Collective Spirit and Rural Economic Development

June 30, 2017

By: Ebony McKinney for ArtPlace America

We’ve been thinking about how strategies in rural areas are being (re)framed with culture bearers, growers and makers in mind. The approaches of First People’s Fund and Region Five Development also bridge critical divides — social, cultural, financial and geographic. Lori Pourier of The First People’s Fund/Rolling Rez is based out of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which is essentially the homeland of the Oglala Lakota Reservation. The arrangement between the tribe and the government was formed though two treaties with the US Government, and has formed an arrangement, with some uneven results, that impacts education, health care, and other areas that drive the regional economy even today. Through research they found that the surrounding Native Community was reliant on home based business to sell traditional forms of art, but lack of access to supplies, capital and social networks were hindrances. Rolling Rez was the response.

Central Minnesota, where Cheryal Hills of Region Five Development Commission/Sprout Growers and Makers, works with her team, is home to the state’s only army camp. This means plenty of service men and women occupy the region, as well as the Leech Lake Tribe Band of Ojibwe and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Latino and Somali communities have also begun to settle in and overall community cohesion and cooperative connections are elusive. This fragmentation is long-standing. The region remains predominantly white. This area also has also cultivated  a major environmental stewardship focus, partly because they are at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Renewable energy and agriculture production, large and small scale, has led them to the local foods movement in a big way. When they found most of the growers they were supporting had artists and makers in their households Cheryal and her team saw an opportunity.


Part 1 of the interview.  

EBONY: First, I just want to hear a bit about where you live and what your community is like. Lori, can you tell me a bit about Rapid City, South Dakota and the Oglala tribe?

LORI: Our homelands originally, where the Lakota moved, were all along this territory of the Great Black Hills. I currently reside in the Black Hills area. First People's Fund's office is in Rapid City, downtown area, and I am Oglala Lakota. I am enrolled there. My mother is from there, my father's from there, and both my grandparents are from there, and their grandparents. So, we go back many generations to the start of that reservation, the Pine Ridge Reservation, or the Oglala Lakota Nation.

Today we have about two million acres, half of which is held in trust, so there's this whole checkered-board nature of land use on Pine Ridge, which can be a challenge, and opens up a whole lot of issues around developing tribal economies. We have about 47,000 tribal members on Pine Ridge.


EBONY: Cheryal, you can tell me about Little Falls, Minnesota and what it’s like there, the experience, the lifestyle, the geography?

Cheryal: Sure. I'm going to tell you a little you a little bit about the five-county region in Central Minnesota, where we work. It is a region of about 162,000 people. We have the Leech Lake Tribe Band of Ojibwe and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in our region. We also have the state's only army camp in our region, and a disproportionately high volume of veterans and active-duty servicemen and women. Our region is aging older faster than most parts of the region, and we have a disproportionately high volume of handicapped.

The geography is that Central Minnesota is a convergence of several biomes, where we have agriculture and small-scale agricultural production, which led us into the local foods movement in a very strong way across our nation.             

The region's also predominantly white, other than the tribal areas. We have an immigrant population of Latino residents, that are adding to our economic vitality, cultural diversity, quality of life, and definitely our economic prosperity as well, because they're owning businesses. The Somali population is growing too, as a result of the Twin Cities overflow.

I would also say there's a lack of some social cohesion. We have had a strong and historical distrust of diversity in the region and we haven't adequately really built solid, authentic, trusting relationships amongst tribal and non-tribal folks, and so that distrust has spilled over into a lack of social cohesion with other emerging populations into the region.


EBONY: Why did you start Rolling Rez, and Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace, and who are the artists, entrepreneurs, or growers, and makers that you're working with?

LORI: Rolling Rez is part of a larger vision of First People's Fund, and our work within this whole tribal arts ecology. When I started in this work, we had the first micro-loan fund on Pine Ridge, that was modeled after the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh developed by Dr. Yunus. That was in 1985 or so, and today there's now 72 native community development financial institutions, which move within that larger network and sector of CDFI.

Then our artist fellow alumnae had this great idea around a mobile unit as a classroom for artists, but also a bank. The credit union uses it to go from one district to the other eight districts on the reservation. Deposits are now increasing in the credit union. Through our ongoing partnership with Native CDFIs, and Colorado State University, we started looking at the native arts economy. We knew at the time from our research and earlier research led by Dr. Pickering at Colorado State University, that 51% of the households on Pine Ridge depended on some sort of home-based enterprise for cash income.

We also knew, some 25 years ago, that 97 cents of the dollar was circulating off of Pine Ridge reservation and that 79% of those home-based enterprises on Pine Ridge consisted of traditional forms of art. Moreover, while doing the market study we interviewed more than 200 artists on Pine Ridge. Results showed a lack of access to supplies and capital. Artists were traveling about probably 51 miles on average just to get supplies to make the art, and then let alone where to sell the work. Our partnership with Lakota Funds, revealed that that less than 1% of artists who actually even had a relationship with any sort of bank.

Access to social networks was also an issue, so we began meetings with our artist fellows from Pine Ridge who lead the work as mentors and our trainers.


EBONY: Cheryal, do you want to talk a little bit about Sprout Growers and Makers, how it came about, and who you serve?

CHERYAL: Sure, a lot of our work was also based in initial research. We had a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant in 2011 and '12, and had 600 participants, as part of an effort called the Resilient Region Plan. ( Art and agriculture came out as two strong economic engines within the within the region.

When we started surveying growers in this region, we found out that 60+ percent of them also had a person in their household, who were also artists. Then there's a whole lot of people that don't proclaim themselves to be an artist, like basket weavers or our Amish women, who do blankets, or furniture makers. That sort of shifted our thinking in how do we work in that space.

It prompted us to start the region's only micro-lending program, and we added five other counties next door. We currently have five lending programs and an intentional focus on artists and growers.

In the beginning we started with a couple of growers in a couple of school districts, and today we're up to 70 very low-income Amish, Latino, tribal, and German, Scandinavian, Polish-descent growers in the region, and we deliver about 100,000 pounds of food.

In terms of work with artists - We’ve worked really hard over the last three years, to engage artists more meaningfully and intentionally. Our organization has started thinking about how can artists can be engaged in physical structures and in physical development in a way that adds value and honors our existing cultures.

LORI: No, we actually train the artists how to be artist success coaches along side the business coaches at the CDFI. Gus Yellow Hair, who I mentioned earlier, was not only the driver of the Rolling Rez Arts is, also an instructor at Oglala Lakota College, teaching a couple of traditional arts classes.  He was also an artist success coach. We hold a space that's led and driven by artists, but the CDFI will offer their whole menu of developmental services,.Then, we take the show on the road. Ours really starts with, "Who is it that taught you? Who taught you, your core values?" It really begins from that, and then we go into kind of the general marketing, but we feel like we can't start with them until they really understand who brought them into their work as an artist entreprenuer. On whose shoulders do they stand? By articulating their cultural values and the values they hold strongly they can navigate the business aspects from a stronger place and not compromise those values.  

Read part 2 of the interview here.


A blog series by Ebony Mckinney