Ready for Takeoff: Pine Ridge Reservation Economy Revs Up

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in June 2012; the tourism information at the end—Shop, Eat, Stay—was updated in November 2014. 

Manderson Valley, in the central portion of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Visiting businesses around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation these days is like sitting in the cabin of a jet plane just before it streaks down the runway. Though the U.S. Census has repeatedly dubbed the community one of the poorest in the nation, its rolling, pine-fringed hills are also dotted with something that seems to elude the official figures: many creative enterprises, run with enthusiasm, energy and an eye on a better future. Some are tribally owned, like the new East Winds Casino on Highway 18 in Martin, South Dakota, established to drive job creation on the eastern side of the reservation. Other businesses are owned by tribal members, who operate everything from myriad home-based crafts operations to restaurants, B&Bs, motels, gift shops, galleries, adventure outfitters, gas stations, convenience stores and the latest addition to the growing economic family—a building supply company, offering hardware and lumber in Pine Ridge village, on the south side of the reservation (see sidebar below, “Lumbering Toward Success”). 

Supporting them is an expanding infrastructure, with public transit throughout the 2-million-acre reservation (see sidebar below, “Road Warriors”), good cell phone coverage in most areas and wireless internet widely available (with a Verizon smartphone, I was never far from a connection). Approval of a federally backed credit union is imminent, said Whitney O’Rourke, Oglala, of Lakota Funds, a community development financial institution in Kyle, in northern Pine Ridge. There is currently no bank on the reservation, and off-reservation banks make few loans there because much land that might act as collateral is held in trust by the federal government or tribally owned. That will make a credit union the game-changer, easing access to cash and encouraging business formation and homeownership. [Update: the credit union received approval in September 2012; for more, go here.]

“The reservation has 40,000 residents ready, willing and able to participate in the regional economy,” said Mark St. Pierre, CEO of Wounded Knee Community Development Corporation. Set in Pine Ridge’s central Manderson Valley, a bucolic sweep of hills bounded by pale cliffs, Wounded Knee’s CDC is one of several community groups and nonprofits with seed grants and creative ideas. They’re where the real economic action is, says St. Pierre, with plans ranging from small businesses to organic market gardens to housing, a critical need on Pine Ridge. The Wounded Knee group he runs is looking for funding to build a destination resort on the 600 acres it owns in Manderson Valley and a factory that would make high-end caskets then expand to other types of millwork.

Thunder Valley CDC (board meeting shown above), in Sharp’s Corner, hopes to break ground next summer on what will eventually be a live-and-work community. “We’ve even planned the streets to make it easy for kids to ride their horses over, tie them up and play some basketball,” said the president of the group’s board, tribal member Jennifer Irving. The first Thunder Valley projects will include housing units and a green-technology, inexpensive-to-operate emergency shelter for children who have been taken into foster care.

“We welcome the idea of a shelter,” Oglala Sioux Tribe president, John Steele, told South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, left, in a meeting with Thunder Valley’s director, Nick Tilsen, Oglala, and board members during the senator’s early-May visit to several Pine Ridge groups. “We have some emergency units and safe houses for children, but we need more.” Keeping kids on the reservation prevents the emotional and cultural disruption that occurs when they’re taken out of the community, Steele explained. After querying Thunder Valley on its financing needs, Johnson said, “I’m here if you need me.”

Thunder Valley CDC is part of a consortium with Oglala Lakota College’s Applied Science Department, in Kyle, and the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative, a project of architect and University of Colorado instructor Rob Pyatt, of Pyatt Studio, in Boulder. Starting this summer, OLC students will construct four houses—one conventionally framed and the others built of insulated panels, straw bales or compressed-earth blocks. The students will then place sensors throughout the homes to see which one offers most energy efficiency at least cost. Privately, the OLC professors are betting on the straw-bale home, but officially they’re reserving judgment until the data is in. Thunder Valley will use the winning construction method for its building projects.

Nowadays, experience with alternative building techniques is good for a builder’s résumé, whether he or she wants to work on or off the reservation, according to Applied Science Department chair Doug Noyes. “This project is creating trained crews, ready to work on the Thunder Valley buildings or any other,” said construction instructor Leonard Lone Hill, Oglala, near right. Instructor Lyle Wilson, Oglala, far right, opened notebooks of student work he’s documented, from small homes to commercial construction. OLC senior and tribal member Jared Shangreaux confirmed, “I’m in this program to get a job,” when he stopped by on his way to complete his final exams.

Pine Ridge may be ready to participate in the regional economy, but is the region welcoming them?, asked St. Pierre, of Wounded Knee CDC. Pine Ridge and other South Dakota reservations already contribute generously to the state’s economy—too generously some say, as money arriving in Native communities is typically spent immediately in nearby border towns, without changing hands and producing income in reservation businesses first. “Keeping money on the reservation and supporting our mom-and-pop businesses is the big issue,” said Emma Featherman-Sam, Oglala, director of the reservation’s transit system.

