As the sun set over the northern Sandhills, a group of investors and philanthropic funders departed the Wolakota Buffalo Range, which is home to the largest Native-managed bison herd in the world. The visitors had travelled from across the country to learn about the 7Gen Vision that is being implemented on Rosebud, and to identify opportunities to build on existing projects and increase community impact.
“There is a lot of great work happening within our ecosystem and across Rosebud,” said REDCO CEO, Clay Colombe. “But Wolakota is the heart of what we do and who we are. We are buffalo people, and by bringing back buffalo in a good way, we are creating an opportunity for our people to heal.”
In addition to being at the heart of REDCO’s work, Wolakota was also at the core of the 7Gen Investing Summit that brought the group to Rosebud. The launch of Wolakota in 2020 and subsequent growth of the herd has drawn national attention. In order to pay the lease, hire staff, build adequate infrastructure, and purchase necessary equipment REDCO needed to raise over $5 million within two years. Their success has inspired funders to think creatively about different types of investment while also demonstrating the feasibility of projects that are operated based on Indigenous values.
“Wolakota wouldn’t have been possible without some amazing partners,” said Colombe. “When we talk about 7Gen Investing, the first thing we have to talk about is Wotakuye: strong, healthy relationships.”
Trust-based relationships have also been key to launching Lakolya Waoniya – REDCO’s Lakota language and lifeway revitalization program. Last year, REDCO was established by an anonymous partner who wanted to work with REDCO to launch a program to support the Sicangu Oyate. However, the initial proposal from the partner was not what REDCO had in mind. The partner was open-minded and willing to listen to REDCO’s counterproposal and the result is the existing program, which pays eight learners to become fluent Lakota speakers and gain cultural knowledge for three years.
“What we’re doing with 7Gen is saying ‘enough is enough.’ No one is going to come in and save us,” said Colombe. “First, we need to imagine the future we want for future generations of Sicangu people, and then we need to take action today.”
The message of action resonated with many attendees throughout the summit, which began on Tuesday at the Lakota-owned Tusweca Gallery in Rapid City. Among those in attendance was John Fetzer, a program officer for Northwest Area Foundation, which has provided grant support for REDCO’s ecosystem for several years. “In my role, I get to work with a lot of great projects in many Native communities across the region,” said Fetzer, who is a citizen of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation. “But at the end of the day, almost no one is thinking about things at the same scale as Rosebud. It’s incredible to see the progress that’s been made here over the past few years. When people look back 175 years from now, they will see the work happening right now as a turning point.”
In addition to sharing the story of Wolakota, showcasing the progress referenced by Fetzer was another goal of the summit. Over the course of the two-day event, attendees also had the opportunity to spend time with the staff of the Wakanyeja Tokeyahci immersion school, including an emotional testimonial from Deanna Eagle Feather, who is the mother of a student at the school.
The final featured project was Keya Wakpala Woicegeyapi (KWW). KWW combines housing, food production, land management, renewable energy, construction, support for entrepreneurs, and retail into a regenerative, community-scale development that will be built and funded in phases. According to Michael LaPointe, REDCO’s Economic Development Specialist, KWW has the potential to create 677 jobs and provide homes for 200 families if fully funded. Project leaders provided a updates including the finalization of the location of the access road and housing sites, a feasibility study for an innovation center, and the upcoming groundbreaking on the first home, which is on schedule for later this year.
“Keya Wakpala is bringing 7Gen to life in housing and business development,” said Colombe. “It’s a massive vision but, as Sicangu, we are done letting other people dictate our future. Instead of asking for permission, we’re asking who’s going to join us.”