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Permaculture Design Course at Pine Ridge Reservation

by Warren Brush, co-founder of Quail Springs Permaculture & True Nature Design

We are eight days into a 13-day Permaculture Design Course here at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The Permaculture Guild has organized this exciting course in collaboration with the Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI) and will be offering other courses here in the coming year. Students from as far away as Florida and California have joined local tribal members in learning about how to integrate permaculture into their lives, livelihoods and cultural regeneration processes.

The class is being held here out on the great plains where we have had storms that have brought unseasonable rains and high winds that have snapped our tent posts in half and then within a couple of days turned into sweltering heat and calm. Our hosts, a native family who runs a 10,000 acre cattle lease on the reservation and are highly respected tribal members, have been gracious and supportive and have opened up the teachings of Permaculture to their entire network on the reservation. They set up tepees for our course, a large Army tent for our classroom and we have shared the family’s kitchen for all our meals.

During our course, we have had many guests sit in with us and share and we have visited quite a few projects around the “rez” that have integrated sustainable systems into their design. There is one group called, ‘Lakota Solar Enterprises’ who received initial funding from Winona LaDuke to build passive solar heaters for the thousands of trailers and poorly built HUD homes that dot the landscape in this sometimes harsh climate of extremes. We met with Avery Red Cloud, who is the son of the founder, Henry Red Cloud, who showed us how they make the passive solar panels and blower system that can lower a families propane dependency during the winter as much as 30% with this simple technology. The panels are built on-site by local labor where they are provided training and the tools to help them learn how to build the panels and install them professionally. The entire operation is managed and operated by the Lakota people. You can learn more about their work here.

Nearly every other evening we have been invited to take part in their age-old sweat lodge (Inipi) ceremonies where we sing and pray together. The brothers of our host put up a sweat lodge on the site of our course and initiated the lodge with all of us singing and praying together in the heat and smoke of the sage smudge. The ones who lead the ceremony of this sweat lodge are a well-known group of singers and drummers and sang their hearts into the little womb we all were sweating together within. It was quite a night that was indelibly engraved into all of our hearts.

Heavily overgrazed and eroded land

Bryan Deans, our host, has immediately taken to the teachings of Permaculture, as he is a person who has incredible pattern recognition skills and deep understandings of the processes of nature in this area. He has shared with us and showed us how this landscape has been quickly eroding from poor cattle practices. He operates the ‘range unit’ he acquired a few years ago from a non-tribal person who had leased it from the tribe for many years. This man had so overgrazed the land during his tenure that significant erosion has taken place in just the past 25 years. Bryan has been working to restore the range by practicing rotational grazing by developing a diversity of watering holes and by moving salt licks to areas he wishes to move the cattle to. He has also reduced the number of cattle on the range by half at a significant financial loss to help in the recovery process. He is committed and concerned for the future of the grassland that has fed their people for so many generations.

Land being restored

After hearing my lectures on Keyline processes, soil and water, Bryan immediately saw how building the soils and creating water storages both in the interstitial spaces in the soil and on the surface would benefit his long-term vision of health for the range he manages. The two of us spent hours out on his range identifying keypoints and ideal keyline strategies for various areas around his 10,000 acres. What we began to realize as we went from keypoint to keypoint was truly astounding and totally pragmatic. The keypoints were also the places of the ancient buffalo wallows. The buffalo have a keen ability to locate surface water then they would rut the area and and doing so would start springs from the keypoints. We also observed that many of the old buffalo trails were nearly on contour as they walked along the landscape, as their bodies were so heavy that walking on contour would have made sense so as to maintain energy efficient movement across the landscape. When these epiphanies settled into us, we started to share with other tribal members the Keyline process by first introducing it through the wisdom and pragmatism of their sacred buffalo. This is exciting everyone around here who are looking at how they can integrate the past with the present situation they are living within.

Yesterday we had a visit from Tom Cook, a native man who has started over 209 organic gardens here on the reservation. He was accompanied by a couple of folks from The Farm who were teaching the processes of Biodynamics to local folks. Tom shared that out of the 209 gardens that only about 18 are still in production.

One of the design considerations we have identified is that a majority of the folks on the reservation have grown accustomed and patterned their eating and cooking to packaged food and have not farmed for over 400 hundred years and as a result, many gardens have failed here. The Lakota were originally corn farmers from Minnesota and were forced out onto the plains where they adapted to being hunter-gatherers. Bryan and I have been designing forms of food forestry that could be integrated for the long term food security of the Lakota. They would be located deep in some of the draw-canyons that are all over the landscape which have unique microclimates that are considerably less extreme then the plains. We would easily be able to fence off the forest from the cattle at the entrance to the draws then plant a food forest matrix into some of them for eventual foraging by the local people. We have identified walkway gardens that go to and from where people park and the edge of their homes and greywater garden systems with cold frames as a valuable first steps in introducing fresh garden grown food and herbs into people’s diets and lifestyle patterns.

Over the course of the coming nine months we are going to integrate a broadacre design for Bryan’s range unit and a home design for his family, both of which will serve as demonstration sites for the tribe and others to see first hand the results of conscious design and maintenance of the land that sustains us.

We have scheduled another Permaculture Design Course for Pine Ridge Reservation for September 2010 and will be integrating dam and swale building using heavy equipment and applying keyline into a broad landscape into a 15-day course. If you are interested in taking or promoting the course, get in touch with Cory Brennan at cory (at) to get on a list to receive the details as they are released.

Warren Brush

Warren Brush is a global permaculture design consultant, educator, lecturer and storyteller. He has worked for over 25 years in sustainable systems design for communities, private and public organizations, households, small holder farms, and conservation properties worldwide. He is co-founder of Quail Springs Permaculture, Regenerative Earth Enterprises, Sustainable Vocations, Wilderness Youth Project, Casitas Valley Farm and Creamery and his Permaculture design company, True Nature Design. He is also an advising founder of the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya. He consults for the USAID’s TOPS (Technical, Operations, Performance Support) program where he trains technical field staff, for their African Food for Peace programs, in a Resilience Design Framework. He works extensively in North America, Africa, Middle East, Europe, and Australia. He has taught the following courses: Permaculture Design Certification, Earthworks for Resiliency, Resilient Smallholder Farm Design, Permaculture for International Development, Rainwater Harvesting Systems, Ferro-Cement Tank Building, Community Design Using Permaculture, Permaculture Investing, Spring Rejuvenation and Watershed Restoration, Compost Toilet Systems, Water for Every Farm, Drought Proofing Landscapes, and Ecological Restoration. Contact or write: [email protected]. Websites:


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