World Wildlife Fund

Report date
October 2022

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The Strong Hold Working Group (SHWG) is instrumental to making progress. The group is made up of members from all nine districts on Pine Ridge, bringing diverse perspectives from across the reservation. Regular meetings (both virtual and in-person) and collaboration are key to building group cohesion, developing shared priorities, and advancing them. Meetings are focused on finalizing priorities from community survey data, with the concept of “Protection” emerging as the strongest priority--protection of the land and all that lies on and within. We aim to translate this priority into action by requesting to erect signs that would cite tribal laws regarding theft and removal of cultural resources (e.g., fossils and agates). The SHWG is also creating a story map that will be shared with all nine districts on Pine Ridge and will include data from the community survey. The current elections on Pine Ridge claimed the SHWG member from Pass Creek district, so we selected a new individual to represent the District. They have now attended three SHWG meetings. It is vital to continue to grow our group, maintain cohesiveness, and collaborate with other local stakeholders and organizations.
A year ago, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TV), a tribally-led non-profit on Pine Ridge, decided the time was right to establish its own bison herd after a request to the Tribal government office responsible for bison management turned down their request to supply any bison meat for a community program. TV expressed interest in the opportunity to partner with WWF. With input from WWF, TV has been exploring the availability of leases at Pine Ridge. TV’s focus is on Range Unit 506 (39,904 acres) and 510 (7,684 acres), which the Bureau of Indian Affairs administers in trust for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and which became available for leasing in April 2022. In late June, the Oglala Sioux Tribes Land Committee met with TV’s Executive Director and Food Sovereignty Director regarding their vision for the project. There was a unanimous vote in favor of assigning both leases to TV for bison restoration. The committee even voted unanimously to renew the lease every five years for a total of 25 years, speaking to their enthusiastic support for the project. The lease terms are now being reviewed by the Tribal allocation committee.
“Indigenizing conservation. Being a good relative” is a weekly radio show we have initiated on KILI every Monday at 7am. So far, we have interviewed various Indigenous guests to discuss how to Indigenize conservation. It is the lone radio show on Pine Ridge that talks about conservation. We share the title and ask at every show, “What does Indigenizing Conservation mean to you?” We have had guests from other Native Nations and look forward to many more guests from other Nations. Consistency and making the show a conversation rather than talking at the listener are two very important aspects of sharing our messaging and enhancing community understanding of the history, complexities, current management, and ownership of the land base within the South Unit (the Strong Hold). We seek to elevate the voice of the community with hopes of being at the decision-making table representing the community voice. We also have conversations with the SHWG members on the radio allowing them to share the outcomes of the survey and how each member is representing and elevating the community voice and closing the gap that exists between our Tribal leadership and the people of the community.

Key lessons learned

Lessons learned for the SHWG are to engage more with the Oglala Sioux Tribes Council, President, and Vice President and ensuring that they are aware of and tracking SHWG discussions and progress. We have learned that we also really need to meet with the district executive boards more frequently to present on progress and move resolutions through the districts and eventually up to Council to generate greater support and awareness for the SHWG. With the radio program, the SHWG needs to make sure that its own members are lined up to participate and rotate hosting so that the show will go on even if SHWG Lead Monica Rattling Hawk cannot attend taping of the show. With COVID affecting the SHWG members and their families, timing of activities has had to be more opportunistic, and going forward, we need to be adaptable and accepting of these challenges and constraints. We view all of these not as failures, but rather as important lessons learned that will help inform our approach going forward.
Working with trusted, Tribal-led organizations that are familiar with Tribal policies and players and navigate existing process is a major lesson learned, and as such, working with Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TV) is critical to launching the bison project. Though securing the land to restore bison is a very involved process that requires knowledge of tribal policies and the political landscape, TV’s staff is ideally suited to advance these efforts because community members and leaders trust TV’s intentions and that they have the capacity to succeed. TV has been navigating many steps in this complicated process, both anticipated and unanticipated, which is contributing to delays in securing the leases, but it continues to move in the right direction. There are many highly effective organizations like TV in Indigenous communities and bringing resources to their vision is key to the success of any such endeavor.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Collaboration has been the most important in terms of making progress. There are certain capacities that the SHWG does not have, and reaching out and working with others, such as our collaboration with TV on bison restoration, brings a lot more opportunity to achieve the community’s ambitious vision.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Consistency and persistence have also been critical elements for us in our community process. Working through COVID and Tribal administrative changes, you must be persistent. “Get up, Dress up, and Show up” is the motto of the SHWG. We also try to maintain a healthy distance from social media, where comments sometimes attack various individuals and the work to bring the change desired by our communities.

Understanding the problem

It has become very apparent that two key federal entities, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Park Service, manage this focal landscape and many of the economic opportunities that are generated within it as a result. All the while, the owners of the land, the Oglala Lakota people, do not have a voice. The SHWG is closing this gap by providing information, data, and opportunities for conversation, with the intent of being a recognized advisory group and bringing the voice of the communities to the decision-making table. This is critically important for our future generations.

If you could do it all over again...

Prioritizing engagement with the Tribal council, even when COVID made that difficult, was and is critically important to this work. Due to challenges to engaging in person due to COVID and difficulty accessing Zoom at times to engage virtually at the beginning of the grant period, the SHWG missed out on some discussions and opportunities being considered by the council, such as CRAK—a conservation opportunity that was presented to the Tribal council that defined conservation locations on Pine Ridge. As a result, the community’s perspective was not represented in this conversation. Informed by this experience and with council meetings opening up again, we are ensuring more active and consistent engagement with and participation in council meetings.

One last thought

As referenced above, the unanimous vote to not only grant two leases to TV for bison restoration, but to renew those leases every five years for 25 years, is a major achievement and reflects the overwhelming community support for this work. This change in language in the terms for leases from the usual five years to longer lease terms for those obtained by Native-led community-based organizations, like TV, is crucial for bison restoration and a change that reflects community wishes and desires. It is hoped that we can ultimately change our grazing ordinance to be more inclusive of different structures for leasing and managing.