Keeping Heart in Pine Ridge, Part II

pine ridge kenny cow

Many good things came from the Permaculture Design Course we held last September in Pine Ridge Lakota reservation.  Our project is on target to be self-sustaining within three years and has moved beyond that in a number of ways.

Bryan Deans and OLCERI (Oglala-Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative), who hosted the course, decided to focus on the economics side of permaculture,  the benefits of which would move far beyond Bryan’s own self-sufficient ranch project and throughout the entire reservation.

Almost immediately after the course, Bryan began teaching a farmer/rancher program on the rez, incorporating permaculture principles such as microlending.  Ranchers are lent five cows which calf, thereby giving them a small herd which they can build up. They can give back the cows, or younger ones, once the herd is established.   Farmers are given seed and loaned equipment as needed as well.  A cooperative is in its formative stages which will allow the farmers and ranchers to share equipment, buy in bulk and market more effectively.

This is a true community effort that, if translated to other industries as well, could spread throughout the entire reservation and reverse the long term cycle of poverty which has continued to make this county the poorest in the US.  It will also set an example for industry throughout the US.

Other potential economic engines and cooperatives include sustainable logging and milling, biodiesel, manufacture of high efficiency rocket/sawdust type stoves and water heaters, natural home building, traditional Lakota crafts such as leatherwork and beadwork, and the raising of other types of animals including horses and buffalo.

Medicine Hat horse, prized amongst the Lakota

Medicine Hat horse, prized amongst the Lakota

These cooperatives can be woven into the lives of the People and their ancient ways. The successes of the Mondragon cooperative, which was created by the Basque tribe in Spain and now includes dozens of profitable enterprises, are an inspiration – the Lakota will bring their unique traditions and wisdom to the council fires.  Bryan’s vision is to focus on industries that complement and support one another, and are environmentally and culturally sustainable or regenerative.

The tribe has received a substantial grant, part of which can be used toward rehabilitating the two million acres of prairie that the reservation encompasses.  The rez has been heavily damaged by overgrazing and other abuse to the point where the clay-silt soils are so impacted that succession has not moved beyond pioneer stage in many areas, and only short, tough buffalo grass survives in clumps – in contrast to the tall, diverse prairie grasses that grew thick and rich as far as one could see when the People managed it. Erosion is a huge problem, with dams blowing out regularly from the heavy force of water and canyons being cut deeper and deeper.  For generations, the plains were sustainably managed by the People who used controlled burns and buffalo to revitalize the fertile prairie grass system and keep it healthy.   Last year, Bryan and Warren Brush of Quail Springs, who taught the PDC then and will teach it again this August, created plans to use keyline and permaculture techniques to regenerate Bryan’s 8000 acre ranch, but since then the plans have gotten much bigger.


Diverse prairie grass systems are one of the best carbon sequestering systems on the planet, even better than forests in some cases.  Pine Ridge reservation consists of two million acres that could be rehabbed, and Bryan has a plan that could leverage available  funding into a 10 year program to do it (via the economic cooperatives).  Not only will this create carbon sequestering on a huge scale, it will create substantial long term employment on a rez that experiences between 60-90% unemployment, and will revitalize natural resources and ecosystems for the tribe that will last for many generations.  This is OLCERI’s vision – and Warren will teach a Keyline course this summer to kick it off.   OLCERI is looking for donations for keyline plows as the grant money does not necessarily cover equipment like this.  The entire machine is not needed, but only the plow head, as tractors are available that can be used.  We would like teach the first crew of Lakota this July how to keyline design and plow and get them started on an historic 3000 acre watershed on tribal lands that OLCERI controls currently.

Last year’s course had some other great results. One student is doing a permaculture project at a different location on the rez and will be offering a number of courses this year including cob building and food forestry.

Two other students are currently working on an economic and water revitilization project with the Huichol Indians of Mexico, and another student has brought the 13 grandmothers into her network of sustainability in Northern California.

OLCERI, in tandem with Koreen Brennan with Grow Permaculture (formerly Permaculture Guild) will be holding four permaculture courses this year on the rez and is also offering internships and apprenticeships.  The courses will be:  Straw bale building (to complete a workshop on OLCERI’s site that will have multiple functions); Regenerative Skills – a unique course for young adults which will incorporate ancient Lakota skills such as hunting with bow and arrow, tracking, beadwork, medicinal herbs, etc, with permaculture design;  the Permaculture Design Certificate Course, and Keyline Design.  In addition, Koreen Brennan at Grow Permaculture (formerly Permaculture Guild) is partnering with Sustainable Homestead Designs ( , a project to create a fully self-sufficient off the grid demonstration homestead on the rez, to teach a food forestry course and plant a food forest at that location.

All of the courses will serve multiple functions – bringing new energy to the reservation via outside students, completing strategically key projects to move toward regenerative self-sufficiency, and creating economic engines that will move beyond OLCERI to positively impact the entire reservation and set a model and example for others.

The course for young adults flanks successful Lakota youth programs, such as Kiza and Running Strong, that focus on empowering youth at risk by providing cultural opportunities.  In addition, youth will learn the rudiments of marketable skill sets such as straw bale building and sustainable farming and ranching.

Kiza horse race at Pine Ridge

Kiza horse race at Pine Ridge

Because of the work we did last year, we are already getting strong interest in the courses for this year, so early enrollment is encouraged. Our goals to fund significant Lakota participation via paying students from outside the rez will be met with full enrollment.

Additional intern/apprentice projects at OLCERI this summer include:

Planting a kitchen garden

Planting a communal food forest in the riparian area of tribal lands

Planting wind breaks on the ranch for energy efficiency and to protect the animals and gardens

Creating water catchment and irrigation

Completing the wind power and biodiesel project so the ranch is fully off the grid energy wise

Building a straw bale workshop

We continue to seek funding for materials for the straw bale building, keyline plow, trees for the food forest, and heavy equipment needed for prairie rehabilitation.

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