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Interview: Thunder Valley CDC Grounds in Lakota Lifeways

Community Creativity Conversations is an audio series that features cultural leaders who are making art central to problem solving on more issues in more communities. Learn from Midwesterners who are making intersectional change, addressing racism and inequity, and bringing people together through creativity and art.

In our third episode, hear from Lynn Cuny and Kyle White, two members of the leadership team at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a Lakota-led grassroots organization working to build economic prosperity and community vitality in the Pine Ridge Reservation. Lynn and Kyle share about how Thunder Valley CDC is creating space for Oglala Lakota people and lifeways to thrive, and how their new rebrand connects to the ongoing work of liberation.

Listen to the audio interview:

Culture Builds the Work

Located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation began in 2007 as a family, grassroots movement based in ceremonies and spirituality to confront issues the community faced with action. Today, it maintains an approach that is fundamentally and culturally Lakota.

“It’s not [that] our culture, and our lifeways, our language, our spirituality is an addition to the work. It’s the foundation. It’s the foundation that leads the work,” explains Deputy Director Lynn Cuny.

Through healing and strengthening cultural identity, Thunder Valley CDC works to empower Lakota youth and families to improve their communities’ health, environment, culture, and “envision[s] a liberated Lakota Nation through language, culture, and spirituality.”

The organization is located on a 34-acre development where an array of initiatives take place: Regenerative Community Development, Food Sovereignty, Housing & Home Ownership, Lakota Language, Education, Regional Equity, Social Enterprise, Workforce Development, and Youth Leadership.

“For so long, our people have tried to fit into these different systems, systems of oppression that we have to go into, and we have to adapt to as Lakota people,” Lynn continues. Instead of adapting to a prescribed, non-Lakota system, Thunder Valley CDC builds the work from our own Lakota lifeways, which is in everything from leadership and programming to the artwork and branding.

Image courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC

Seeding the Ground Beyond

The liberation model used at Thunder Valley CDC is a cultural, visual, and artistic representation of the organization’s initiatives, operations, and values. The model is in the shape of a cottonwood tree, whose roots are in the shape of the Pte Oyate, or buffalo. Roots grow from the buffalo relative into the trunk, which represents the Lifeways and Wellness Equity from which all other work branches out.

As the branches grow out from the trunk, the four directions are represented with related animals (buffalo, eagle, elk, and bear) and roles (provider, messenger, teacher, healer). As the branches multiply and leaves grow, Lakota virtues (humility, compassion, honesty, respect, generosity, and wisdom) are featured alongside the various initiatives at the organization.

The tree is regenerative. It has its own wisdom and strength, and, over time, it seeds the ground beyond itself which represents our future generations.

Kyle White, the Director of Advancement at Thunder Valley CDC, says, “Cottonwoods take a long time to grow. And so that gives you an idea of the timeframe that we’re looking at. We’re looking at generations here to be able to become a fully healed Nation returned back to the way… in which our ancestors lived.”

As an artist, I think that’s really an important piece in our community work, in our healing. We’re taking action here at Thunder Valley CDC to give our employees the time to work on their own healing journey, according to our Lifeways. And then hoping that trickles out to the family, the community, and the nation. I think all of these pieces are really important, actionable steps towards our liberation.
– Lynn Cuny

Regrounding Through Leadership

New leadership has been a source of growth and rebirth for the organization in the past few years. Tatewin Means, JD, MA, became the Executive Director in 2018. Her arrival inspired the organization to examine how culture is central to its operations.

“Four of the five members of our leadership team are female. I’m the only male,” Kyle says. “We realized that there was a need to update the language and the work that we do here at Thunder Valley and really highlight the strong women leadership that we have here locally. And that’s part of our culture — the women are the backbone of our Nation.”

Honoring women leadership follows the lifeways the Lakota have embraced since well before European contact.

“We’re now in a new era of existence and we have that new leadership. And so we wanted, really, to be able to communicate that with our constituents,” Kyle adds.

Image courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC

Visualizing the Sacred

While Thunder Valley CDC’s vision for liberation remains constant, the organization’s outward-facing representation has gone through a rebranding to better communicate their values.

Thunder Valley CDC’s new logo

A new logo was created by community member Walt Pourier with input from Thunder Valley board and leadership team. It is a striking image with a red buffalo at the center, feet firmly standing in the grass. There is a lightning bolt over its shoulder. In the background, thunderclouds hover in various shades of blue.

Each portion of the logo carries significance.

Lynn Cuny says, “As Lakota people, we honor that relationship that we have with the Pte Oyate, or the Buffalo Nation. That is where we came from. Those are relatives, those are the original people for us.”

“You also notice that the buffalo is leaning forward into the storm, which is something that we learned in honor from our relatives, the buffalo.” By leaning into storms, one learns to stand strong in the face of hardships.

Lynn continues, “We also honor them today because they gave their life for us to survive here in this world. They were our main source for everything: our food, our clothing, our shelter, our everything. We used all parts of the buffalo and honored that relationship. And so it really signifies what we are as a people.”

Red and blue are prominent in the design of the logo. In the Lakota language, the words for man, “Wiċasa,” and woman, “Wiƞyan,” both integrate “Wi” — the word for “red”.

“As Lakota, we are red people. We come from the sun and we also come from the universe where we are star people,” explains Kyle White. “So it’s important that we have that color red, which is sacred. It’s the color of the sun. It’s also the direction of the Buffalo Nation, which is set in the North.”

“Blue can be considered the most sacred of all the colors, because it is the very essence of Íŋyaŋ, which is the stone. And so through our creation story Íŋyaŋ was the first being that was here and sacrificed, and gave his life force to help create the world.”

“So in creating all the world, he bled out and he shriveled up and became a stone. His essence flows through. His blood, which is water, it’s [an] important life force for all things. So that power and that sacredness flows through the air and the water. It’s Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka, which is all, everything that’s sacred to us.”

The organization unveiled the new logo on a culturally significant day: March 21, 2021, the day of the Spring Solstice. This is the time of year when the Lakota honor the Thunder Beings, who start the process of rebirth and life.

“It seemed relevant and natural for us as an organization to launch our rebrand and our rebirth on a Spring Solstice,” said Lynn Cuny.

Mending the Hoop

For Thunder Valley CDC, the journey to liberation is traveled by way of Lakota language, culture, and spirituality. It is helping empower the community to move towards a way of life that is not defined by a colonizer’s mentality or priorities.

Kyle sums it up, “We’re a holistic org that works for collective healing and [the] liberation movement of our Lakota people. And so for us, defining liberation, it has to be rooted in our Lakota ways, which is a state of being where balance is restored within our individual and the collective. People are sovereign, self-determined, and self-sufficient.”

Our sacred hoop — it has been broken through colonization. And so through this liberation process, we can start to mend that hoop within each individual. And [it] radiates out into family, into community, as we find our freedom.
– Kyle White

Image courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC

Learn More

Thunder Valley CDC

Learn more about the work of Thunder Valley CDC by watching Walking Forward in Liberation: A Short Thunder Valley CDC Documentary here.

Community Creativity Cohort

The Community Creativity Cohort is a group of 40 organizations who are making art central to their community building efforts. The Cohort is funded by the Bush Foundation and operated by Arts Midwest. This conversation was recorded as part of the Community Creativity Cohort convening in March 2021.