Photo of the Week: Volunteers Make it Happen!

Nick Martinez works hard to finish the roof on one of the strawbale homes at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center during a recent volunteer trip to Pine Ridge.

Interested in volunteering with Trees, Water & People? Visit our website for information on how you can help!


Volunteer Opportunity: Help Build Straw Bale Homes at Pine Ridge

straw bale home_Pine Ridge

Join us October 11-15 at our Tribal Renewable Energy Program’s headquarters on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for a long weekend of fun, hard work, and new experiences! Although it is only a five hour drive from the Trees, Water & People office in Fort Collins, Colorado, a trip to Pine Ridge offers an experience in an entirely different culture.

What: Volunteer Weekend
Where: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, Pine Ridge, South Dakota
When: Thursday, October 11 – Monday, October 15
Who: Volunteers who like hard work, lots of fun, and all kinds of weather. Volunteers 14-18 are welcome with adult companions.
Why: Take this opportunity to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation, complete two straw bale buildings, and help us clean up our campus after a major wind storm and other destructive events.

Volunteers are invited to arrive anytime after 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 11th. We will host full work days Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Projects will end by 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, and volunteers are welcome to head home Sunday evening or on Monday morning. Projects will include adding a roof to one straw bale home, making improvements to a second straw bale home, and removing litter from the campus. Additional needs may arise between now and our trip. Projects will take place almost entirely outdoors, and weather permitting, we will eat group meals outside as well.

This trip is for volunteers who enjoy a little adventure! Flexibility is a must on the reservation. You should also be prepared for a lot of fun!


  • TWP will pay for volunteer’s food during their time in Pine Ridge
  • Food purchased by TWP will be vegan (no animal products). Feel free to bring your own food if you desire.
  • TWP cooking equipment and utensils will be available for use
  • Volunteers will be responsible for preparing all their own food, including group dinners.


  • All volunteers are responsible for their own transportation and related costs getting to Pine Ridge.
  • We are  happy to coordinate carpools where possible
  • Our facility is located down a short dirt road. Many sedans have traveled it.


  • Volunteers are encouraged to camp on the Red Cloud Renewable Energy campus and must bring their own camping equipment to do so. Weather will be unpredictable, so only those comfortable in the outdoors should camp.
  • Also available will be bunks for up to 14 volunteers, who will share a room with up to 6 other individuals (co-ed).

To volunteer, please email Lacey Gaechter at, with the following information:

  1. Name of all people in volunteer party
  2. Your email address
  3. Your cell phone number
  4. Days you have available to travel to and work in Pine Ridge
  5. Where you will be coming from and returning to (e.g. most people will be coming from Fort Collins, CO)
  6. Any further questions you may have

Once Lacey has confirmed your spot, I will email you directions to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center and provide you additional details.

We look forward to hearing from you soon! It should be a lot of hard work and a lot of fun.




Notes from the Field: Tiospaye as Inspiration for Sustainable Housing on Pine Ridge

by Jordan Engel, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center Intern


In Western culture, domestic life revolves around the nuclear family: parents and their children who all live under one roof. That is not so with the Lakota. The tiospaye, or extended family, is a multi-generational unit in Lakota culture that typically includes great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and those married or adopted into the family. The word can be broken down into two parts: ti, short for tepee, and ospaye which means a group. In pre-colonial times, Tiospayes would travel together on the plains and share a common tepee. While this family structure is still prevalent on Pine Ridge today, the tiospaye has had trouble adapting to reservation life. Because the bond of kinship is so strong in Lakota culture and because of a severe housing shortage, overcrowding has been a persistent issue on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

trailer Pine Ridge
A trailer destroyed by a recent and very severe wind storm (Photo by Jordan Engel)

Not only are there sometimes dozens of people sharing a cramped space, but those homes that they share are often sub-par old cabins or decades-old trailers that have passed their expiration dates, many of which have been condemned but continue to be lived in. It probably goes without saying that these homes are poorly insulated. Some might remember back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when public outcry exposed FEMA’s emergency relief trailers to be toxic with high levels of urea formaldehyde. Unfortunately, those trailers didn’t just disappear. They were placed on Indian reservations as permanent housing. Toxicity aside, the trailers were designed to be used in sub-tropical hurricane disaster areas which were thousands of miles away from the harsh winters of the Northern plains. The housing crisis is a public health issue now as the Lakota are poisoned by the walls that surround them, and suffer from pneumonia and hypothermia when those walls fail to do their job in the winter months.