Even worse, much of the spending goes to downmarket, predatory vendors, according to O’Rourke, shown left. She described payday lending as a terrible problem, along with deed and title loans, through which cash-strapped tribal members put up home and car documents in return for short-term loans at sky-high interest rates, as much as 650 percent in just 14 days. Border town stores sell goods at inflated prices, knowing reservation residents may not have gas money to drive further to find bargains, and alcohol sales in retail stores and bars ringing Pine Ridge—just beyond the dry reservation’s jurisdiction—further empty tribal members’ wallets. “The border towns have a parasite–host relationship with the reservation,” said Tilsen.

Other restrictions on Pine Ridge’s economy are more subtle: When visitors arrive at the Rapid City airport, rental-car companies provide maps of western South Dakota showing a narrow slice of the state along the western border, guiding tourists to state and national parks and neatly eliminating all the reservations. The same map is available in shiny, laminated form at the Badlands National Park visitor center, a federal operation, where you get a map of adjoining Pine Ridge Indian Reservation if you know to ask for it.

Though cultural tourism is widely considered the wave of the future, browsing South Dakota’s tourism website reveals little about the state’s reservations and their attractions, including powwows year-round. Entering “Native American” into the search box pulls up assistance for tour companies wanting to organize coach trips to reservations and directions to off-reservation Crazy Horse Memorial—ways for outsiders to look at Native Americans, but little support for Native people’s own enterprises. Deeply embedded in the “About SD” section, you can learn that “prehistoric beasts,” pioneers and Native Americans “all called South Dakota home at one time”—a claim historians may wish to scrutinize.

Simply finding the reservation can be more difficult than it needs to be; those heading the hour-and-a-half drive south from Rapid City to Pine Ridge will discover that major turnoffs are not marked. “We’re working on that,” said Featherman-Sam. “We’re talking to the state about installing more signs.”

Featherman-Sam’s can-do spirit is typical on Pine Ridge. Said Tilsen, “Our people are tackling many issues and coming up with their own solutions. For the first time, they’re being asked what they want, not being told what others think they need.”



Lumbering Toward Success
“I always knew this kind of business would be a success here,” said Eddie Abold, Oglala, sole proprietor of Pine Ridge Building Products, on Highway 18 just east of Pine Ridge village. Abold, right, didn’t rush into a start-up, though. Before opening his doors in September 2011 with a loan from Lakota Funds, a local community development financial institution, Abold learned his trade in a lumberyard in Gordon, Nebraska, then in the procurement arm of the tribal housing department.

Local builders are pleased to have a nearby supplier. “Before this store opened, I had to haul my own lumber to the reservation,” said Leonard Lone Hill, Oglala. “That meant additional costs driving up bids we submitted on projects.”

During a recent visit, Pine Ridge Building Products had a constant flow of customers, including workers from tribal projects, who ordered plumbing materials, below. “There could be more business from the tribe, though,” Abold said. “A lot of tribal employees tend to call off-reservation vendors they’ve used for years, and breaking old habits is tough. But my prices are usually within pennies of those of major stores, and I even beat some.”

If you count all the costs associated with acquiring goods in this region of long drives and widely separated settlements, customers do even better at his store. “If you go to Gordon or Rapid City for supplies, you’ve got to add gas money and your time to the cost of an item,” Abold pointed out. “So, in fact, the articles purchased there become very expensive.”

People also benefit from Abold’s friendly advice. “Our twin logos, painted on the front of our building, are a tipi, which stands for the home, and a hand, which stands for helping hands,” he said. “We explain and assist and make customers feel comfortable with using our products.” Within five years, Abold hopes to have another store in Kyle, on the north end of the reservation, and to begin constructing two-four–bedroom homes on property around the Pine Ridge store. Building houses will help alleviate the reservation housing shortage and give him the opportunity to teach carpentry and other skills to youngsters, thereby preparing the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.


Road Warriors 
“Our 10 buses, each holding 16 to 22 riders, start as early as 4:30 in the morning, heading for 35 stops around the reservation,” said Oglala Sioux Transit director, Emma Featherman-Sam, at right below, speaking at the system’s main office and garage on Highway 18, east of Pine Ridge village. “People can also phone our dispatcher to ask a bus to make a special stop.”

Since the system started its engines in early 2009, reservation residents have paid $2–$5 one way, depending on the distance traveled, to job hunt, go to medical appointments, shop, attend college classes and more, she said. Regular riders can save by buying 10-day or monthly discount passes.

Oglala Sioux Transit solves an important employment problem in this impoverished area, said Featherman-Sam. “If tribal members have a vehicle, it may be an unreliable gas-guzzler. Regular transportation means people can assure employers that they can always make it to work.” The system also supports the local economy by making it easier for people to spend their money on the reservation, whether they’re going out to dinner or patronizing reservation mom-and-pop stores, she said.

