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.