All of these were factors that inspired the creation of the Tribal Renewable Energy Program and Lakota Solar Enterprises to help alleviate tiospayes from the bitter cold with a renewable heat source. Recognizing that solar air heaters are only as efficient as the home itself, we began to investigate more solutions to the housing crisis. Retrofitting homes with cellulose insulation was part of the equation but it still didn’t address the housing shortage; so, we began to build.

straw bale frame_Pine RidgeWe developed a type of construction that would be inexpensive and efficient – something that would be appropriate for conditions on Pine Ridge. The answer seemed obvious and straw bale construction was the perfect ecological design for this particular climate. The first straw bale was built at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) in 2010, but was later destroyed by the 2011 flood. The second straw bale home went up in the summer of 2011, the design still evolving and responding to what we learned with the first design. Some of the volunteers from last year’s build were so impressed with the RCREC that when they returned to their communities, they convinced their peers to help fund another straw bale project in Pine Ridge. This year’s straw bale was funded by generous Trees, Water & People donors and two Boston-area churches who “sold a lot of cupcakes” to make it possible to buy the materials and travel to Pine Ridge for the construction.

straw bale home_Pine RidgeWork on the third straw bale home at the RCREC began on Monday last week and was nearly complete by Friday. Gathering materials for the building began a little earlier. Constructed mostly from locally available resources, straw bale homes are regionally very appropriate for Pine Ridge. The one hundred or so bales of straw came from a Nebraska farmer’s wheat field a week before the walls went up, and clay for the plaster came from the reservation, as did the more loamy dirt.

straw bale home_foundation
The conical shape of the straw bale home is symbolic of a tepee.

As with all good homes, our work started with digging a good foundation. A stake was set in ground to mark the middle, and a 12 foot string tied to the stake created a 450 square foot circle that was then dug 2 feet deep and leveled. This sunken floor will capitalize on the Earth’s natural protection and insulation from the elements and later will also be laid with radiant ground source heating and covered with poured concrete. The concrete floor will be an effective source of thermal mass for storing solar energy and keeping the home warm at night. The circular shape of the house is also efficient because circles have the greatest interior space to exposed surface area ratio of any shape. Walls finally went vertical with a 4 foot high foundation layer of earth-filled livestock feed bags purchased from a local farm store. With the foundation off the ground and above the threat of splashing rainwater, straw bales began to be stacked around the circle, leaving gaps only for the door and windows. As that was happening, a crew was busy sifting apart clumps of clay to prepare for the next step: the long and messy task of mudding all the surfaces. The “mud” mixture was an all natural and simple mix of one part clay, one part dirt, a little bit of straw, and enough water to give the mixture a viscous consistency. Different methods of mixing were used simultaneously to speed up the process: in a cement mixer, with a roto-tiller, and the old-fashioned way with a wheelbarrow and shovel. Installing the skeleton for a conical roof was the final step for us. Large eaves will protect the mud plaster from the rain as well as shade the windows from the hot summer sun. The conical shape was symbolic of a tepee and in fact the original plan was to use recycled tepee poles for the roof but in the end we went with lumber.

RCREC volunteers
Thank you volunteers!

There were no blueprints for this design because it is still an evolving prototype. Straw bale construction is still a ever-changing field, and at the RCREC, we’re developing a model of the cheapest, most efficient home available. With each successive straw bale home that we build, we are getting closer to that goal, and soon we will have a flexible and replicable plan that can be exported across the plains. In the meantime, however, we are growing our Solar Warrior Community by providing more housing for the reservation’s first eco-tiospaye.

