By Denise DePaolo
Images by Bonny Fleming of Asio Studio
Time is short for poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. That is, if Nick Tilsen has his way.
Tilsen is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He grew up on Pine Ridge, where it’s not unusual for several generations to live under one small roof. For many, living with relatives is a necessity, since housing options on South Dakota’s reservations are infamously scant.
“A lot of times houses are built for five or six people to live in,” he said. “But when you start to get 10, 15, even 20 people living in a house, there’s a lot of wear and tear on the house, and the standard of living in some of those homes gets really harsh.”
Part of the problem lies the area’s aging, insufficient infrastructure. Building has come to a virtual standstill on Pine Ridge, because utilities are maxed out. That means no homes for sale and nothing to rent. As a result, half of the 5,000-person workforce commutes off the reservation at the end of the day, taking their money with them.
“A huge amount of them become the working poor, because they’re spending a huge amount of their disposable income on transportation related costs,” said Tilsen, who realized at a young age that no white knight was coming to help, and no amount of wishing would improve his tribe’s reality. The only way he saw to break the cycle of poverty was to take action at grassroots level, starting the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in 2007.
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