By Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor
Paul Shields, son Leonard Peltier and father of three girls, has been building a house here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation since August, hoping to move from his old FEMA trailer and provide a warm home for his family at the beginning of 2016.
“We should be in by 2016,” Shields told the Native Sun News. The Anishinabe-Lakota expects to shave hundreds of dollars off his monthly electric bill by using compressed earthen block with high insulation value for walls, together with cost-effective solar equipment for heating and hot water.
His trailer house in Oglala, provided after the 1999 tornado by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA, is “expensive” to heat, at up to $300 a month, because it is all-electric and poorly insulated, he said.
His mentor in energy-efficient construction, Henry Red Cloud, says Shields’ new home is a project that’s about more than raising a roof for his protégé of nine years. It’s also about raising awareness and fortifying the local economy on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“Building our own homes with renewable energy, I believe we can build our economy,” says Red Cloud, founder of Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE) and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “We’re building awareness around this.”
LSE’s Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, located between Oglala and Pine Ridge Village, provides training, manufacturing and installation of energy-efficient residential and institutional systems.
Its courses have led to more than 85 jobs. The business has made and placed more than 1,200 solar heating systems that help save low-income homeowners 78 percent on utility bills.
After engineering and promoting the heating systems, Red Cloud began demonstrating efficient home-building techniques. He started with the production of rez paper, a blown-on insulation made from discarded newspapers.
He went on to straw-bale building, erecting a roundhouse with bale walls at the renewable energy center. Then he constructed an office as a prototype for the compressed earth block home, of which Shields’ will be the first on the reservation.
Backers hope the process for Shields’ home can be repeated all over Pine Ridge, according to Richard Fox, executive director of the Ft. Collins, Colorado-based international non-profit Trees, Water & People.
Red Cloud says he expects himself to “be hunting buffalo somewhere in the happy hunting grounds” before 500 homes are built, but his own experience of once being homeless on the reservation drives him onward.
The average Pine Ridge Indian Reservation home is a $3,000 trailer house, with 60 percent of the people living in dwellings “that shouldn’t have been built in Florida, much less the Great Plains,” says Fox.
The majority of residents have incomes below the poverty level. Hypothermia claims the lives of elders who succumb when their budgets don’t stretch far enough to cover the propane flimsy housing requires during extreme winter weather on the prairie.
Many families live with “holes in the walls and in the floor, poorly situated windows and doors,” Fox said. “People get cold. We’re trying to do something about that.”
The first step is to show people the alternatives, according to Red Cloud. Recalling a legacy of broken treaties and failed government accountability, he notes, “We were lied to. We became a generation of seeing-is-believing.”
He argues that Pueblo Indians have been living in earthen block dwellings for centuries, with as many as 15 generations passing through the same home, thanks to the long-lasting nature of the building material.
At Shields’ new home near Loneman, you can see a 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom house, made with 10,000 45-pound compressed earth blocks, taking shape at an estimated finished cost of $30,000, plus sweat equity.
What Red Cloud sees is “empowerment,” because the bulk of the materials and the labor are local – not “from stateside” – and the benefits stay in the community to create a ripple effect.
“Paul is building a house for his children,” Red Cloud said. “If they have a nice warm house, they go to school healthy, alert, and wanting to learn.” Shields’ girls are ages 10, 8 and 4.
The technique is well-suited to people who want to save money by building their own homes, Red Cloud notes. It takes little experience and few tools, he says.
A quarry on the west side of the reservation provides the earth for the blocks. Shields mixes in some water and 10 percent Portland cement for durability. He pours the mix into a portable molding machine, created and donated to the cause by a group of friends in Colorado.
The machine compacts the mix at 2,200 psi into the blocks, and they quickly air dry. Red Cloud notes that the building material uses a modest amount of energy in fabrication, thereby avoiding pollution and greenhouse gases associated with other materials, such as kilned bricks or concrete blocks.
“It’s natural. It’s just earth,” he says. “Just think of the carbon savings and lessening your carbon moccasin print,” he adds.
The makers of the machine are among many who are hoping for a share of the growing market in energy-efficient housing. Red Cloud is helping them introduce the concept in Indian country. The machine is worth $25,000.
So far he’s drawn interest from the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal leadership.
He says he’s hoping the idea will catch on with some of the parties involved in promoting progress on the Pine Ridge, such as the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department’s Office of Native American Programs.
Lakota Funds, Thunder Valley Community Development Corp., and Mazaska Owecaso Otipi Financial services institution could become partners, he said.
“We want this to take off here in the homelands. We’re working on the economy. That’s what we’re doing here,” he says. “You wanna see that change, you gotta be that change.”
As soon as industrial hemp cultivation is fully legalized, Red Cloud foresees the production of hemp bale houses as a prospect for homegrown homes. “You can grow your house in 140 days,” he says.
The concept has already been illustrated with a large hemp-bale building at Manderson. However, builder Alex White Plume had to use bales from elsewhere after federal agents destroyed his own crop of hemp.
(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor, at [email protected])
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