Village Earth

A sampling of Grassroots housing efforts at Pine Ridge Indian reservation: A community development tool


By Clinton Wood

Author’s note

This paper is a brief summary of research performed for a master’s degree program at Colorado State University. If you would like more information, please contact Clint Wood at [email protected].

Research participants’ names have been coded to protect privacy.


Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is in need of several thousand houses to alleviate overcrowding and improve living conditions. The United States government has failed to provide appropriate or sufficient housing, and other individuals and organizations who have attempted to build homes for the Lakota have met with widely varying results.


In an effort to document reasons for housing failures and successes, I asked the following questions:

  • What problems and barriers have the Lakota encountered in their community-based efforts to build homes on the reservation?

  • What factors contribute to success or failure of such housing efforts?


To answer these questions, I interviewed twelve individuals who have attempted to build a home and three who are otherwise knowledgeable about housing efforts on the reservation. The process began with leads suggested by colleagues as well as leads established on past visits to Pine Ridge. The method of initial contact varied greatly: some participants were called by phone, but most were initially contacted by visiting them at their home because this is generally the most reliable way to find people on the reservation. All interviews were completed in two visits to the reservation of four to five days each during fall and winter of 2010.


These fifteen Pine Ridge residents talked about about their experiences with numerous housing technologies. These technologies included:

  • Earthship (tires rammed with soil, extensive use of salvaged items, earth berms)

  • Wood framing

  • Straw and clay insulation/infill

  • Log construction

  • Cob (sand, straw, and clay built in a monolithic manner)

  • Straw bale

  • Dismantling of abandoned buildings, building a new structure


In the process of transcribing the interviews, several themes, or common experiences, emerged from participants’ accounts of their projects:

  • Use of local and salvaged materials

  • Reliance on the local “informal” economy

  • Planning a house of a manageable size

  • Valuing home ownership

  • Factors influencing success or failure.

Use of Local and Salvaged Materials

Participants used local and salvaged materials extensively, such as:

  • On-site materials, such as logs, clay, soil

  • Locally-sourced lumber, straw bales

  • Salvaged wood, shipping pallets, concrete slabs.

Local materials reduced costs because they could often be obtained for free and they were often obtained from on or near the building site and hence did not need to be shipped or hauled. Local materials were also readily available and hence more could be obtained quickly if necessary.

Reliance on the Local Economy

Observations about or activities within the local economy


Observation or activity


Promoting locally produced, renewable energy to prevent money from leaving the reservation


Advocating for factories to be built on the reservation to provide jobs


Supporting business and networking on the reservation; recognizes “underground” economy


Milled and sold lumber from local trees

P6 (and P13)*

Bartered for heavy equipment and salvaged wood


Would like to see the tribe have access to their timber, as granted through treaty rights, for possible sale value


Runs community development organization; says houses need to be viewed as an investment


Attempted to barter with labor (unsuccessful)

P13 (and P6)*

Bartered for heavy equipment and salvaged wood


Does gardening work in trade for heavy equipment; giving excess materials to helper

  • P13 and P6 collaborated on the same project but were interviewed separately in order to record different perspectives.

 A great advantage of working within the local “informal” economy was significant reduction of costs. Through trade and bartering, builders could:

  • Obtain materials at reduced cost

  • Use equipment, such as tractors, to which they otherwise would not have had access

Planning a House of Manageable Size

Several participants mentioned that building a small house, or one of manageable size, was important to the success of a project because the house could be completed in one summer before bad weather set in. Similarly, a roof was an important construction milestone because it provided both shelter for workers, protection for the structure, and protection for tools and materials, regardless of the extent of progress.

P6 suggested that getting the roof on the house had an important psychological benefit: the walls were going up steadily, but once the roof was completed he thought, “I didn’t think it would be happening, but it is now.”

Valuing Home Ownership

Participants spoke of numerous benefits of owning a home, such as being able to have a garden, having more space for kids to play safely outside, not having to pay rent, and getting away from the cluster housing situation. Table 2 summarizes participants’ views about benefits of home ownership, or reasons they live in their own home.

Table 2: Views on benefits of home ownership, or reasons for owning a home




Can have sweat lodge, garden, livestock.

Kids can go out and play and learn while they’re playing.”


Help the people become more independent of Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) government


Wants to build a sturdy, warm house


More leniency with utility payments.


I’m safer out here. I never lock my doors.”


Home is an asset: “…it’s where you live, it’s where you spend most of your time, you’re probably going to pass it on to your kids.”


Wants to have a choice of housing, and show his kids they can have a choice, too.


