Red Feather Development helps create healthy, self-sustaining communities

By Greg Smith Explorebigsky.com Contributor

I’ve been fortunate in many ways. Recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer with the dedicated and creative folks of Red Feather Development Group on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, helping to construct a home for Joe and Virginia Limberhand.

Red Feather’s mission is to “partner with American Indian Nations to develop and implement sustainable solutions to the housing needs within their communities.” This was a perfect example of that work.

Built under Red Feather’s American Indian Sustainable Housing Initiative, the beautiful new home was built from straw bales and the collective efforts of Red Feather staff, dozens of volunteers, several young interns and the Limberhands themselves.

The straw-bale home has been Red Feather’s niche. To date, it has constructed 17 straw- bale homes in Native American communities, including seven on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In addition, it has built five community structures and completed critical home health and safety renovation on another 17 houses.

AISHI is built on a belief that affordability and sustainability do not have to exist independently, says Red Feather’s construction program director Mark Jensen.

“Straw-bale house construction was a logical fit,” he said.

The bales are available locally as an agricultural waste product. Additionally, straw bales provide builder-friendly construction, high-energy efficiency, and when utilizing Red Feather’s volunteer labor, savings of up to 60 percent compared with a traditionally contracted starter home.

Working on the ground, Red Feather builds sustainable and energy efficient straw-bale homes while promoting individual and community involvement. The nonprofit was founded in 1995 to address the fact that some 2.5 million tribal members living on American Indian reservations – more than 60 percent – lack adequate housing.

Its first project, after learning of elders freezing to death in winter, was the construction of a new home at Pine Ridge for Lakota elder Katherine Red Feather. Red Feather today continues in her honor and focuses on two main reservations – the Hopi in northern Arizona and the Northern Cheyenne in south-central Montana.

Red Feather has also worked to introduce and expand the use of solar energy on its home builds and renovations.

“As an organization, Red Feather is continually looking for solutions and designs that are environmentally, culturally and economically sustainable,” Jensen said. Ultimately, he says, those systems can mean independence for families, and in the long run, communities.

The plan is to expand its home health and safety program, says Molly Jones McCabe, Red Feather’s executive director. “Over time we have recognized that, while the need for new homes on the reservation is undeniable, there exists an even more urgent need to renovate existing homes in critical need of repair.”

Red Feather’s work goes beyond just building houses.

“The construction of homes is seen as a vehicle for building positive relationships,” McCabe said. “These relationships take many forms and offer a bridge between communities that have historically been divided.”

From Red Feather’s collaboration with tribal community members and institutions, to non-native volunteers gaining a better understanding of indigenous cultures and making new friends in the process – it’s about relationships that bind people together.

“Our work is really about people,” McCabe says. “[Think] big picture. We envision a world where safe, efficient and affordable housing is available to all, and people are inspired to work collectively to create healthy, self-sustaining communities.”

This fall, contributor Greg Smith worked with the Red Feather Development Group on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, helping construct a straw-bale home.