Coming Home Again
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Adonis Saltes grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The 24-year-old graduates from Southern Utah University this summer and plans to move home. Saltes says he’s seen people on the reservation struggle while doing youth suicide prevention work with his family.
“I’ve seen first hand people living ten people in a house, bugs all over. I’ve seen first hand real poverty and hardships from what my family does for people.”
Estimates put Pine Ridge’s unemployment rate between 80 and 90 percent. In 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported the reservation has the lowest life expectancy rate in the country.Saltes says he was returning NOT for a ready made job - but to help create something new. He wants to start a Museum called Lakota Dream to tell historyfrom a Native American perspective. He says when young people know their identity, it can save lives.
“If our people knew who they were, maybe that little kid wouldn't want to kill himself. Maybe he would know what the world needs him. Because I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if I didn’t know who I was. Every person, every kid deserves that.”
Saltes is currently running an online campaign to raise money for the project. Right now, he’s trying to get enough donations to purchase about 700 acres of land in the Black Hills near Mt. Rushmore. He says the next step is to sit down with the plans he has drawn up and start building. The land has a historic connection to Lakota people. Saltes says part of the land was used for Lakota camps before the Battle of Little Bighorn and there are photos of Chief Black Elk there. He says it’s important for Native people to tell their story of their heritage.
“We want to tell the good about our people, our way of life, the powerful medicine men that came through our people. And we want to tell people ‘this is where we are. This is where we’re going.’ There’s so much history that people are missing.”
During his years as a student in Utah, Saltes mentored kids there. He says he’ll find a way to help any community, but South Dakota is where he feels connected.
Some people don’t travel very far for college. Adonnis Martinez is from Rapid City and graduated from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The 25 year old studied Civil Engineering. He’s a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and now works with AmeriCorps Housing on Pine Ridge.
“I give lectures on cultural communication, diverse teaming, being an effective leader and things like this. How to properly communicate and deal with tribal government and all that stuff.”
Martinez is using techniques he learned growing up in South Dakota to help outsiders communicate cross-culturally. He worked with several projects on Pine Ridge during college. He helped redesign a greenhouse that provides when it opens it will provide a local source of fresh food. He also studied flood plains and climate. He says it’s important to communicate with people who live on the reservation about what they need. That’s something he teaches people outside the community.
“Effective listening. You can never listen too much. I told them that’s one of the things that we need to do more of, is listen. It’s especially true when you’re dealing with projects on the reservation.”
Martinez’s work focuses on ways to make the reservation safer. He helps decide where emergency responders are most effective based on weather conditions and housing locations. He also connects Mines students with projects in the area. Martinez plans to pursue a masters degree at the Oglala Lakota College and continue working in his home state.
“I knew I wanted to go to Mines, it was right here in town. I have three younger sisters, younger brother, my mom, my grandma. We all live together, we have a big house. I had to stay close to them.”
Community development projects can pay off, even if it takes time. Nick Tilsen grew up going back and forth between Minnesota and Pine Ridge. The 35 year old eventually moved to Pine Ridge for college. In his twenties, he was an organizer with an idea.
“We knew that we wanted to create an organization that could tackle systemic problems in our community. Meaning that we didn’t want to create bandaid solutions. We wanted to have change, not charity and attack the very systems of oppression that perpetuate the problems in our community.”
Tilsen and some friends put together a business model, wrote grants, and now--he’s the executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. The organization provides nine programs including a housing development, classes on the Lakota Language for children, a focus on food sovereignty--and cultural courses that offer a link to traditional Lakota art.
He feels like they’ve helped create a better future for their kids.
“It’s not just an innovative for South Dakota but it’s innovative period. And I would say that our work here at Thunder Valley and what we’re trying to work and accomplish is informing what transformative, community grassroots change looks like in communities of color all across America.”
Thunder Valley has been doing community work for ten years. Tilsen says it’s exciting to see the development take shape. He says other states are using the model Thunder Valley has developed to help tackle similar issues.
“Native people aren’t going off and then coming back because there’s a bunch of job opportunities here on Pine Ridge. They’re coming back for these deeper reasons. Some of them are the same reasons that young people and young professionals strive for, which is a sense of identity and a commitment to place and a commitment to purpose and life.”
Nick Tilsen says that’s part of the reason many Native people come home and roll up their sleeves - to make things better for the community. Tilsen stepping down as executive director of Thunder Valley to make space for new and upcoming leadership.