I can do anything. No rules or nothing. I can do what I want to.”


Provide a place where family can be the best they can be.

Less likely to be vandalized.

Factors Influencing Success or Failure

While many factors affected a project’s outcome, three main factors emerged:

  • Experience and leadership

  • Resources and funding

  • Accountability and follow-through of off-reservation organizations or individuals.

Other factors, in particular issues with land ownership, were common. These are detailed at the end of this section.

Experience and leadership.

Several projects call attention to the importance of experience and leadership, but P13’s and P8’s projects highlight these skills particularly well. Their projects had three things in common: one, they involved outside volunteer or apprentice labor; two, they utilized alternative technologies; and three, the land was owned by the intended occupant. Nonetheless, their outcomes were very different because of differences in abilities and competence of the respective leaders and managers. P13’s construction leader had been building cob houses and leading internships for years and P13 ensured materials were on site when needed and put forth great effort to ensure everyone involved had good working relationships. In contrast, P8’s construction leader attended a few workshops and seemed to generate discord among the construction workers.

The construction of a house requires considerable skill, dedication, and preparation. A successful project must have the guidance of at least one skilled and knowledgeable person and be overseen by an effective leader (Clough, Sears, and Sears 2000). This is true both on and off the reservation.

Availability of resources and funding.

Lack of money may be an obvious obstacle when constructing a house, but in remote and impoverished areas such as Pine Ridge this obstacle seems to be magnified considerably. There are at least three reasons for this:

  • Running out of key construction materials and volunteer support may delay a project so severely that the house deteriorates beyond repair or workers may lose motivation.

  • Builders often do not have enough money to pay for gasoline to transport materials or workers, pay for help, or provide lunch for workers.

  • Up-front costs are difficult to cover because financial credit is difficult to obtain.

Accountability of off-reservation Organizations.

Both P7 and P9 suggested that outside organizations’ motives may not always be what they seem or be completely altruistic. P7 said that the woman who came to lead the construction of P7’s house may not have had P7’s interests foremost in mind, and P9 was concerned that her dome house project was being used for the organization or church to make a profit or gain prestige.

The organization that came to help P8 with her housing project was not well organized. The builders lacked experience and good leadership. Off the reservation, contractor licensing and similar registrations reduce the likelihood of incompetency and lack of follow-through. P7 suggested that registration or a clearinghouse could perform similar services and help alleviate such problems.

Other Factors.

The above factors determining success or failure were the most prevalent; however, participants also mentioned other challenges. These are summarized in table 3 below.

Table 3: Various housing obstacles and challenges encountered by participants


Housing obstacles or challenges


Land disputes


Land disputes, undeeded land

Difficulty in getting loans

Incompetent inspectors for tribal housing

Getting workers to building sites


Cost of materials, especially shipping costs

Societal and familial problems

Difficulty in getting loans

No sense of purpose or ownership


Lack of help and materials (his own home)

Lack of money to feed volunteers or pay for electricity to run tools

Lack of experience

No knowledge of funding or other assets

Political issues, derailment


Difficulty in accepting a house that was mostly a gift


Technical incompetence

Cultural insensitivity

No access to forest resources granted by treaty

Questionable motives of outside help


Ineffective leadership

Technical incompetence

Owner (P8) feels she should have been more involved


Inappropriate housing (“transition houses”)

Questionable motives of outside help


Black mold

Lack of financial literacy

No sense of pride or ownership


Lack of resources”

Equipment breakdowns

Lack of help, help backing out


Finding materials

Getting materials to site

Maintaining community relations


Age and safety of home


Lack of money and help

Of particular note are construction obstacles that arise due to land tenure issues. When a parcel of land is passed to children it is not divided among them in a manner that gives each person a deed for a distinct piece of land. Instead, all the heirs get a percentage share of the entire undivided parcel. This can create problems with home building activities if the builder does not first secure the written permission of a sufficient number of his or her fellow heirs. Several participants advised that any aspiring builders secure the written permission of all stakeholders prior to beginning any construction project. P2 stated, “So if you are building and you have permission from your father and then he passes away and siblings say ‘I wanted that piece of land,’ unless there is something in writing, it will stop everything.”


Based on this research, I offer the following four recommendations for residential construction on the reservation:

  • Do not use Pine Ridge as a testing ground

  • Change the focus of government and outside assistance

  • Build community capacity, not just houses

  • Use construction to support and grow the local economy.

