to support organizations whose goal is to help the Lakota people reclaim their land, govern themselves through systems they set up themselves and come up with viable ways to make a living on their land.

The organization has advocated on behalf of tribal land owners by holding training workshops and creating a manual that clears up misconceptions about land use issues and helps them locate their ancestral land.

“You can’t just go there and say, ‘Here is my tract of land,’” Bartecchi said. “It’s much more complicated than that. Our goal is to lower the bar on accessing land. Every year we build more trust with the community.”

Rebuilding the Lakota way

Building trust has also been instrumental for the National Center for Craftsmanship’s project on Pine Ridge.

Kaufman, the center’s executive director, was seeking healing treatments for various construction-related injuries when he met a Lakota holy man. They got to talking about the center, and the Fort Collins-based staff and volunteers with experience in the construction industry who teach and train others in craftsmanship.

The friendship continued over the next year and a half, culminating with the holy man’s family asking Kaufman and his colleagues to help rebuild the family’s historical ceremonial grounds near Porcupine, S.D., about nine miles north of Wounded Knee. The grounds are the site of one of 52 sundances on the reservation held each summer.

The center for craftsmanship estimates the project will cost between $200,000 to $300,000, and is raising the funds through both cash and in-kind donations of building materials.

For most of their deconstruction projects, Kaufman and others from the center train at-risk populations such as women from Larimer County Community Corrections.

“We are educators. We teach them how to use tools and what it takes to be on a construction site,” Kaufman said. “It gives them skills to become self-sufficient.”

At Pine Ridge, he and his colleagues will train tribe members to deconstruct the amphitheater-type structure and rebuild it. A new cook shack and a facility with toilets, sinks and showers will also be part of the rebuilt ceremonial grounds.

“Recruiting people to be involved will not be a problem,” Kaufman said. “When we show up the first weekend of June, I expect we will have 20 to 30 people waiting for us.”

The challenge for the center for craftsmanship will be doing the project differently than they’re used to.

“The hard part was getting them to say, ‘Yes, come do this.’ Once they did, they made it clear to us that this would be done the Lakota way,” Kaufman said.

What that means will be revealed along the way. Kaufman explained that at any given time, work could be interrupted for prayer or for a special meal.

“There’s a mystery component to this,” he said. “Most constructors are not comfortable with this method. But we feel good about what we’re doing.”

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — About 275 miles northeast of Fort Collins, two Northern Colorado-based nonprofit organizations are helping build a bridge between the past and the present.

The foundation is trust. The finished products are relationships and dignity.

For more than a decade, Fort Collins-based nonprofit Village Earth has been supporting grassroots organizations on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The result has been more Native Americans seeking to reclaim their ancestral land on the reservation and using it to make a living. This summer the National Center for Craftsmanship will begin work training and helping a…

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