Earth Tipi Supports Sustainability on Pine Ridge Reservation

Shannon Freed was first invited to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the spring of 2006. That summer she witnessed abject poverty, but also saw opportunity and hope for change.

When Freed looked around, she was inspired by the many natural and potentially recyclable resources around her. She wanted to show people that a solid home could be made from these materials. She hoped that this might inspire others to see things around them in a new light. Freed “…wanted for people to look at  things around them that had been waste and start to see them as assets” she said.

Many projects for natural buildings had been tried and failed, but in 2008 she got her chance. She called Coenraad Rogmans of House Alive. He agreed to come build a house in the summer of 2010 if she first organized the building of the home’s foundation in 2009. At the time, it was just a family project. Gerald Weasel, Freed’s father in law, her husband Adam and brother in law Luke did most of the labor while she did the organizing. Freed found materials and had them brought to the site.

Their first success was in finding a pile of concrete from an old building that had long since been demolished. It was sourced just 2.5 miles from the build site and was delivered by a local construction crew free of charge. Freed used funds that had been donated to purchase three sledge hammers. The majority of the summer was spent crushing 25-year-old concrete by hand. By the end of the summer the foundation was complete. That fall she was invited by Bryan Deans of Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative to join their permaculture certification course. With her new found skill she was inspired to turn a family project into a grassroots organization. The group is now known as Earth Tipi, and is a Village Earth affiliate project.

The original home site is now being developed as a sustainable homestead model. Two large gardens, which highlight permaculture techniques, and will soon incorporate Lakota spiritual gardening practices, fed this summers volunteers as well as at least six local families. They have incorporated a beehive and hope to harvest honey next year. They were also able to build a home for another family this summer using shipping pallets through a collaboration with Texas Natural Builders. The home is still under construction due to some unanticipated set backs, however, it is well on its way to completion. Currently, just finish work remains, and it is scheduled to be completed by the end of October.

Earth Tipi is excited to announce their upcoming projects which include a hosting a Children’s Room in November at the Lakota Nakota Dakota Language Summit hosted by Tusweca Tiyospaye and a garden to table program for children made possible by a fellowship which was recently awarded through Together Green. The program will entail taking youth into the field to collect garden and wild foods then into the kitchen to learn how to prepare them into tasty meals. The project will also include a documentation aspect where the children will be given cameras to document the process and make cook books that can be shared digitally or printed to take home. There are currently discussions with GLOBIO to collaborate on the documentation aspect so that the children of Pine Ridge might provide and add content to their already extensive database of information for kids around the world. It is the goal of Earth Tipi to create profitable businesses that will support their projects so that they will be self-sustaining in every sense of the term, both growing their own food and using local resources to build houses, as well as generating a revenue stream to support all not-for-profit projects. Earth Tipi is seeking interns to help with project planning and implementation, if interested please contact Shannon Freed at [email protected] You can also read more about this project and make donations here.

Abandoning Empowerment: Semantics or Reality?

By Jamie Way, M.A. (Way is Village Earth’s Training Director.)

While attending an activist conference recently, I heard a plenary speaker passionately declaring his hatred for a number of words used by non-profits. Among the list of usual suspects (sustainability, etc.) he seemed particularly angry with the word “empowerment”.

At first I dismissed his argument as just another rant so common among activists and academics that readily discredit or abandon a word. Over the following few days, I kept trying to figure out what it was that he disliked so much about “empowerment.” Was it the word’s co-optation or its real significance?

What is clear is that this speaker represents a growing debate amongst organizers over the use of a handful of terms. Have they been so over-used and abused that once sacred terms like “participation”, “sustainability” and “empowerment” that were used to distinguish our work only have any significance if they are comfortably positioned next to a table illustrating their levels in an academic journal? Perhaps. If this was the case, I was confident that we could stand up to reclaim these words, rather than counting them as another casualty before adopting the next set of politically correct vernacular.

What started to concern me more, however, was if the term “empowerment” had as much significance as I had once hoped.

As a student of Political Science, I have long championed the idea of “development as empowerment,” (a play on Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.) After all, as a literature review will suggest (read a literature review here), empowerment has been utilized in academic discourse to refer to support for the process by which a community gains power over their own future and increases their freedom of choice.

Seeing empowerment as just increasing self-determination, however, fails to note the connotations of the word in everyday language. A quick dictionary search yields a revealing list of related terms: confer, grant, delegate, give or invest. All of these words are used to describe how a presumably more powerful party “gives” power to a less powerful group. Colloquially speaking, it is evident that the term at least connotes a transfer of power.

The recognition of a power differential is not necessarily negative. Solidarity activists have long utilized their position of power to support the grassroots movements of less powerful actors. The term, however, is seen as problematic by some, because there is an aspect that implies giving agency, as if it is “ours” to give, rather than “theirs” to take.

In its best form, the literature on empowerment sees it as a means of overcoming structural limitations. (At its most paternalistic it speaks of increasing a groups capacity for decision-making.) Solidarity work is particularly effective when agency is limited by structural impediments, removing obstacles to liberation. Due to positions of privilege, there are times when allies are able to overcome structural limitations or be granted access to otherwise off-limit locations. But empowerment (in the sense of conveying power) seems to go a step beyond acts of solidarity. It raises the question of if we can actually transfer some of our position of privilege to others. And, if we can transfer power, is this a true means of liberation, or merely another form of the privileged having pity on the oppressed?

Perhaps the speakers annoyance with “empowerment” was somewhat warranted, at least if we use the term in its colloquial sense. Without some clarification of what we mean when we use the term, it seems to miss the point of Freire’s mutual liberation through process of discovery. It instead sees power as concentrated in ones’ hands and something to be given through a charitable act, not claimed through a dignified action. While the grassroots can use solidarity and the support of those in places of privilege, organizers should be careful not to recognize their agency as our gift.