Nick Tilsen Is Building a $60 Million Sustainable Community on an Indian Reservation

On South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, Nick Tilsen is upending entrenched poverty and rebuilding his Lakota community.

Nick Tilsen Is Building a $60 Million Sustainable Community on an Indian Reservation

In this “Making Change” video, we profile 35-year-old Nick Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Tilsen was at Standing Rock with the Indigenous People’s Power Project and worked to train thousands of resisters how to take nonviolent direct action against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Last fall, he was arrested for being chained to an excavator — but for Tilsen, that was just another hurdle in his ongoing fight to empower indigenous communities.

Tilsen was born into activism. His parents, Mark Tilsen and Joann Tall, met during the American Indian Movement (AIM) standoff with the federal government at Wounded Knee in 1973 and in later years, gained recognition for social entrepreneurship and environmental activism. His grandfather, Ken, was a civil-rights lawyer who, along with his wife Rachel (daughter of renown leftist writer Meridel Le Sueur), defended the AIM activists in their fight over treaty and civil rights. Tilsen grew up between Minnesota and South Dakota and decided as a teenager to take up the family torch and run with it — right back to his roots on the reservation.

In the video, he talks about what inspired him, at 19, to return to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (in one of the poorest counties in the US), and at 24, to found the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit supported by foundations, government grants and individual donors.

On 34 acres, the organization is developing a regenerative community that builds homes, creates jobs and produces all of its own energy, clean water and food. Tilsen believes that the soup-to-nuts sustainable community — a $60 million project — could inspire others around the world.

“We’re doing it in the hardest place there is to do anything. So, we sort of tongue-in-cheek say, ‘If we can do it on Pine Ridge, what the hell is everybody else’s excuse?'”

See more stories in our Making Change series.

Video Editor: Corey Abel
Photography: Raymond Bucko, SJ, Dave Holman, Nikki Kahn/
The Washington Post via Getty Images, Matthew Williams, Thunder Valley CDC

Gail Ablow


Gail Ablow is a producer for Moyers & Company and a Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.