Aside from being a training center, a farm, and a renewable energy factory, the RCREC is also a home. For three months, I was proud to call it my home and I am grateful to the Red Cloud tiospaye for sharing it with me. As I leave Pine Ridge to go back to school, I’m reminded of something Darrell Red Cloud told me one night as we were looking up at the wide prairie sky. He told me that if I look to the West in the late-night summer sky, the stars form the shape of a tepee. It reminds the Lakota people that there will always be a home for them here on Mother Earth, as long as that tepee shines down upon them.

Photo of the Week: Volunteers Dig Deep at RCREC

Volunteers work hard to dig the foundation for a straw bale demonstration site at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The demo home will serve as a training site for sustainable housing design and construction.

Interested in helping? There are many ways you can get involved with bringing sustainable housing to Lakota families:

  1. DONATE to the straw bale fundraiser on OR
  2. DONATE through our online donation portal (please write “straw bale home” in the comments section)
  3. Volunteer!! Click here to learn more about the FREE straw bale workshop at Pine Ridge.


Help Raise Funds for Straw Bale Homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation

The Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota, has a major housing crisis. It is common place to have Lakota families living in conditions of extreme overcrowding, with 3 to 4 families inhabiting one three-bedroom home. Many of the families have no electricity, telephone, running water, or sewage systems; and many use wood stoves to heat their homes, depleting limited wood resources. The Lakota people are living in third world conditions, right in our own backyard!

Straw bale Home + Solar Heat = Sustainability

In partnership with Henry Red Cloud, Pine Ridge resident and owner of Lakota Solar Enterprises, we are working to bring sustainable housing solutions to reservation communities and we need your help!  We will begin by constructing a straw bale demonstration site at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), complete with solar heating and lighting. This demonstration site will be a place to conduct workshops, share knowledge, and pass on green building skills throughout Indian Country.  This will be the beginning of a long-term project to bring 600 straw bale houses to the Pine Ridge Reservation, providing families with dignified living conditions that every human being deserves.  Please join us in this effort and consider a donation to this important fundraiser.

How can you help? Make a donation, share this with a friend, donate your birthday (click here to learn how), join us for a FREE straw bale home workshop on Pine Ridge.

Donate Button

Straw Bale Construction Workshop — Aug. 8-12 — FREE

You are invited to a free training and volunteer opportunity to help build a demonstration straw bale home on our partner, Henry Red Cloud’s, property at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

What: Straw bale home construction training and volunteer trip
Where: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, Pine Ridge, South Dakota
Arrive: Sunday evening/ afternoon, August 7 (you may wish to arrive in time for the Pine Ridge Pow Wow).
Work: Monday-Friday, Aug 8-12
Depart: Saturday, Aug 13
Why: Learn about straw bale construction and help Henry build this demonstration of efficient, affordable housing for Native Americans living on reservations.


  • All are invited to camp on Henry’s property at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. Please bring your own camping equipment.


  • In general, you will be responsible for your own transport to/ from Henry’s.
  • For those of you traveling from Fort Collins, CO on Sunday and returning on Saturday, I will be happy to facilitate carpools.


  • Our options for food will depend on the number of volunteers who sign-up.
  • For now, you should assume that you will be responsible for your own food and preparation.
  • TWP is happy to share its kitchen equipment including a stove and shelter. If there are 40 of us, you may be happy you brought your own camp stove…
  • There is a small convenience store about 9 miles from Henry’s.

To Reserve Your Spot:
Please email Lacey Gaechter at or call us at (970) 484-3678.

  • Let Lacey know when you plan to arrive/ depart.
  • Where you’ll be coming from.
  • If you’d like a ride or to offer a ride from Fort Collins.
  • Any questions that you have.

We hope you can join us in bringing sustainable housing options to the Lakota People!

Can’t attend but still want to help? Click here to donate to our straw bale fundraiser online!