It is a place of incredible resilience amidst terrifying history.
Established in 1889 by white colonialists as a Prisoner-of-War camp for Native Americans, South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation is now the second largest Native American Indian Reservation in the United States.
Building a permaculture education centre and language school here, in one of the most neglected places in the United States, embodies exactly the kind of resilience that travellers focused on sustainability should strive to support.
This was the intention set by the organisers of the Indigenous Wisdom and Permaculture Skills convergence (IWPS).
The convergence took place on the Pine Ridge Reservation and focused on supporting Bryan Dean’s Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI). Bryan, a Lakota man and the site owner, has been using his land as the site of his nonprofit for the last 17 years. The OLCERI works to tackle ongoing systemic oppression, focusing on education and employing creative, long-term, sustainable solutions to issues such as extreme poverty, lack of adequate housing, and food scarcity.
What I recount here represents the views of a white man on indigenous land. I have been fortunate enough to learn a number of lessons about events like these.
The Lakota people today continue to endure the effects of ongoing colonialism.
To give you an idea of what they face, according to statistics provided by the American Indian Humanitarian Foundation, the teenage suicide rate for native communities is 150% greater than the national average. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the country—about 300% above the national average. A third of residents have diabetes, and housing is incredibly overcrowded, with each home averaging 17 people. Older people are routinely found dead in their homes from hypothermia.
According to a Bureau of Indian Affairs report, the Pine Ridge Reservation schools are in the bottom 10% of school funding by the U.S. Department of Education. Teacher turnover is 800% above the national average. The list goes on, and the pain is insurmountable for many, yet Bryan has a vision for this place that speaks to true resilience.
From July 25th to 31st, I joined people from all over the world who came together on this land.
Students of sustainability, permaculturists, natural builders, agroecologists, and Lakota people met to learn from each other and experience first-hand the building of a resilient community.
As a traveller seeking out sustainable solutions, I’ve found that this focus on building resilient communities often separates two types of places/gatherings: ones that see environmental issues as solely a result of unsustainable practices, and those that understand their interconnectedness in a systemically racist, patriarchal, capitalist, colonial system.
The former perspective steers us toward lifestyle change as the most meaningful action.
The latter recognises the need to help solve these issues through empowering community.
The IWPS represents the latter. This conference brought people together to help build projects that would support Bryan’s work in creating sustainable and replicable projects for his community. Projects that would last many generations and help people on the reservation become less reliant on a system that consistently discriminates against them.
This is not to say that the community project seeks to completely isolate itself; rather, it is redefining its relationships within the system by providing meaningful alternatives. We know that the greatest positive social and environmental advancements that have ever occurred happen because of people working together to create a culture of resistance (see the Suffragette, Civil Rights and Environmental movements).
I want to support places and events that understand the interconnectedness of social and environmental issues as a product of unjust systems of power.
I want to support organisations that promote working together to resist these systems
This is an important distinction, especially for people travelling and pursuing sustainability.
Very often, we have the option of paying thousands of dollars to go to permaculture sites, yoga centres, and organic farms in communities where the people who most need these resources cannot afford them. This often includes locals and indigenous communities. There, we often learn useful skills, but skills that encourage us to take an individualised approach to environmental issues.
We can choose places, projects, and events like the IWPS that aim to fight with communities that are suffering, and that provide accessible opportunities for the community to get involved.
These events have kindly taught me that having the choice to not engage with the suffering of minority communities around us is a privilege. In fact, it is our collective ancestral colonial history of the decimation of indigenous communities that has in part laid the foundations for our current privileges.
One of these privileges is the ability to pay thousands of dollars and travel far to learn about sustainability and have “transformational experiences” at events like these.
Even when we choose to support more community-orientated initiatives, it is not hard to imagine that we might replicate a damaging concept of “help” when we do not even know our own history. Thus, the convergence was also an important lesson in the difference between asking communities what they want and giving people what we think they need.
As we work to implement sustainable and just solutions, our ideas about what the world needs can be as strong as the convictions of the white colonists and missionaries who thought that indigenous people needed to die out or assimilate.
Our sustainable ideas and actions can be arrogant, ignorant, and stubborn toward the people we want to include.
Indeed, time and time again we have forced our ideas of “help” on those who already suffer from the ignorance of current powers. According to Bryan, despite the reservation drowning in over 100 NGOs, in the past five years the number of people practicing traditional Lakota ways of life has fallen from 10% to 4%.
A set of toxic assumptions about Native Americans often accompanies the heads of these organisations. This applies to any organisation or person aiming to have an impact in any community. We rarely critically examine these assumptions, which even many participants brought with them to the convergence.
Assumptions such as, “Native Americans don’t know how to look after themselves, they don’t expect much of their lives because they haven’t known anything else.”
Assumptions like these set us up to ignore the incredible power of resistance and traditional systems still functioning in much of the community despite years of genocide. This in turn gives us a sense that “we know best,” making it that much easier to point the finger at individuals instead of supporting the resistance in the community. It is this community-based resistance that stands the best chance of confronting the system of power in which we are complicit.
From what I could tell, however, the work we were doing at the IWPS came from a place of respect, of understanding the history of the land we were on, and of asking the OLECRI, “What do you want from us?” instead of, “I know best.” The organizers inculcated attendees into this respect by giving us extensive reading packs that outlined the history of the Lakota people’s trauma and our ancestral history as colonial settlers on their land.
This is certainly no bulletproof method to decolonize, but education is an important first step.
I am not saying that travelling, learning, and practicing sustainability to “help communities” is inherently immoral. Neither is seeking transformation.
However, with a 10:1 ratio of travellers to Lakota people at the convergence, over 100 NGOs working in the area, and worsening statistics from every angle, it’s important to question whether we are doing the right thing.
The evidence, for many of us, was in seeing Bryan use our support to revive his culture and land. The language school will one day function to teach more Lakota people their language, and the permaculture centre is teaching his people how to be self-sufficient again—knowledge which was largely lost through colonialism. These projects are meant to last, are meant to support local traditional systems, are meant to be building resilience for future generations.
Whilst most of us left after the conference to return home, the projects we worked on will stay.
The food forest and garden will continue to grow, and the site will continue to provide education and opportunities for the people of the reservation, helping to bring them together to rebuild resilient communities.
Perhaps travelling to far off places to learn about sustainability is giving us transformational shifts in perspectives, but perhaps too we are being incentivised away from the communities that need support. To work in places where only people like us can afford to travel does not feel like putting these transformational perspectives to good use.
Why not put our privilege, and our money, toward recognising and supporting the incredible power within disadvantaged communities—traditional systems that are already working, giving people a sense of pride, and creating a culture of resistance?
It is that culture of resistance that has bolstered many of the human rights and intact environments that we now enjoy.
If you are travelling to learn about more sustainable practices, I challenge you to ask yourself: Who am I really helping?
You can find out more about the OLCERI and how to provide support here.
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