Sicangu Oyate Development Group envisions a prosperous future for the Rosebud tribe

TJ Heinert, the caretaker of the largest bison herd managed by Native Americans in the United States, shares insights on how he oversees the livestock for the Rosebud Tribal Reservation.

For decades, the U.S. government has made efforts to address the issue of tribal poverty in South Dakota.

The approach has proven unsuccessful.

On the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Reservation in Todd County, for instance, the annual income per person amounts to $12,562, which is just 45% of the adult population engaged in the workforce. Moreover, a staggering 39% of the 9,199 residents struggle to make ends meet, living below the poverty line.

Today, tribal development groups are actively involved in the task of fostering a strong economy on reservations. Instead of solely depending on federal programs managed by federal employees or tribal governments, they strategically utilize federal funding to make enduring investments. The objective is to initiate projects that will effectively meet the needs of the tribes while also striving for sustainability, even in the absence of external support.

Siċaŋġu Co’s work on Rosebud showcases the movement’s prominent visibility.

According to Michael LaPointe, the organization’s top economic development official, the primary objective is to improve living standards on the reservation. He firmly believes that both state and federal governments have been unsuccessful in accomplishing this task.

“He said that poverty has never been solved here.”

According to LaPointe, tribal governments face a challenge in addressing daily crises and applying for grants and loans aimed at improving economic conditions due to limited resources, despite the availability of federal and state economic development programs.

“It requires a great deal of effort and consumes a significant amount of staff resources,” emphasized LaPointe, highlighting the invaluable contribution of the development group. According to LaPointe, Siċaŋġu Co’s endeavors have directly resulted in the establishment of 180 new job opportunities in the past three years.

Siċaŋġu Co, established in 2019, is responsible for managing various economic and social development initiatives for the Tribe. While the COVID-19 pandemic caused certain projects to be postponed or modified, the organization is currently functioning at its maximum capacity.

Officials from the USDA Office of Rural Development recently visited the area to observe the progress made with the funding they provided and to identify potential areas where they could provide further assistance.

Community building

Siċaŋġu Co is currently engaged in an ambitious endeavor known as Keya Wakpala Woiċaġeyapi, or Turtle Creek Regenerative Development. This expansive 600-acre site is set to encompass a range of housing and business initiatives. The project aims to provide up to 600 affordable homes, along with a tribal grocery store and various shops. Additionally, Siċaŋġu Co will oversee a dedicated space to support aspiring entrepreneurs in launching their own businesses.

According to Michael Prate, the project overseer, there is a strong demand for high-quality homes. He is confident that Siċaŋġu can construct affordable homes with the assistance of different subsidies and grants.

Prate mentioned that the cost is comparable to the trailers commonly seen around town.

In 2023, the USDA Rural Development team invested approximately $4.5 million in tribal lands in South Dakota. This funding supported initiatives related to housing, water infrastructure, and diverse business investments. These efforts were part of a broader allocation of $683 million by the USDA rural development division in South Dakota last year, primarily aimed at enhancing internet connectivity and electricity services.

A sample of the homes under construction at Keya Wakpala Woiċaġeyapi on the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Reservation. (Joshua Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)

According to Nikki Gronli, the state’s USDA rural development team leader, the USDA has the ability to provide home loans that require little to no down payment, offer a low-interest rate, and extend the mortgage term to 40 years.

According to Gronli, owning a home plays a crucial role in wealth accumulation. He emphasizes that high-quality homes are essential for attracting professionals such as doctors, police officers, and teachers to the community.

The project aims to generate employment opportunities in the construction industry, according to Prate. Additionally, it provides job training options for tribal members.

According to him, this goes beyond the construction of houses.

Exciting news for the local community! A nearby factory is set to open its doors, creating more employment opportunities. This company specializes in manufacturing prefabricated parts for homes, and their expansion promises to further boost the job market.

Prate also highlighted a community greenhouse and garden nearby, which is managed by Siċaŋġu Co. He mentioned that one of the residents’ main requests for their community, as revealed in a survey conducted by the group, is to have access to locally grown food.

