Last updated on 2014.08.28
Emma "Pinky" Iron Plume opened Pinky's, the only store in Manderson, South Dakota, thirty years ago. She continues to run the store on BIA Highway 33 today, providing her neighbors and folks from the nearby elementary school and the Oglala Lakota College branch campus a place to buy a few staples and snacks and gather to do business.
Iron Plume serves her neighbors with an even larger economic development project on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Through the Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing, Iron Plume helps Indian families become homeowners, which Iron Plume says is central to personal and community economic security.
The benefits of homebuilding and homeownership are obvious. Building homes creates jobs and economic activity. It addresses the critical housing shortage on the reservation, where Iron Plume sees families doubling and tripling up in the few available houses. Owning a house not only makes a family safer, healthier, and happier but also gives that family a real sense of ownership and a stake in the community that does not exist when a family must bounce from rental to rental or other temporary lodging.
Getting Indian families into new homes isn't easy. Iron Plume says the OST Partnership for Housing used to build homes, like Habitat for Humanity, but found that model too costly to coordinate and carry out. Now the Partnership focuses on educating homeowners and finding allies to help them buy homes.
A key part of that education is financial education. The Partnership helps Indian families learn about credit and savings. Iron Plume says the group warns its clients of predatory lenders, both the payday lenders and the subprime mortgagers who crashed the economy a few years ago.
Once families have a grip on their finances, the Partnership helps them find willing lenders and homes, often the small, affordable Governor's Houses built by state inmates.
The Partnership also helps families find land. Those who have driven through the wide open expanses of Pine Ridge would think that finding available land would be no big deal. But viable building land is hard to find on the reservation. Infrastructure is limited: a lot of places around Manderson, Wounded Knee, and Porcupine don't have electric lines or water pipes. (Pinky also notes that AT&T hauls extra cell-phone transmitters to Sturgis for the Rally but provides unreliable cellular service to Pine Ridge year-round; get with it, AT&T!) The Partnership thus has conversations with utilities and agencies to try to extend infrastructure to make new land available for development.
Where infrastructure exists, land ownership is complicated by fractionation, the slicing up of ownership through inheritance. The Oglala Sioux Tribe is using Cobell settlement money to buy back and consolidate small tracts into viable housing plots. Iron Plume says the tribe will keep ownership of the buy-back land and lease it out to homeowners in 50-year intervals.
So far, the Partnership has helped put over 100 families into homes of their own. The Partnership has now received a grant from the Administration for Native Americans (under the federal Department of Health and Human Services) to help young Indians invest in homeownership and other economic development. The Partnership will use that grant to launch a savings-match program in 2015: young Indians (age 16 to 26) who apply can receive two dollars for every one dollar they place in an "Individual Development Account." The money invested must be earned income, not gifts from Grandma. The IDA money must then be used to buy a house, take postsecondary classes, or start a business. The match goes up to $1,500, so young investors can turn $1,500 into $4,500.
The goal of the grant program, says Iron Plume, is to create assets. Thus, the program will also include an insurance fair to teach its young participants how to protect their assets. The program will offer a marketing workshop to young entrepreneurs to help them expand their sales and create even more assets.
Iron Plume says the Partnership has promoted other projects to help her neighbors with homemaking. Among other things, the Partnership has promoted food self-sufficiency. Iron Plume recognizes that a lot of the prepared foods she sells at Pinky's are not the cheapest or healthiest options. She encourages her neighbors to try making meals from scratch. The Partnership has given out cookbooks. It held a canning workshop last year and has a jelly-making workshop coming up. Iron Plume says a lot of her neighbors garden and derive great satisfaction from that bit of self-sufficiency (not to mention the chance to make maybe one less trip to Walmart in Rapid). She sees local food as an important part of the Partnership's philosophy of centering life on the home.
Pine Ridge and our Indian neighbors face all sorts of challenges, but Pinky Iron Plume views every challenge as an opportunity to find new partners to help. Iron Plume tackling those challenges both as a traditional entrepreneur, selling goods to her neighbors and providing a meeting place for her community, and as a social entrepreneur, helping others use and build their financial well-being. The Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing is a good example of a local effort building cooperation among numerous agencies to make life better on Pine Ridge.