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.