Do Not Use Pine Ridge as a Testing Ground

Beware the pitfalls of conducting “demonstration” projects. Keep these points in mind:

  • The reservation is not a testing ground; the Lakota need real solutions and real houses.

  • Demonstration projects may include innovations that are not easily replicated or practical.

  • Projects that are intended to demonstrate a housing technology but do not have habitation as the goal do not demonstrate value and are, therefore, not likely to persuade people to try the technique.

For example, a straw bale or cob structure intended to be a playhouse or passive shelter can indeed be simple and quick to build because plumbing, heating, and electrical needs are not part of the equation, but in a house intended for full-time habitation such requirements account for a significant portion of the planning, permitting, inspection, and, perhaps most importantly, cost and expertise (Steen, Steen, Bainbridge, and Eisenberg 1999).

The Lakota’s housing situation is serious and life-threatening. Therefore apply technological innovations prudently:

  • Builders must not indulge in innovation for its own sake, but should apply innovations thoughtfully in response to a change in circumstances (Fathy 1973).

  • New technology and materials should address the social and cultural needs of the community rather than relying on the community to accept and adopt the latest innovation (Davis 1995).

  • To have far-reaching and significant impact, technologies must be readily understood and easily replicated.

Nevertheless, there are times when alternative technologies are the most appropriate:

  • Traditional adobe or wood may be most appropriate in one case, whereas reinforced concrete, steel, and glass may be most appropriate in another. Function, climate, cost, building codes, and personal taste are some of the deciding factors. (Krinsky 1996).

  • There should be a balance between tradition and innovation (Davis 1999).

  • Buildings do not have to be primitive to be culturally appropriate.

Spence et al. (1993) state that the important thing about housing is not what it is, but how it supports people’s lives.

Change the Focus of Government and Outside Assistance

While test projects may be ineffective, housing on the reservation should also not take the “one size fits all” approach. Cultural and familial needs should be understood and direct the housing process.

In the past, the government’s answer has been to primarily focus on cluster housing. While cluster housing may reduce up-front infrastructure costs, research has shown that housing that does not meet the needs of its users will be poorly cared for and not last long (Strub 1996). Therefore, housing in general will likely cost more in the long run. Both P3 and P10 stated that houses that have been provided through government programs have not been well-maintained because there is no sense of ownership or purpose. Other participants mentioned destructive practices, dependency on government handouts, and inefficient use of government funds as problems associated with government housing.

The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) of 1996 established the housing block grant system through which individual tribes can create their own tribal housing programs and apply for federal monies based on population and need. In spite of tribes reporting that the Act is generally effective (US Government Accountability Office 2010), it has not been effective at alleviating the housing shortage on Pine Ridge. For example, when P4 was asked if NAHASDA was helping to correct IRA policies and remove obstacles to housing on the reservation, he said, “I have no idea. You know, we still have waiting lists of 3000 or better.”

Build Community Capacity, not just Houses

On Pine Ridge there is a huge disparity between appropriate housing and housing supply. Housing, however, is more than shelter. Well-built housing encourages wealth generation because it provides healthy, comfortable spaces in which to raise a family and care for the elderly, provides places of employment, and confers status upon its owner (Spence et al 1993). Furthermore, family, religious beliefs, connections to environment, and life in general are all reflected in homes and their form and organization are influenced by the social interactions and rituals of the culture in which they develop (Lee and Parrott 2004; Ozaki 2002; Pottinger 1994). Jiboye et al (2005) state that not only is housing a reflection of culture, but contributes to the growth of culture and morals and is a reflection of the societal system that creates it.

These social and cultural interactions were important to the projects with which P13 and P4 were involved. P4 said the most successful part of the straw bale house project with which he was involved was bringing all the people together to do it: “There was initially a spirit that came in to it….” Similarly, P13 said that, overall, her family’s cob house is great and rates it an “8” on a scale of one to ten of satisfaction. She worked hard to maintain healthy community relationships and to keep everyone inspired, and her efforts paid off.

A healthy building culture is one in which people improve their own lives by being involved in the creative aspects of the housing process (Davis 1999). Housing is not just a product; it is also a process that is fundamental to the cultural well-being of the society that creates it and uses it (Mitchell and Bevan 1992; Minnery, Manicaros, and Lindfield 2000). Hence, local projects must employ and involve local builders and designers (Strub 1996). When outsiders command the housing process they take away a significant portion of the housing benefits.