Oglala Sioux Transit is a member of the newly formed National Tribal Transit Association, which offers training in subjects such as safety and security, accommodating passengers with disabilities, using information technology and more. If a Native community is getting a service underway, experienced managers elsewhere share information. “I keep helpful material in a file on my computer so I can send it off to anyone starting a program,” said Featherman-Sam.  

Keeping Oglala Sioux Transit humming requires careful planning on Featherman-Sam’s part. Riders drop $5,000 per month in the fare boxes, but fuel costs alone are $15,000 monthly. Other payables include salaries for 17 employees, including drivers, an office manager, a mechanic and other support personnel. Grants from the Federal Transit Administration and other agencies have made up the difference. The transit system also receives valuable in-kind help from folks who receive various benefits and have been assigned to it as part of their community service.

Going forward Oglala Sioux Transit will use its garage to generate revenue, fixing vehicles for local fleets, such as those that serve schools or social-services programs. “They won’t have to go an hour and a half or more to Rapid City for repair,” Featherman-Sam pointed out, noting that her agency’s new $160,000 tow truck (shown above) can handle very large vehicles, such as school buses and semi-trailers, something existing towing companies can’t do.

When South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson dropped by on his recent Pine Ridge tour, Oglala Sioux Transit draped him in a star quilt. “He’s a big supporter of tribal transit across the country but has also really been there, fighting for our system,” said Featherman-Sam. Johnson called Oglala Sioux Transit “a model for Indian country,” providing all kinds of access that’s critical to economic development. 

“As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit issues, I fought to double the authorization for tribal transit programs nationwide,” Johnson wrote in an email. “We must continue to ensure that programs like this expand to all of Indian country.”  


Shop, Eat, Stay
Here are a few Pine Ridge tourist establishments; for more, go to online Lakota Mall (lakotamall.com), or contact Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce (pineridgechamber.com; 605-455-2685), which publishes an excellent map showing many attractions. Powwows occur most weekends but can be subject to schedule changes; for updated information, call the Chamber right before you go. Contact each business below for current rates; generally, you’ll find they’re very reasonable.

Pine Ridge village area
The splendid Heritage Center of the Red Cloud Indian School (on Highway 18, 11 miles northwest of Pine Ridge village) offers fine Lakota crafts, including German-silver jewelry, beaded moccasins and star quilts. The shop’s best-sellers—porcupine-quill earrings, barrettes and bracelets—hark back to the pre-Contact Plains, as do decorated hard-sided rawhide boxes called parfleche. (605-867-8257; or shop online at www.redcloudschool.org/museum/) 

At Higher Ground, right, a coffeehouse on Highway 18, east of Pine Ridge village, find creative home-style cooking, seasoned with herbs from the café’s garden. Daily lunch specials go fast, so arrive around noon for them. Gourmet coffee—brewed up or beans—includes the house blend, Lakota Gold. (605-867-5685; owo@gwtc.net)

Prairie Wind is the tribe’s largest casino, on Highway 18 on the west side of the reservation, halfway between the towns of Oelrichs and Oglala. Its hotel can be reached at 800-705-WIND or 605-867-2683. The hotel has good wireless internet but spotty cellphone reception (ATT seems to work best).

Three-bedroom Blacktail Deer Creek Bed & Breakfast is across Highway 18 from Prairie Wind. Call ahead to arrange to meet the family’s buffalo herd. (605-535-2162; judysiouxrn@yahoo.com)

Kyle area
The greenhouse at Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort, west of Kyle on Highway 2, supplies its restaurant kitchen. Don’t miss the hearty steak or burger dinners (ask for a side of crispy sweet potato fries) or anything with their fluffy crusts, like chicken pot pie or warmed apple pie with ice cream. The property, run by the Puckett family, who are tribal members, offers 41 motel-style rooms, some with kitchenettes, and 4 cabins. Its gift shop supports local artists. (605-455-2555; www.lakotaprairie.com)

Right in Kyle is Nunpa Theater, the first movie house on the reservation. Owning and running the sleek new twin theater (Nunpa means “two” in Lakota) is a dream come true for movie-lovers Angel Reddest, shown right, and her mother, Monna Patton, both Oglala. Check the theater’s Facebook page for daily schedules of the latest blockbusters. Nunpa is also planning to show premieres of independent films, according to Reddest.

Find the Odd Duck Inn down a gravel road off Highway 2 west of Kyle, on the historic homesite of co-owner Tilda Long Soldier–St. Pierre’s late great-grandfather, Little Soldier, who was at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn). Ceremonial quilts, art by leading Lakota artists and duck motifs decorate the ten-bedroom property, which also offers guests their own kitchens. The B&B’s name memorializes the discerning duck in a Lakota trickster legend who warns others of danger—a good lesson for today, says Tilda’s co-owner, and co-author of several books, her husband Mark St. Pierre. (605-455-2972; mstp@gwtc.net)

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.