Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

As a community development corporation (CDC), Thunder Valley CDC provides traditional community development services like workforce development, education, childcare, and homeownership. But, it’s also rooted in Lakota spirituality and culture. Thunder Valley’s vision, as former Executive Director Nick Tilsen described it, is to “address the root causes of the historical injustices that exist on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

The organization grew out of a discussion during a Lakota spiritual ceremony, when community members were sharing challenges and obstacles of life on the reservation—ranging from a gradual loss of their Lakota culture and language, to longstanding systemic poverty and a lack of jobs and affordable housing. During this ceremony, they were called to action and challenged “to stop talking and start doing.” Together, community members determined they would create the future they wanted for their children.  Tatewin Means, Executive Director says, “it is because of our foundation and grounding in our Lakota culture and belief in our community that our work has been so impactful.”

About the Organization

Thunder Valley CDC is a community development corporation located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, focused on collaborating with and empowering Lakota youth and families to improve the community’s quality of life, while honoring the Lakota culture and heritage.

Thunder Valley CDC’s programming strives to bridge traditional CDC services with the Lakota culture. It offers a wide range of services including: Lakota language-immersion, childcare, educational programming on physical health and activity, a connection to Lakota culture, and business and social enterprise support for companies like Owíŋža Quilters Cooperative, run by Lakota women and rooted in the Lakota quilting tradition. As Tilsen explained, “Lakota culture is at the root of what we do, and artists have the ability to infuse this into the built environment.”

The organization takes a holistic approach towards its built environment, which it calls “regenerative community development.” Its impact can be witnessed firsthand at Thunder Valley CDC’s community center, located on 34 acres in the center of the reservation; intended to model the progress that is possible for everyone on the reservation. There the organization has built eco-friendly, sustainable housing and a demonstration farm and a geothermal greenhouse to build food sovereignty.

Thunder Valley CDC believes that the solutions to the challenges on the reservation exist within the reservation. It is this deep commitment to community collaboration that has inspired them to spend hundreds of hours listening to the needs of their members and challenging them to create their own vision for the future.

Just as Thunder Valley CDC takes a holistic and cultural approach to programming, success is measured holistically as well. Jennifer Irving, Thunder Valley CDC’s deputy director, explained that among Thunder Valley’s accomplishments, helping community members realize their own visions for the future is perhaps the greatest. Many people in the Lakota community and in other indigenous communities across the country have never been asked about their vision for the future and their community. Irving recalled a workforce development participant sharing that “beyond a GED, the workforce development program would change the rest of [his] life” and a member of the Owíŋža Quilters Cooperative referencing the Social Enterprise program as an “answer to her dreams.”

Since its inception, Thunder Valley CDC has built seven single-family homes and is building 14 more in addition to a 12-unit apartment complex. The organization has also helped more than 20 students learn to speak Lakota, provided home ownership education to more than 40 families, and, in 2015, provided 50 percent of the produce to the Lakota Immersion Childcare program from its community garden.