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Sustainable Nations Workshop

A sustainable development workshop was held on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, August 8 th -18 th, 2005. PennElys GoodShield, Project Coordinator of the Sustainable Nations Development Project, organized the workshop to encourage sustainable development in Native American communities.

The Sustainable Nations Development Project ( has emerged in response to the need present within the Native American community for culturally based, community managed energy and housing development. By specializing in development that is less detrimental to the environment, using appropriate technologies such as renewable energy systems, efficient water management systems, and sustainable building techniques, tribes can provide community controlled, long-term income for its citizens, maintain and improve the health of its land and resources, while also maintaining spiritual and cultural values.

The workshop took place on Henry Red Cloud’s land, a descendent of Chief Red Cloud, who is determined to restore Oglala Lakota Sioux traditions and self sufficiency according to traditional wisdom. Seven generations have passed with their people living among the white man. "After the seventh generation, we would become self-sufficient by taking their goodness and the goodness of the Lakota," Henry Red Cloud said, “and secure the future of the next seven generations.”

Excitement over new possibilities was certainly in the air, judging by the enthusiasm evident among participants. Topics ranged from photovoltaics and wind energy systems, to sustainable building and straw-bale construction. It was pointed out that Pine Ridge and other areas in the Northern Great Plains could likely become the “ Saudi Arabia of wind energy” – thereby creating economic prosperity for the region and an environmentally friendly source of renewable energy that would lessen US reliance on foreign energy sources.

There was a great deal of discussion about the projects being developed by Village Earth ( and other like-minded organizations. Village Earth, along with an alliance of organizations, universities and local residents, has made significant progress towards restoring, utilizing and managing local resources. Projects include biodiesel production, re-establishing the buffalo, promoting strawbale building, and building small-scale wind generators. These projects are chronicled in an excellent blog by Pueblo Chieftain writer Juan Espinosa:

Instructors at the workshop included Johnny Weiss of Solar Energy International, Duran Dalton of NativeSUN, and PennElys GoodShield. David Brave Heart of Brave Heart Construction (a native of Pine Ridge) and Owen Geiger of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building were the strawbale instructors. There were 17 students hailing from Arizona , Manitoba , Minnesota , California , Oklahoma and New Mexico , as well as local South Dakota .

A major focus of the workshop was building an 18 foot (5.5 meter) exterior diameter, round strawbale shelter with a latex concrete roof. The innovative thin shell latex concrete roof structure was based on the work of Dr. George Nez and Dr. Albert Knott, authors of Latex Concrete Habitat (ISBN # 1412039975, This system creates a lightweight, durable, and waterproof roof using fiberglass mesh ( stapled to a frame, and coated with liquid latex, sand and Portland cement. Each coat is broomed on with a push broom attached to a long handle – in this case a piece of plastic pipe. A vent hole in the peak allowed a worker to pour the mixture from above. The roof was assembled on the ground and lifted into position by hand onto four posts. Erecting the roof in advance protected the bales during construction and provided a shady workspace. And, the wide roof overhangs will provide excellent protection against moisture damage.

The bale walls were stacked on gravel-filled earthbags and a rubble trench. Local materials included gravel, sand, clay (a beautiful brick-red color), and horse manure for the plaster. Plaster samples left exposed to the elements for 30 days exhibited no signs of cracking and the rainbow of local clays available seem ideally suited for natural building.

One problem was encountered in shaping the curved bales to conform to the round structure. While easy enough to bend the bales initially by walking on them (with one end raised on a log), the densely packed barley bales had a strong tendency to spring back into their original shape. This was overcome by much pushing and shoving on the walls, and ultimately exterior pins of willow and bamboo, and tying the walls into the bond beam. The round design added hours of extra work, but the walls were still completed in three days, including installing the door and windows, and exterior plaster.

Plastic stucco mesh was used around door and window openings, and where the bales met the wood bond beam (burlap could be used next time). 12” length (305 mm) sections were cut from 36” (914 mm) rolls on a chop saw. The mesh was fastened to the bales using a pinning technique developed by Curtis Scheid of Eco Builders. (This technique offers more withdrawal resistance than any other system that I’m aware of.) Twisted tie wires (twist-on wire “droppers”), the kind used to reinforce barbed wire fencing, were cut into pieces with bolt cutters and bent in half.

The final structure was quite elegant and very satisfying: a graceful round building that was in keeping with traditional Lakota structures was topped with a roof not unlike that of a tipi. Overall, I was left with the impression of somehow being a part of history – the Lakota are beginning to fulfill their destiny of self sufficiency and it appears great things lie ahead.

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