Spotlight Exclusives

Ending Poverty in Native Communities: A Moral Responsibility

Nick Tilsen, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation Nick Tilsen, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, posted on

Six of the eleven poorest counties in all of America are in South Dakota, and they are all on Indian reservations. The poverty in these communities is historic, isolated, generational poverty, largely out of sight and out of mind to mainstream American society.

In the past, the Oglala Lakota Nation of which I am a citizen had strong, sustainable regional economies that were built around a nomadic lifestyle of hunting buffalo, stewarding the land, and managing sophisticated societal and democratic governance structures. The people no longer hunt the buffalo, but we are still here and a sustainable, resilient community is still possible. It is a moral responsibility to build a culture of innovation in and around Indian Country.

Today, the majority of the Oglala Lakota live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where 48 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line,  89 percent are unemployed, and median income is $27,065 compared to the national average of$46,369 This deeply entrenched poverty has had profound impacts on the health of the Oglala Lakota people who call this reservation home. The life expectancy is 48 years for men and 52 for womenthe lowest in the entire western hemisphere with the exception of Haiti.

Because of a severe housing deficit, on average, nine residents live in a single two or three bedroom home and 9 percent of homes lack adequate and humane plumbing compared to the national average of half a percent. These are third-world poverty conditions in the heart of America.

As part of the campaign to “manifest destiny,” the United States created strategies and policies to colonize Native lands and eradicate more than 600 tribes. While the United States was becoming the richest country in the world, its Native population was being killed by the millions, children were being taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools, and the peoples۪ cultural ways were being destroyed.

The oppression that Native people have endured throughout history is a grave injustice and part of a very dark history in this country. Those policies created by the United States government continue to perpetuate poverty in Native communities today.

I was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and have experienced the impacts of poverty and poor-quality housing firsthand. But today, the Oglala Lakota people are beginning to build a movement of young people and families are reconnecting with their cultural identity and learning to see the challenges that we face as opportunities for change. We as Oglala Lakota people have decided that the conditions in our communities are unacceptable and that we are going to change them for good.

The key to ending poverty in the poorest places in America is building a culture of innovation through hard work and designing sustainable and resilient communities. Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit located in the heart of the reservation, is working to create a 34-acre planned community that will provide homeownership opportunities, create jobs, build skills, and create social enterprises to build community wealth. This project isn۪t just about building a physical developmentit۪s about creating a tangible rallying point to bring together community leaders, banks, foundations, and agencies to create a national model for alleviating poverty.

Some people might think that ending poverty in Indian Country is overwhelming, too entrenched, too complicated, or impossible. We the people of these communities think otherwise. We believe that ending poverty in America۪s Native communities is a moral responsibility that is attainable in less than a generation, in my lifetime.

The work begins with strong Native organizations and tribal governments armed with leaders that are willing to collaborate with banks, philanthropic institutions, and government agencies that focus on a systemic approach to community development.

Although Indian Country is burdened with some of the biggest challenges the United States has ever seen, less than 1 percent of all philanthropy in America goes toward advancing poverty-alleviation efforts in Native communities. This absolutely has to change, and with it an interagency collaboration with federal partners and Native leaders on the ground.

Ending poverty in America۪s poorest communities is not a Pine Ridge problem, a South Dakota problem, or a Native problem. It is an American problem, and it is entirely solvable.

We have the resources in the United States to make this a priority. When we reflect on our past and look toward our future, we have a moral responsibility to do so. As Victor Hugo said, “Nothing is more powerful in the world than an idea whose time has come.”

The movement is here, and the time is now to take action and end poverty in Native communities. We are on the verge of a very important part of our shared American history that will be told for generations to come

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Nick Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is the executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation . For more information on Thunder Valley۪s work to end poverty in Native communities visit:

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