a Tribe or not a Tribe?

by Annie Coombs

Present day tribal relationships with regard to family, community and membership have little similarity to tribal relationships prior to western engagement with the indigenous population in the United States. Where previously tribal membership was fluid and defined by community, today enrollment is defined by science and law. Today if you have Native American ancestry, you have membership to the tribe your ancestors belonged to at the time they engaged with non-natives (assuming you have the legally designated percentage of blood from that tribe to qualify as a member). You cannot move between tribes, where in the past you could do this through marriage or adoption by. Today, membership through marriage is allowed by a few tribes and not allowed by others. Previously the benefit of being part of a tribe was sharing communal resources (including food and shelter), building relationships through families, and safety provided by being part of a group, today those benefits are primarily provided by financial remuneration from the US government, ‘tribal’ governments who answer to and are financed by the US government, and ‘tribal’ police who have little authority on reservations and no authority with non-tribal members. When tribal membership shifted to legal status rather than community inclusion, claiming legal tribal membership became less about belonging to a group, and more defined by individual ownership, property and eligibility for remuneration from the US government. That is not to say there is no community on reservations, but rather a new legal definition of membership into tribal communities and its associated individual financial benefits, re-framed the traditional concept of tribal membership.

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Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Pow-Wow | Eagle Butte, SD | September 2015

At the turn of the century as physical boundaries and reservations were outlined, tribal membership suddenly gave an individual benefits such as trust land (land that was once  shared), free food, free education, and free housing. Enrollment in a federally recognized tribe was a way the government could track native non-citizens prior to full inclusion in the United States.  Most people native to the United States weren’t offered US citizenship until 1924. This US citizenship was a double edged sword, offering inclusion into US society but simultaneously forfeiting sovereignty for tribes. As traditional sources of food, such as the buffalo herds on the plains, rapidly disappeared, many had no choice but to ‘enroll’ with their tribe and accept new ways to sustain themselves through individual benefits for  ‘tribal members’ rather than through the traditional tribal community. While treaty arrangements between tribes and the US government justly provided financial and sustenance remunerations for lost land and a way of life, they also corrupted the communal notion of tribe, which was the fabric of Native American life.

A present day legal battle within the Chukchansi Tribe (This American Life, 491: Tribes, march 29, 2013) over membership illustrates a corruption of the traditional collective notion of tribe. The Chukchansi tribe in California is actively dis-enrolling members in an attempt to increase individual payouts from a local tribally owned Casino. With each member dis-enrolled the remaining members receive higher payouts from the casino’s income. In this case, membership in the tribe is no longer about community, but rather about individual entitlement to money and favoritism. The commodification of tribal membership through competition for benefits and limited resources, including Casino payouts, government financial payouts, food stamps, housing and land allocation fractures intratribal relationships. The Chukchansi example is extreme, but shows how in this case benefits rather than community are now defining membership to a tribe.

The corruption of tribal communities through their engagement with the west (or what many refer to as the white world) has left many Native Americans in limbo between a lost way of life in their community and an alien American culture to which they are also outsiders. When the US government created a legal designation needed for recognition of tribal membership it ultimately divided people rather than protected them by incentivizing self-interest over communal aspirations.

Sovereign Structures and ‘Indigenous’ Land

While on the Pine Ridge reservation, we had a conversation with a man at the Oglala Sioux Tribe Office of Economic Development and Utilities. He referred to reservation land as indigenous land as opposed to its legal name, trust land.  We were struck by his idea that land, not just people, can be indigenous. He spoke further about the intrinsic richness of the untainted land, saying that there is no reason that people on indigenous land could not rediscover ways to live off of their land, allowing them to disengage from the greater American and global capitalist system.

At the moment, this is an exciting but difficult thing to do. The land is not what it used to be; its indigenous animal and food supply – the buffalo – are virtually extinct, preserved only behind fences in controlled environments.  Large tracts of land are over-grazed by cattle shipped in for the summer; this stunts the growth of local grasses that could hold water in their roots to help mitigate frequent droughts. Natural ecosystems, which rarely know a straight line, are disrupted by the linear carving of land into near square lots.  Yet, while this altered eco-system does make it more difficult to survive solely off the indigenous land, there are plenty of indications that it is not impossible.

Praire land

Prairie land – Pine Ridge

The houses that we are continually drawn to are those made out of local material.  Using as much of the local material as possible preserves sovereignty on this indigenous land.  And while the local tribes historically lived in tipis made out of buffalo skins, there is a history of permanent housing built by the Lakota at the turn of the century which has been grossly over-looked.  This points to an evolution of their housing typology from tipi to cabin, or nomadic to permanent.  Many older people we’ve spoken to recall growing up in a two room cabin.  We’ve visited many of these, most abandoned but some re-inhabited. Often times there is no memory of who built the cabins – the army corp of engineers or the Lakota.  However, during our last trip we were fortunate enough to be directed towards a cabin built by Chief Iron Lightning who lived at the turn of the 20th century on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

A cabin believed to be built by Chief Iron Lightning at the beginning of the 20th century.

