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Permaculture Takes Off at Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation, South Dakota

People in the Poorest County in the U.S. Take on Permaculture

At Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota, Bryan Dean’s cattle ranch embraces thousands of acres of tribal and private lands. One watershed on the range covers 3000 acres of rolling prairie hills and canyons – in heavy rains a wall of water rushes through the eroded beds. The prairie is covered with stunted bufflegrass, a tough pioneer grass that can survive drought, cattle grazing and other abuse, rather than the rich, diverse mixture of tall grasses, wildflowers and other plants that covered the prairie 100 years ago.

Bryan is an experienced rancher, an inventor, machinist, builder and man of all trades. On the rez, it pays to have lots of skills. He is also a major source of leadership for his tiospaye, the Lakota name for extended family, or tribe. He has started Oglala-Lakota Cultural and Environmental Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI) to address some of the problems on the reservation and create a model of self-sufficient sustainable practices.

Pine Ridge suffers from up to 90% unemployment and 60% diabetes. It is the poorest county in the United States. Shelter is a major issue with much of the housing being inadequate for the severe weather – people freeze to death in the coldest nights of winter. Food is substandard; many are still on government rations which are highly processed and lacking in nutrition; dependency is still encouraged.

The Lakota are warriors and when they signed a treaty with the US, it was with a defeated US army – most famously at Little Big Horn but also at several other locations. After the treaty was signed, the Army, unable to defeat them in open warfare, paid hunters to kill buffalo – the primary food supply of the Lakota – en masse. The herds were decimated and many of the tribes, starving, agreed to live on the reservation. The oppression was not yet over – the social engineers in charge decided that wiping out every vestige of the Lakota culture was needed in order to “assimilate” the tribe, even though their signed treaty made them a sovereign nation in their own right. Their spiritual ceremonies were outlawed, and their children were carted off to boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak Lakota, wear Indian clothing or practice any Lakota cultural traditions. These acts and oppressive economics which made the tribe dependent on the US government for food, decimated the culture and the ancient wisdom of the people who had stewarded their land for many hundreds of years. The result was mass despair, alcoholism, drug addiction, health problems and loss of heart and focus.

A student learns to use a bobcat while
gathering manure for the garden

But some on the reservation have a different vision now. There is an organic garden program, a solar and wind power company, education programs revitalizing language and culture, and the tribe has declared itself, once again, a sovereign nation and is pursuing this in the court system. Bryan has assisted Running Strong, a program that brings horses and young people together. There are many opportunities to ride – a 100 mile race, a Crazy Horse ride, Indian style ‘rodeos,’ bow and arrow hunting from horseback, and cattle herding at the ranches that dot the rez. His cattle and a few other cottage businesses at his ranch offer employment to a number of people on the rez. There are still many challenges – the land is degraded, water is somewhat scarce, weather is harsh, with frost as late as June and early as Sept, tornados, heavy storms and sweeping winds. Economics in the region are equally harsh, with limited trade, a slow economy and sometimes racial issues. In other words, a job for permaculture!

Experimenting with sawdust/rocket
combination – this version burned hot
for 6+ hours. Sawdust stoves could
save lives in below zero weather

When I asked Bryan on behalf of the Permaculture Guild if he would host a permaculture course at the rez last September, he had a vague idea of what permaculture was, but wasn’t sure what it could do for him, or for the rez exactly. He agreed to do it, though, and the results exceeded expectations. He found it to be one of the best courses he had ever done, and he now wants to get the principles and techniques into broad use on the rez. When instructor Warren Brush (of Quail Springs) toured his dam system with him (on the 3000 acre watershed) and showed him exactly how to build the dams so they wouldn’t wash out in a large storm, and then showed him how to place keyline dams to recharge the water supply throughout the system, he was sold. He could see the value of permaculture and started talking to other Lakota about it. As the course progressed, Warren and Bryan continued to plan to create major changes towards sustainability with the resources to hand.

