Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oglala Lakota Cultural and Environmental Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI)

Location: Pine Ridge Lakota reservation, South Dakota
Start Date: Sept 2009
Expected Completion Date (i.e. when the project is expected to be self-sufficient: Sept 2011

Project Concept:

The purpose of this project is to help create resilience and self-sufficiency among the people of Pine Ridge by using existing resources to design and create sustainable systems, abundant production of food, energy and shelter, and systems of local trade that will create economic independence. Key to this project is a “sustainability school” on the rez, run by the Lakota, that will teach residents and international students permaculture techniques and principles.

Buffalo sculpture on a round straw bale structure
Pine Ridge reservation is in the poorest county in the US. There is up to 90% unemployment and the diet, often supplemented by highly processed government food, has resulted in 60% diabetes or pre-diabetes. Crime and substance abuse are major situations. Much of the housing is inadequate for the weather and people die every year from exposure to cold and heat. Many of the houses are lined in black plastic which causes black mold and resultant health issues.
The weather is harsh – the land is open prairie or badlands. Harsh wind, storms, snow, ice, early fall and late spring freezes, tornados and hail are all a part of the ecosystem. The soil is clay silt and is degraded by overgrazing in many parts of the rez, and erosion and drought are problems. The one staple food source the rez has – prairie grass fed cattle and buffalo, is at severe risk in a drought or bad flood, which could wash out the incorrectly built dams. So keyline and correct dam building are both key to create a resilient water supply.

Erosion – what an opportunity for water catchment!
In spite of the barriers, the Lakota warrior spirit lives on – the Lakota people have declared themselves a sovereign nation, in line with the treaties they signed with the US government in the 1800s.

Observing the land from historic Slim Buttes lookout.
Visibility is 80 miles in four directions.
Self-sufficiency and sustainable, regenerative culture is essential to achieving real sovereignty. Bryan Deans, a Lakota who has a cattle ranch on the reservation has a program that is bringing that about. In partnership with the Permaculture Guild (, he has started a sustainability school that will act as a model for his people and all Native Americans, as well as others, for true sustainable practices.
At the heart of the school is an apprentice/business program which creates business opportunities and employment for residents of Pine Ridge. Using local resources of abundant land (the reservation comprises 2 million acres), Lakota can learn and implement sustainable models of raising animals, food forests, and crops. Natural building skills will also be perfected. Currently, there is a solar and wind program where solar conductive heating panels and wind towers are built and used at the rez.

Because of the high poverty level and long term oppression of the area, and because the land has been degraded long ago, this area needs a financial boost to bring it to the level where it can sustain itself. We are focused on ensuring that donations and investment into the area will result in self-sustaining programs. We are mainly interested in funding for equipment such as keyline plows, to rehabilitate the prairie soils and reduce erosion; and funding to cover the costs of training Lakota and other Native Americans in permaculture design.
The ranch where the school is located is large enough to build several demonstration natural buildings with the abundant clay and straw available, to have demonstration gardens and a food forest, and to raise a number of different types of animals (there are already pigs, cows, goats, horses, rabbits and sometimes chickens).

Warren Brush instructs students on how to capture
water in a 3000 acre watershed, dam building, keyline,
etc. Permaculture is a family affair at Pine Ridge
– the kids learn too.
In Sept 2009, the school was launched with a permaculture course taught by Warren Brush of Quail Springs. Warren showed Bryan how the prairie could be rehabilitated and made into an abundant source of food and water through the use of water and livestock management and food forestry. Warren designed keyline dams for a major watershed, and Bryan and Warren planned the planting of food forests in the canyons of the tribal lands, creating an abundant food supply for all of the Lakota people in their commons. The makings of a kitchen garden was started with 18-day compost piles, a root cellar was worked on and super-efficient sawdust stoves were created that could warm the homes of people who did not have sufficient heat (a nearby mill provides abundant sawdust). Plans were also discussed to increase the number of trees on the reservation, to help stabilize the environment and create wind breaks, etc.
The Lakota culture is steeped in the traditions that helped isolate permaculture principles of sustainable, resilient living, and it is fitting that the Lakota people are at the forefront of bringing that knowledge to the rest of the world.
The school will service Native Americans from other reservations and will serve as a transition, economic and educational model that can be replicated at these reservations.

Project Duration & Schedule:

Demonstrating how keyline and water capture
works, near the student tipis
We have planned several major permaculture courses for next summer (2010) – straw bale building workshop, PDC course and keyline plowing course with Warren Brush, and a youth/young adult sustainable apprenticeship course which will present permaculture principles alongside sustainable skill sets, all in a Native American context, such as caring for and butchering animals, leatherworking, gardening, building, wilderness survival, tracking, weaving, etc. We will also offer apprenticeships/internships in which major infrastructure projects will be completed (keyline, natural building, food forests, etc)
An ongoing beginning farmer-rancher program is now incorporating permaculture principles in its teaching program and also is in the planning stages of providing microlending of cows, seed, etc, to get people going, with continued support to ensure they are successful.
Straw bale retrofit of homes is in the planning and funding stages as a start-up business.
A number of cottage businesses are currently providing employment for Lakota and will now also apprentice them in sustainable methods (firewood business, building homes, cattle, wind and solar).

Project Needs:

  • Keyline plow – we have instant access to 8000 acres of watershed prairie to work on, and this could expand to many tens of thousands of acres, via the farmer-rancher program. We need the plow for a keyline workshop scheduled for 2010.
  • Funding for Lakota to attend natural building workshops, PDC and keyline design courses in 2010.

Other Info:

The courses are done in partnership between OLCERI and Permaculture Guild. Permaculture Guild teaches and markets the courses, OLCERI provides the site and infrastructure projects. Teaching duties will be transferred to OLCERI as soon as teachers from the reservation are trained and apprenticed. A percentage of the income made for any course goes to OLCERI, to fund the attendance of Lakota, materials, infrastructure, etc.


  1. Hey Keith - I am writing an article about this project for TreeHugger. I would like to use the images shown - can you provide permission? (Apologies - I couldn't find your email to ask you in person.)


  2. Sami, The images belong to the person(s) at Pine Ridge who took them. I just borrowed them from their website at
    I urge you to contact them.

  3. I cannot tell you how excited I am to see a project like this happening in Pine Ridge. Thank you to all the people who made this possible!

  4. I am incredibly impressed with this project. Is there any possibility of interning/volunteering on the Pine Ridge reservation or through any of the other indigenous permaculture initiatives?

  5. I have no idea whether volunteers are needed or welcome but I wouldn't be surprised if they are. I recommend you contact them.
    Also visit