A cabin believed to be built by Chief Iron Lightning at the beginning of the 20th century.

Located near the community of Iron Lightning, the cabin was a two room structure made out of logs and mud.  It was also stuccoed most likely with local clay mixed with water and lime.  Modern appliances and a power line at the site indicate the cabin had survived and was inhabited well into the 20th century.  We were told that there are at least five cabins like this in the town of Iron Lightning. The significance of this is profound for two reasons.  First, it is evidence of the Lakota modifying their way of living from nomadic to stationary without the aid of the US government.  We’ve heard several times that prior to the introduction of HUD on the reservations (1960’s), everyone lived in tipis. The implication of this is that the Lakota were living a pre-modern way of life before the US government stepped in to help them out.  While tipis were in fact sophisticated in many ways, it is true that their primary function ceased to be practical once the Lakota were forced to spend their winters on the harsh prairie which started in the 1890’s.  This change in lifestyle was caused by two very tangible things in their life, the scarcity of the buffalo (a diminishing food source) and the confiscation of the Black Hills (their winter micro-climate).  That some cabins were constructed by the Lakota is evidence of a more nuanced evolution of lifestyle and building typology than the narrative that HUD ‘saved’ the Indian from the tipi.  Another way to look at this history is that HUD stunted the development of indigenous building techniques with local resources, by providing pre-fabricated homes that were constructed without the help or input of the local population.  Beside being poorly constructed and ill designed for the South Dakota hot summers and harsh winters, the construction of the HUD homes disrupted the Lakota’s attempts to develop a building technique themselves.

Log Cabin with power line - Iron Lightning - Cheyenne River

Log Cabin with power line – Iron Lightning – Cheyenne River

Many of the building techniques we saw that experimented with local and sustainable building technologies were one-offs, but we did meet with a group that has a larger scale development underway The Thunder Valley development group located in Sharps Corner on Pine Ridge, has taken a more holistic view on solving the housing problem by looking for longer term solutions for community development.  They are in the process of building four prototypical house – one straw bale, one SIPs house, one cob and one standard stick frame house.  They designed the homes and chose these four building techniques after holding community meetings and getting feedback from local people about what they wanted. Once built, the four homes will be assessed for performance, sustainability and cost. Based on their assessments, 30 more homes will be built, as well as a daycare center and some buildings zoned for commerce.

Straw Bale home built by Thunder Valley - Sharps Corner - Pine Ridge

Straw Bale home built by Thunder Valley – Sharps Corner – Pine Ridge

The Thunder Valley project is significant not just because of the investigation they’re doing on specific housing types but also because they’re looking at planning and zoning from the community’s perspective, without US government involvement.  Planning on the reservations has typically been managed by US government agencies, whose interests and cultural understand are often not aligned with the local community.  Specifically with regard to housing starting in the 1960’s, HUD defined the spatial organization of the reservations and rendered what had naturally occurred obsolete.  However, evidence shows that there was spatial organization developing prior to HUD’s involvement and today new generations are picking up where their ancestors left off – organizing themselves and looking for way to live off their indigenous land.

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Exhibition Photos – Native States of America: Lakota Housing, Infrastructure & Economy

Exhibition Opening 02.23.12

NATIVE STATES OF AMERICA:
LAKOTA HOUSING, INFRASTRUCTURE AND ECONOMY

Columbia University, GSAPP, Avery Hall 200 Level
February 23th through April 20th
Open daily, 9am to 6pm

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Pine Ridge Builds

With each visit to Pine Ridge Reservation, we come across examples of innovative, sustainable building projects. In mid-August, we returned to visit Bryan Deans, who runs OLCERI (Oglala Lakota Cultural & Economic Revitalization Initiative) from his ranch in Slim Butte, on the southern side of the reservation.  On the way, we stopped by a building project outside of Pine Ridge (the town). The team, led by Texas Natural Builders and Earth Tipi, is building a “pallet house,” which incorporates many of the materials and techniques we have seen in cob and straw bale buildings, but uses reclaimed shipping pallets as the material for the wall structure.  The head of the building team, Dave, explained that this saves on the cost of raw materials, as the pallets are usually discarded and can be easily collected for little or no cost.

Pallet House, Pine Ridge

A gravel-filled drainage pit surrounds the home, and the walls are built upon several layers of earth filled bags, hammered flat. Once they create a frame, the walls will be filled with a light straw/clay infill and covered with 2” of cob and a layer of plaster finish, which Dave said should insulate to R20.  The pitched roof will be insulated with cellulose (R30), and finished with pine shake shingles. Large windows look out from the front and back of the house, facing North and South, and deep overhangs will be built to shade the house and protect the walls from rain.