This concept is reinforced by several participants’ assessments of their own projects. Completion of a house was not the sole metric of a successful project. P7 encountered significant obstacles and did not complete her house, but still rated her project a “five” because she had learned technical aspects of building and valuable lessons about how to recruit competent people. Similarly, P11 said that the most successful aspect of his log home project was “learning the do’s and don’ts” and he gave his project “beyond ten” on the rating scale. P15’s project is not yet complete, but he rates his project a “seven.” He says his current construction efforts are “just the beginning.” These ratings suggest that even when a project is not completed, participants benefit from the process.

Outside help should not be categorically rejected because there may be insufficient community expertise in engineering, planning, or architecture. Nevertheless, lasting and comprehensive solutions to the housing problem are more likely to be found when projects are conceived and controlled by the Lakota.

Use Construction to Support and Grow the Local Economy

The Lakota have devised numerous ways to survive in the tough Pine Ridge economy. Much of that economy is driven by “subsistence production, home-based enterprise, and socially based exchanges of goods and services” (Pickering 2000b, 149). P3 referred to the “horse trade thing that goes on to get enough materials to build a building.” The local, informal economy is significant and should not be overlooked in housing programs; in fact, it should be supported (Spence et al.1993).

In his interview, P1 offered the following advice: “whatever you do it has to come from the land.” If the Lakota use local natural resources, follow community-based approaches, and keep money and resources on the reservation, they may have more successful housing projects. It is not necessary to be relatively close to cities and airports to prosper in a rural setting. Identifying resources and knowing how to use those resources are more important skills (Isserman, Feser, and Warren 2009). However, political and economic environments have made it difficult for the Lakota to control their own natural resources (Pickering and Jewell 2008). To fully realize the potential of local materials and stimulate the local economy on Pine Ridge, Lakota control needs to be re-established. P5, for example, demonstrated the viability of local timber and lumber production, both as a profitable business and means to build his house; similar opportunities may exist for adobe brick making or production of construction-grade straw bales.


Many participants in this study attempted to construct their own homes to re-establish a sense of pride in their dwellings and free themselves from discontent with government cluster housing projects. They met with numerous challenges, but even when their projects were not completed most still showed a desire to try again and said they had learned many things about building a house. Such “side benefits” of the housing process are important. The Lakota need to benefit from the process by:

  • Earning a living

  • Learning construction techniques

  • Developing a sense of ownership

  • Building appropriate houses that enrich lives and build pride.

Government and outside assistance is important but should focus on removing obstacles in the housing process and making reparations for past transgressions. Outside assistance should make it easier for the Lakota to access, manage, and utilize their own local natural resources.

Pine Ridge is in need of anywhere from 3000 to 6000 houses. Simply “gifting” finished houses is neither an appropriate nor sustainable method of meeting this need. The Lakota should be integral to the planning, designing, building, and maintenance of homes and communities.


I wish to thank the residents of Pine Ridge Reservation for their time and hospitality during the interview process. The Oglala Sioux Research Review Board and Colorado State University Research Review Board also offered excellent advice on how to conduct the research in a respectful manner. Kathy Sherman, director of the Department of Anthropology at Colorado State University, provided much-needed background on the cultural aspects of the reservation. David Bartecchi, Director of Village Earth, shared his knowledge about land and housing issues. Brian Dunbar, the director of the Institute for the Built Environment, also gave important feedback regarding the content of this report.

References and further reading

 Bartecchi, David C. 2003. Social capital, structural change, and development on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Thesis. Colorado State University.

Biles, Roger. 2000. “Public housing on the reservation.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 24: 49-63.

Burke, Terry. 2004, February. Managing social housing for indigenous populations. Paper presented to conference of the Asia-Pacific Network for Housing Research, Hong Kong.

Chiu, Rebecca L. H. 2004. “Socio-cultural sustainability of housing: a conceptual exploration.” Housing, Theory, and Society 21: 65-76.

Clough, Richard H., Glenn A. Sears, and S. Keoki Sears. 2000. Construction project management. New York :John Wiley and Sons, Inc..

Corum, Nathaniel. 2004. Building one house: A handbook for straw bale construction. Bozeman, Montana: Red Feather Development Group.

 Davis, Howard. 1999. The culture of building. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Davis, Sam. 1995. The architecture of affordable housing. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

 Fathy, Hassan. 1973. Architecture for the poor. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 Isserman, Andrew M., Edward Feser, and Drake E.Warren. (2009). “Why some rural places prosper and others do not.” International Regional Science Review 32: 300-342.

 Jiboye, Adesoji D., L. Ogunshakin, and I. A. Okewole. 2005. “The socio-cultural dimension of housing: quality in Osogbo Nigeria.” International Journal for Housing Science and Its Applications 29: 153-163.

