Thunder Valley CDC is Helping Transform Pine Ridge

The people of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate are undergoing a revolution. After surviving generations of colonization, the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people are rising up from the weight of colonial legacies and building upon the work of their Indigenous ancestors to create a brighter future.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota, the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) is helping to lead this transformation by creating models of change that will overpower the inter-generational poverty that has spawned from colonization. One of the first grant recipients of First Nations Development Institute, Thunder Valley CDC is actively working to address systemic inequity by bridging Lakota culture with the rapid pace of change in contemporary society.

“We’re taught to meet the Creator half way,” said Executive Director Nick Tilsen. “There has been a disconnect between Lakota culture and the way the Lakota People are actually living.”

High suicide rates, poor health outcomes, poverty and unemployment are rampant throughout the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. To address these issues, a group of young Lakota people, including Tilsen, decided to take action. Starting more than 10 years ago with a “budget of nothing,” they set out to combat the root causes of poverty and lack of progress on Pine Ridge, and from these efforts Thunder Valley CDC was established.

Creating a Community

Nick Tilsen speaks to the crowd about what to expect from the Regenerative Community Development

According to Tilsen, at the time Thunder Valley CDC was founded, there were no community development corporations on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and only a handful in Indian Country. Thunder Valley CDC needed resources to get started and realize the vision of making systemic change, which for them entailed building a regenerative, sustainable community.

“We knew we had a responsibility to improve the quality of life for the Lakota people,” said Tilsen.

By building a regenerative community, Thunder Valley CDC is creating an ecosystem of opportunity as a point for leveraging regional equity. First Nations Development Institute helped Thunder Valley with this vision by providing a series of grants through the Native Youth and Culture Fund. Early objectives included acquiring a facility, and devising a development plan to create jobs, provide housing, and build the economy. Further goals included establishing a Youth Leadership Development Program to help young people connect with their Lakota culture, and engage them in finding ways to make the community stronger.

“It’s been a movement of people returning to their culture and spirituality,” Tilsen said. “They have started seeing themselves as stakeholders in the community, who want something better for us all.”

Providing Hope and Inspiration

Ongoing support from First Nations has helped the organization grow in size and capacity, and position itself for additional funding opportunities. The organization has been able to not only break ground on the regenerative community development, but also continually seek new ways to improve the resilience, health and prosperity of the Oglala Lakota people.

Thunder Valley CDC’s first Youth Leadership Development Program cohort has organized several healthy living events for peers and community members, using Thunder Valley CDC as a resource for making their visions into reality. Events have included a basketball tournament, a color run, a mud volleyball tournament, and a glow run, all completely organized by the youth cohort.

“We’ve created a space for youth to make decisions about their own future, without us dictating what that future would be,” Tilsen said.

Creating a Model to Build From

Today, Thunder Valley CDC has grown from a $50,000-a-year organization to over $2 million, and from having no facility and a few volunteers to over 24 employees in two locations. Through the years, they have served more than 1,000 people of Pine Ridge, engaging an additional 2,500 people in various programs and activities. They have established several initiatives and programs, including a Workforce Development Through Sustainable Construction programs (in its first cohort), Youth Leadership Development Program (also in its first cohort), Food Sovereignty Initiative, Lakota Language Initiative, Social Enterprise Initiative, Sustainable Home Ownership Program, and Self-Help Program. And where once there were no blueprints to follow for this type of impact, there are now nine community development centers on Pine Ridge, all benefiting from the model of Thunder Valley CDC.

“It’s our goal that what we’re doing here not only serves our community, but is an inspiration throughout Indian Country,” Tilsen said.

A little learner at the Lakota Language Initiative’s Immersion Childcare Program learns the Lakota alphabet.

Tilsen said Thunder Valley CDC is grateful to First Nations for the ongoing partnership, citing funding from both the Native Youth and Culture Fund and the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative. In addition to providing funding, he said First Nations brought Thunder Valley CDC together, helping them learn best practices of other grantees, providing technical assistance for communications and fundraising, and opening the door to additional opportunities and funders.

“First Nations made it possible for us to build our capacity and establish a track record,” he said. “No matter how big we’ve grown, First Nations’ continued support shows an investment in what we’re doing, and that means a lot coming from an organization whose mission is clearly aligned with ours.”

For more information on the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, visit

By Amy Jakober