Pallet House – bedroom interior

The kitchen and bath will receive water from the tribal water lines, and the bathroom will have a composting toilet.   A solar panel will power basic electrical needs, and the owners have a 2000 watt generator as backup. For heat, the home will have a rocket mass heater built into the living room. A propane stove will be used for cooking, and an on demand propane heater will heat a small storage tank of water.The floor plan offers one kitchen / living space, 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and a 7’ loft space which is accessed by a staircase from the main living room. The home is being built for the Goings family, who were building a home for themselves until it was destroyed during last year’s rough winter.  Seven people will share the space, four adults and three children.We asked the builders for a sense of cost, manpower and timing to build the structure and were told that the total cost would be around $10,000 and that a core group of 8 people could put it together in 6-8 weeks total. In conversations since, we learned that the total cost will probably be closer to $15,000 – still a far cry from $90,000which builds a “traditional” house for the Housing Authority.

Straw Bale House

The next day, we visited Henry Red Cloud’s land, between the towns of Pine Ridge and Oglala, where a team of volunteers were building a straw bale roundhouse. On the land, Henry Red Cloud has built a workshop for building and training in solar technologies – Lakota Solar Enterprises. The workshop houses volunteers and materials.  Henry partners with the organization Trees, Water, People (based out of Colorado) and there were also many volunteers from RE-MEMBER.  In addition to volunteers who live off reservation, we met a number of tribal members from other reservations. One woman was from Cheyenne River Reservation and is interested in building a home on her land next summer, while also inviting her friends and neighbors to take part and learn.  Another man had traveled from Fort Hall reservation in Idaho (Shoshone tribe) and was planning to teach what he learned about solar heating and natural building when he went back.

Lakota Solar Enterprises – workshop

This building was smaller than the pallet house, but was planned to be completed in two weeks. It was round, and it was planned to be divided into about three rooms – a main living space and two bedrooms. At the time of our visit, they had been working on it for three days and accomplished a lot. The structure was up, as well as the roof, and they were at the point when plaster is mixed (water, straw, sand and clay) and thrown against the straw bale walls.

Straw Bale House – plastering exterior

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Back on the rez

We’ve been on the Cheyenne River Reservation for a number of days and just spent the last few on Pine Ridge. In both locations we’ve noticed change. On a statistical level Ziebach county of Cheyenne River is now the poorest county in the nation, bumping Shannon County of Pine Ridge to second. On an infrastructural level, Alltel cellular service has been replaced by a major carrier, AT&T. Our cell phones now work, when near a tower. High speed Internet is available on much of Pine Ridge. On Cheyenne River, it has made it to Eagle Butte, the center of the reservation, and is expected to reach the rest of the population in the next few years. Our hosts, who live on a rural scatter site, joke that they will receive Internet before running water. After a conversation with Tri-County water, we have confirmed that this is true.

On Cheyenne River, we have been visiting with old friends, gone to a Sundance and followed up with various agencies including the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Tri-County Water.

On Pine Ridge, we’ve been visiting our friend Bryan who runs the non-profit organization OLCERI. He showed us his holistic management and permaculture techniques in action on his pasture land and we’ve been brainstorming about several projects.

We visited a “pallet house” construction site near the town of Pine Ridge and a straw bale house workshop at Henry Red Cloud’s Lakota Solar Enterprises. We will follow up with a more in-depth description of the various amazing and unique projects we have seen.

Favorite quote of the day: “lol even texts are on Indian time out here”

Bryan Dean's ranch - Slim Butte, Pine Ridge

Surface Ownership: Cheyenne River Reservation 2010

The map below shows the “checkboard” condition of land ownership discussed in the previous post Whose Land? Land status and regulation.

Surface Ownership: Cheyenne River Reservation 2010*

“This “checkerboard” comes from a history of experimental and misguided land policies by the federal government. The General Allotment Act in 1887 designated 160 acre plots of land in trust to individual tribal members in the spirit of assimilation and “civilization” through farming.  This land, if maintained, would automatically be turned to non-trust land after 25 years, slowly turning reservation trust land into non-trust land subject to property tax.  This policy of “forced deeds” led to foreclosures and the sale of much of the original property on the reservations to non-Indians.  Additionally, after the distribution of the 160 acre allotments, the “excess” or “surplus” land was sold off by the federal government to non-Indians – further reducing the size of tribal land.  By 1919, 1,052,320 acres of the 2.8 million within the boundaries of reservation were “allotted” on Cheyenne River – a number that shrank to 503,483 acres by 2000.[1] In 2010, that number is 447,094.  In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which prohibited “forced” deeds.  Since then, one must request to convert their property to deeded land; otherwise it remains in trust.”

 

*Note:  The map data shown was provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2010 and is subject to change.