Land use changes

In 2020, Siċaŋġu Co embarked on the establishment of the Wolakota Buffalo Range, spanning an impressive 28,000 acres. During that year, a total of 100 wild bison were introduced to the range from two national parks. Over time, additional bison have been incorporated from various herds, contributing to the growth and expansion of the range. Presently, the Wolakota Buffalo Range is home to a thriving population of 1,012 bison.

The largest bison herd managed by Native Americans in the United States was previously leased to non-tribal ranchers for cattle grazing.

Now, the herd is self-sustaining and capable of growing without the need for additional bison from external sources. TJ Heinert, the caretaker of the herd, dedicated time to honing his sharpshooting abilities to ensure a humane and efficient kill. The Tribe utilizes every part of these bison for their food-security program and traditional ceremonies, emphasizing their commitment to sustainability and reverence for the animals.

LaPointe, the development official, expressed Siċaŋġu Co’s ambitious vision for the bison. The Tribe aims to establish a thriving bison population of 6,000 and distribute sustainable and ethically sourced bison products nationwide. Furthermore, they plan to construct a processing facility and create an inviting environment to attract tourists.

Heinert and LaPointe emphasized that their primary objective is not solely focused on making money.

Heinert emphasized the importance of reconnecting people with the buffalo.

In the future, there will be a significant focus on farming. Currently, the reservation sees a considerable amount of land being leased by non-tribal farmers, as noted by LaPointe. Siċaŋġu Co’s Rosebud Farm Co is actively involved in teaching individuals how to farm and is responsible for managing 1,800 acres of organic farms.

“We have a strong focus on job creation,” stated Bud Colombe, one of the program administrators. “Unfortunately, many of our farm jobs are currently unavailable.”

Colombe is interested in exploring grain dryers and storage facilities on the reservation, as it would provide the tribe with greater control over its supply chain.

He mentioned that they don’t possess any of those items.

According to Gronli from the USDA, they have the capability to provide loans for these projects.

Siċaŋġu Co is also engaged in various value-added agriculture initiatives. Koby Jeschkeit-Hagen, the food systems coordinator of the organization, mentioned their plans to produce and market products such as organic baby food. These products would be affordably available within the Tribe’s boundaries but sold at a higher price in other locations.

LaPointe also mentioned that Siċaŋġu Co is making significant investments in wind energy projects on the Tribe’s lands. Moreover, they are introducing a wind turbine technician program at the Tribe’s well-established Sinte Gleska University.

Tribal education

Bison and locally sourced produce are already part of the lunch menu at the Siċaŋġu Co’s Lakota immersion school.

Chronic absenteeism among Native American students in South Dakota’s public schools has risen dramatically over the past five years, surging from 31% in 2018 to a staggering 54% in 2023. This alarming increase in absenteeism has positioned Native American students as the demographic with the highest absenteeism rates in South Dakota. Further data from the state Department of Education reveals that a concerning one-third of Native American public school students fail to complete high school, with a mere 7% taking the ACT. Additionally, a staggering 84% of these students are not considered college and career-ready.

Wakanyeja ki Tokeyahci, a school that opened its doors in 2020, provides a holistic education for pre-K to 2nd-grade students. With a primary focus on the Lakota language and core educational concepts embedded in Lakota culture, the school started with kindergarten classes and has gradually expanded to accommodate more grades.

Sage Fast Dog Sr., the head of the Wakanyeja ki Tokeyahci school, talks about the importance of teaching core education concepts within a context that tribal students are familiar with.

Similar stories are unfolding across South Dakota’s nine reservations, driven by various tribal development corporations, according to Gronli.

These organizations, such as Thunder Valley development group of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Four Bands Community Fund of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, are dedicated to various initiatives. These initiatives encompass areas like housing development, financial education, education, and business support.

In South Dakota, there are numerous pressing issues that affect all of us, such as housing, childcare, and health. However, what stands out to me is the proactive approach taken by various groups within tribal areas to tackle these challenges. They are addressing these issues head-on and working towards finding sustainable solutions.

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MBS Staff
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