 Kilickiran, Didem. 2003. “Migrant homes: Ethnicity, identity, and domestic space culture.” In Constructing place: Mind and matter. edited by Sarah Menin, 99-110. London: Routledge.

 Krinsky, Carol H. 1996. Contemporary Native American Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press.

 Laderman, Elizabeth and Carolina Reid. 2010. “Mortgage lending on Native American reservations: Does a guarantee matter?” Journal of Housing Economics 19: 233-242.

 Lee, Hyun-Jeong and Kathleen Parrott. 2004. “Cultural background and housing satisfaction.” Housing and Society 31:145-158.

 McDowell, Kenneth. 1989. “Housing for native groups in Canada.” In Housing, Culture, and Design, edited by Setha M. Low and Erva Chambers, 43-55. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

 Memmott, Paul. 2004. “Aboriginal housing: has the state of the art improved?” Architecture Australia 93: 46-48.

 Minnery, John, Michelle Manicaros and Michael Lindfield. 2000. “Remote area indigenous housing: Towards a model of best practice.” Housing Studies 15: 237-258.

 Mitchell, Maurice and Andy Bevan. 1992. Culture, cash, and housing: Community and tradition in low-income building. London: VSO/IT Publications.

 National American Indian Housing Council. [NAIHC]. 2001. “Too few rooms: Residential crowding in Native American communities and Alaska Native villages.” Retrieved from http://www.naihc.net/index.php/documents/research-reports/

 Neutze, Max. 2000. “Housing for indigenous Australians.” Housing Studies 15: 485-504.

 Ozaki, Ritsuko. 2002. “Housing as a reflection of culture: Privatised living and privacy in England and Japan.” Housing Studies 17: 209–227.

 Pickering, Kathleen. 2000a. “Alternative economic strategies in low-income rural communities: TANF, labor migration, and the case of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.” Rural Sociology 65(1): 148-167.

 Pickering, Kathleen. 2000b. Lakota culture, world economy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

 Pickering, Kathleen and Benjamin Jewell. 2008. “Nature is relative: Religious affiliation, environmental attitudes, and political constraints on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 2(1):135-158. doi: 10.1558/jsrnc.v2i1.135

 Pottinger, Richard. 1994. “Sheltering the future.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 18(1): 119-146.

 Rodriguez, Anita and Katherine Pettus. 1990. “The importance of vernacular traditions.” APT Bulletin 22(3): 2-4.

 Rolnik, Raquel. 2009. Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/10/7, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/49a54f4a2.html [accessed 13 June 2012]

 Spaghetti Documentary Productions (Producer). 2004. Pine Ridge session one: A documentary on life and grassroots community development on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota U.S.A. [Motion picture]. (Available from Village Earth, P.O. Box 797, Fort Collins, Colorado 80522)

 Spence, Robin, Jill Wells, and Eric Dudley. 1993. Jobs from housing: Employment, building materials, and enabling strategies for urban development. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

 Steen, Athena S., Bill Steen, David Bainbridge, and David Eisenberg. 1999. “Benefits of straw bale construction.” In Ecological Design Handbook, edited by Fred A. Stitt, 169 – 184. New York: McGraw-Hill.

 Strub, Harold. 1996. Bare poles: building design for high latitudes. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

 US Census Bureau. 2010. Retrieved from the “American Fact Finder” online data tool at http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

 US Government Accountability Office 2010. “Tribes Generally View Block Grant Program as Effective, but Tracking of Infrastructure Plans and Investments Needs Improvement.” Highlights of GAO (Government Accountability Office) Document GAO-10-326.

 Van Hal, Anke. 2000. Beyond the demonstration project: the diffusion of environmental innovations in housing. Culemborg, Denmark: Aeneas Technical Publishers.

 Village Earth. N.d. Pine Ridge Reservation allottee land-planning map book. (Available from Village Earth, P.O. Box 797, Fort Collins, Colorado 80522)

Upcoming Courses in the Village Earth/CSU Online Certificate Program in Community-Based Development

Fall I Session

GSLL 1518 – Community-Based Food Systems

During this five week course, you will learn about various approaches to building community-based food systems and movements for food justice around the world. Together, we will evaluate successful efforts at food system relocalization and the protection of community food resources, as well as the factors that threaten these efforts.

Register Now »
Summer II Session

GSLL 1510 – Community-Based Mapping

This course explores theories, ethics, applications, and methods of community-based mapping and its role in participatory learning and action as well as larger processes of integrated community-based development.

Register Now »

Related Posts