A man rides a horse in a grassy field.

2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

  Thunder Valley Forges a Pathway to Healing, Hope, and Liberation


Every day begins the same for many Lakota people in the Thunder Valley community on the Pine Ridge Reservation: with prayer. In a circle, they pass around an abalone shell filled with traditional medicines, and with a reverent gesture of the hand, sweep smoke from the smoldering sage and sweetgrass over their bodies.

Smudging is a traditional practice to purify the mind, spirit, and space around everyone, and it reflects how the Thunder Valley community uses lifeways and traditions to create pathways to healing, hope, and ultimately liberation from trauma, past and present. Winning the Culture of Health Prize reflects how far they’ve come on that path, said Tatewin Means, executive director of the nonprofit Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC).

“It’s nice to know that all the work that we’re doing collectively as a community in Thunder Valley—all the people out there who are working every day to make their lives better—that it’s recognized this way,” she said. “That’s what I’m fighting for—to ensure that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren can live in a world where they’re proud to be who they are.”

Thunder Valley is part of the Oglála Lakȟóta nation—Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (7 Council Fires)—which has about 30,000 tribal members living on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Colonizers who failed to uphold treaty responsibilities tried to erase Lakota culture, and in the process led generations to struggle with poverty and trauma. Today, the Thunder Valley community is taking intentional steps to bring back their treasured lifeways—from restoring the Lakota language to rekindling traditions that form the foundation of tribal identity.

Blue sky provides a beautiful backdrop for homes on a residential street.

Thunder Valley

A community reclaiming their language and the traditions that form the foundation of their tribal identity.

Only through this regeneration of spirit can the Lakota people thrive and bring wellness to their community, said Beau LeBeaux, one of the founding members of the Thunder Valley CDC. “It’s a mindset change,” he said, guided by thinking and living Lakota.

At the core of their journey is what Thunder Valley calls regenerative development. Working collaboratively and collectively to identify and set priorities, the community is taking action around meeting basic needs such as food security and housing; building community wealth; fostering a holistic sense of well-being and health; and encouraging a more cohesive and thriving community.

Children in the Thunder Valley community scramble over playground equipment designed to represent the seven sacred sites of the Oglala Lakota Nation. 

Two men engage in a traditional spiritual smudging.

In Thunder Valley, every day starts with prayer and the traditional practice of smudging.

A man collects eggs on a chicken farm.

By tending chickens, young people learn workforce skills, provide the community with fresh eggs, and run a Thunder Valley business that sells to stores in nearby Rapid City, S.D.

With Lakota values as their guide, partners are creating opportunities—from developing workforce skills for young people to launching community-supported enterprises.

“We have to actively work to create new systems and a way of life that mirrors and carries forward the values of our ancestors,” Means said.

You can hear the change. From toddlers at a Montessori center to staff of the Thunder Valley CDC, everyone is encouraged to learn and speak the Lakota language.

You can see change, too. In a physical expression of Lakota tradition, 21 new houses that were built by the Thunder Valley CDC are clustered in groups of seven, like teepee circles of long ago, and face east toward the rising sun. A new playground has equipment meant to represent the seven sacred sites of the Oglala Lakota Nation.

With half the population in the Pine Ridge Reservation under age 25, a priority is working with young people. The Lakota people view women as the backbone of society and the Thunder Valley community, through its work with teens and girls, hopes to strengthen families and ultimately the entire Lakota Nation. Thunder Valley launched the WWHY Girls Society—named for the Lakota values wóohitike (bravery), wašʼákA (strong), ȟpečákešni (assertive), and yuȟíčA (awaken)—as a safe space for girls to express themselves, gain support, and learn vital life lessons. Through workforce development efforts, the Thunder Valley CDC also teaches young people construction skills and grows their spiritual and emotional well-being.

Twenty-one-year-old Trenton Old Horse, who started leadership training as a teen and now sits on the Thunder Valley CDC board, hopes to teach in his community after college. “As Lakota people, we always think seven generations ahead,” he said. “Youth is the future and we’re going to be the ones continuing this work.”

A young girl tending plants in a greenhouse.

Recognizing Communities Working Toward Better Health

The Culture of Health Prize honors and elevates U.S. communities working at the forefront of advancing health, opportunity, and equity for all.