After the course, Bryan started teaching a beginning farmer/rancher program, implementing some of the permaculture principles. He wants to set up microlending of cattle and other resources to get young ranchers off the ground. He has had a vision for years of a sustainability school on the rez, that would be open to Lakota, members of other tribes and non-Indians – an ideal model that could serve as something that can be replicated at other reservations. Permaculture opened many doors and the first course became the official launch of the school. In 2010, we have planned a number of workshops, another full Permaculture Design Course plus a keyline course, taught by Warren Brush, as well as something new and different.

When I saw how my 17-year old son thrived in the huge open spaces at Bryan’s ranch, an idea I’ve had for years manifested as well. I’m a long time homeschooler and have explored many alternative educational methods. The ranch is an ideal place for immersion education, which aligns with traditional Lakota methods of teaching through experience.

Thus, we will hold the first youth/young adult Regenerative Skills apprenticeship next summer, which will include hands on learning via the many opportunities at the ranch – handling animals, welding, food forestry and kitchen gardening, water catchment and reuse, natural building and retrofitting, building wind towers, wildcrafting and medicinal herbs, native craft skills and traditions, tracking, and wilderness survival are a few of the things that may be available to learn. Permaculture principles will be the core of every lesson, with living examples of these principles being created by the mentored students. The course will be open to Lakota and people from outside the reservation (as will most of the courses at the school), to create maximum beneficial connection and diversity. This will be fun for all ages!

Most of the activities at the ranch stack functions, create niches, remedy scarcity with abundance, and create lots of beneficial connections with one another. Bryan has a vision of real sovereignty created on the reservation through sustainable self-sufficiency, and dreams of someday regenerating all two million acres of Pine Ridge, bringing it back to the days of pristine and fertile prairie land. It is already beautiful land with a deep and rich history of The People, the Lakota.


  1. Thank you for sharing your vision. I’d like to be part of the program next summer. I’ve completed a PDC, workshops in water harvesting, soil biology and others, and yearned for a place with land, animals and humans at a “live-in school/farm” where I could contribute while learning “hands on” how to implement the concepts. Quail Springs has my contact information. I hope we can connect and make plans.

    Valerie W. (aka Sunny) Santa Barbara

  2. Wonderful!! I hope that you will continue to keep us updated on all your positive action. We need more people to share the efforts that are being made in communities all over the world in the face of many challenges.

  3. amazing to know that Permaculture is in South Dakota!! It is the best thing that could have happened to restore the Earth and ourselves back to health. We hope to come sometime from the South-East in the United Kingdom!

  4. It is now October 2013 and I would really like to know what has resulted at Pine Ridge since then. I hope and pray that there has been great success! I have observed reservation life in Arizona and am now wondering if they wouldn’t benefit from permaculture practices there. Well, of course they would as permaculture works everywhere. What a wonderful way for the First Nations to take back their sovereignty and to shame the rest of us with their success.

  5. The story is so inspiring. As community focused Nurse I too would like to hear of all sequels to the permaculture taking hold on reservation.

  6. bring back the buffalo!!! and move the herds around the way they used to move in the days of the Lakota and some restoration will be possible and it will be Allen Savory style american savanna…I want to order some of that bison jerky right now! cheers! go permaculture!

  7. Love this article. I’m so inspired. I’d love to see a monthly column written of what changes are happening. I predict in a year it will be amazing!

    I hope they can also influence the tribes herein Southern California. I know one tribe owns about 40% of the land around the Salton Sea. I really wish they could embrace permaculture and restore the land out there.

  8. I just came back from a couple of days In South Dakota.My primary reason was to see Bison in the wild. It is hard to put into words just how beautifully moving it is to see bison in the wild and to see how when humanity chooses to do what is right for the people and the land that miracles can replace devastation. I would love to hear more about your projects and hopefully come assist next summer.

  9. It would be wonderful to read an update on how this work is going out there now in 2021. Are there articles on the progress?

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