Just south of the Black Hills of South Dakota, in the extreme southwestern corner of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the people of the small community of Slim Butte have been engaged in the act of survival for as long as anyone now living can remember. Before our memories, prior to the great Indian Wars, the land was fruitful, and the people found abundance. There was a time when it was one of the richest of all regions of the lands of the Lakota People. Slim Butte is the ancestral home of the tioshpaye (Lakota for the word band) of Red Cloud. His descendants still live here to this day. Wounded Knee lies fifteen miles to the northeast. Many of the ancestors of the people now living in Slim Butte were victims of the massacre that took place there in the winter of 1890. The atrocities that took place at Wounded Knee proved to be the final, devastating blow to the Lakota People. It marked their ultimate defeat, not in battle--the victims at Wounded Knee were not there to fight, but to receive blankets and food promised by the army--but more significantly, their defeat as a people capable and equipped to provide for themselves. Most of those killed were old men, women and children, huddled in a ravine to avoid the cold winter winds, in wait for the promised food and blankets. It marked the end of a way of life to a people who had survived and flourished on this land for countless generations. On that cold winter day, the will of the people was finally broken. From that day forward, they would become wards of the government. In these cold windswept plains, with no opportunity to hunt for food, no jobs or work to provide any means to make money, they had no choice--if they were to survive--but to live by welfare and government food rations. Today, over 100 years since that fateful day in 1890, life on the reservation has changed very little. The community of Slim Butte is today one of the most poverty stricken regions of the country. Unemployment stands at over 73%. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high mortality rates associated with nutritional deficiency, rank several times above national averages. Suicide also ranks several times the national average, due in part to the lack of self esteem, and sense of despair that pervades the reservation. At the heart of the old ways of the Lakota belief stands the flowering forked tree. It represents the duality of life, emerging from one source. Though there is much poverty and despair, there is also hope. Hope that these people can take back control of their lives. In September 2000 I had the opportunity to spend a week with the people of Slim Butte. I was there to conduct a workshop primer of sorts. The larger goal was to develop the groundwork to conduct a more intensive workshop project next summer in which a new community hall could be built. A German non-profit group, The Lakota Village Fundraising Project, initially contacted me regarding this project. The group was formed two years ago in response to a devastating tornado that swept through the Slim Butte community that destroyed many homes and buildings. Funding from local relief efforts fell short for many people because they could not meet a required minimum income of $15,000 per annum. Christina Voorman, director of the Lakota Village Fund, connected me with Tom Cook, coordinator and director of the Slim Butte Land Use Association (SBLUA). Cook, a full blood Mohawk Indian, has lived on the reservation for the past 28 years, and has primarily been engaged in creating work programs and agricultural initiatives geared directly toward providing food and shelter, while at the same time creating job opportunities. In 1985, Cook founded the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Program (SBADP). Through an organic gardening program, SBADP is dedicated to "fighting the disease and ill effects of nutritionally poor diets prevalent among Indians living on Pine Ridge Reservation." "It's more than just gardening," says Cook. "You should see the look in the eyes of some of the people and the kids involved. For people who are mired down in poverty, these gardens are a positive thing in their lives."The land use association was formed two years ago to take this concept one step further. Its primary initiative was to bring individual landowners in the community together to speak with one voice, in hopes of providing avenues to become self sufficient for their own building and housing needs. To date, they have made great strides and I was suitably impressed with the efforts underway. One of the primary missions of the SBLUA is to promote a renewal of the traditional bond of the people to the land. The first step toward this end was to develop building systems that could use the natural materials and resources that come directly from their land to build houses. Toward this effort, the tribal council acquired an earthen block making press last year and one house and two smaller building projects have been completed. Blocks have been made using a mixture of clay and hemp fiber, and experiments with a mixture of 10% Portland cement and hemp fiber have resulted in an extremely durable and lightweight block. The same mixture can also be used to make building panels. Attempts to grow their own hemp were thwarted last fall when the Feds raided the hemp field. Over 2,500 plants of industrial grade hemp were destroyed. They are still living under the fear of possible indictments. Industrial hemp is legal to grow in Nebraska and several other U.S. states, Canada, and most other countries in the free world. For the time being, until they win a court battle to grow hemp on the reservation, they are forced to import the hemp from Canada. The input from Fox Maple was initially sought to help develop a timber frame training program that would allow the community to better utilize the timber on their lands to build houses. The long term goal is to create a building company made up of skilled Lakota craftsmen. This would create jobs directly, and open the doorway to expand workshop style community building projects to other parts of the Reservation. In September 2000 we cut one timber frame bent for a greenhouse frame as a workshop primer. The timbers were milled on an old Belsaw portable sawmill. In the workshop project in July 2001 we cut two greenhouse frames. The design and approach to all of our projects on Pine Ridge represent a viable Lakota building pattern, exemplifying their traditional connection with nature. The process is ongoing. I hope you can join us. -- Steve Chappell
The next Lakota Timber Framing Workshop will take place in Summer 2004. For more info Click here for specifics / Here for workshops page.
Archive 1: Edible Houses
Archive 2: Developing Natural Patterns of Building
Left) Indigenous building form of the people of Costa Rica. The teepee like structure is framed with round poles and covered with palm thatch. The photo at the top of this page is the inside of the structure on the left, showing the framing details. For more about our upcoming Costa Rica Community Building Workshop, February 23 - March 5, 2004 click here.