Near the Badlands of South Dakota, down a long dirt road and under the Great Plains sky, lies the residence of Bryan Deans. This is Pine Ridge Reservation, sovereign nation of the Oglala Lakota people. His residence stands out against the manufactured housing projects that dot the rolling plains with an unusual sight – a giant glass building jutting out and half submerged in the ground – a “Walapini Greenhouse” that Bryan Deans designed and built himself from repurposed materials. His ranch is an experimental permaculture site, a community beacon of sustainability, and the site of the Indigenous Wisdom & Permaculture Skills Convergence this late July.
Deans runs nonprofit OLCERI- the Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative from his land. An aerospace engineer, welder, and veteran who taught at West Point Military Academy before returning to his birthplace on the reservation, Deans envisioned and constructed everything on-site with many helping hands over the last 17 years.
OLCERI works to address challenges on Pine Ridge as the result of ongoing systemic oppression including food scarcity, lack of adequate housing, and extreme poverty. They implement creative, education-based, long-term sustainable solutions. On the ranch, a newly planted food forest will someday supply perennial foods, build fertile topsoil, and act as a windbreak for other site areas. Near the outdoor kitchen is a community garden for corn, beans, and squash. The greenhouse is made from some of the most abundant resources on the reservation: old tires and clay. It supplies fresh food beyond the limits of a short outdoor growing season, and its simple and economical design can be replicated throughout the reservation.
I first arrived to OLCERI in 2013 to help plant the food forest and dig its water-retaining swales. I was moved by the dedication of the people to protect life as sacred, and saw the potential of many initiatives to serve as successful models of sustainability, if only resources were allocated. It was during this time that the dream for the Indigenous Wisdom & Permaculture Skills Convergence was first born. After 10 years of attending and producing music festivals, I wondered if all this energy could be redirected for a more meaningful and appropriate experience, one rooted in direct action, collaboration, and deeper ecological awareness? What if the buildings we constructed for these weekend getaways were permanent, benefited the surrounding environment, and were used by hundreds of people throughout the year for creating economic opportunities, deepening personal and spiritual growth, and healing our relationships? Why not focus our collective energy towards building infrastructure with underserved communities instead of on borrowed land? We will be converging for 5 days in late July on the OLCERI ranch to build ecological infrastructure, share skills and stories, make art, music, and come together to celebrate and honor Indigenous resiliency.
IWPS Convergence lead permaculture teacher Koreen Brennan, has been coming to Pine Ridge to plant and teach since 2005. Her expertise in food forestry and growing abundant food in harsh climates are put to the test against the heavily compacted clay soils and harsh winds of South Dakota. Koreen has planted over 1,000 trees in food forests around Pine Ridge. The OLCERI ranch is like a second home to her, and she sometimes stays months at a time. During the IWPS Convergence, Koreen will be sharing her deep knowledge in earth works, swale designs, and stories from her work on Pine Ridge, in Haiti, and beyond.
Our IWPS convergence teachers will bring ecological expertise from a multitude of experiences and perspectives. Indigenous teachers include Michael Alcazar who will share his work in sustainable housing with the Black Mesa band of Navajo people, and Winona Katso teaching traditional foods. An array of eco-builders and educators include Jim Schalles teaching wood-efficient rocket stove construction;Peter McCoy teaching mushroom cultivation for food and medicine; Brennan Bird leading workshops on natural building
The OLCERI ranch is off-the-grid, with many ecology-supporting systems already in place: wind turbines, solar panels, a sawmill, and a biodiesel plant for processing hemp, which is legal to grow on the reservation. The largest project underway is the construction of a multi-room cob building, the Indigenous Wisdom Center. Deans designed the structure and it will be built in collaboration with Engineers Without Borders and the IWPS convergence. The Indigenous Wisdom Center will house nonprofits focused on Lakota language and the preservation and revitalization of an Earth-centered culture.
While the vision and expertise for sustainability run strong on the ranch and surrounding reservation, many of the projects currently lack the funding to be completed or maintained. The Indigenous Wisdom and Permaculture Skills Convergence works to connect attendees with meaningful work and experiential learning through building. When attendees come together with the goal of learning and building models of sustainability, the cross-pollination of knowledge and ideas that can happen will radiate outward into communities on and off the Reservation long after the event. Residents who can’t attend are encouraged to visit after the event to see we’ve created.
In these current times of uncertainty, we look forward to merging native wisdom and resiliency with ecological technologies for food, housing, energy, and well-being. Through this work, we aim to co-create a new narrative that speaks to honoring life systems as sacred, and empowering all people to have the tools they need to thrive.
Join us for the first Indigenous Wisdom and Permaculture Skills Convergence. Tickets are on sale now, and all proceeds support the building projects. Appreciate our work, but can’t come out to build? Please consider donating to help offset our costs and enable us to do more for the planet and the people of Pine Ridge.
Thank you for answering the call to create a more ecologically regenerative and just world.