Project Pine Ridge

Team W4W and the White Plume's - post installation


I’m happy to share with you an incredibly special project we just completed on the Lakota Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. However, i would first like to sincerely thank the gracious students, teachers and parents of The Willows Community School in Culver City, California for conducting a Read-A-Thon benefiting W4W and raising the funds to cover the costs of the first phase of Project Pine Ridge.

This dispatch is a little longer than ones I’ve done in the past – which is very indicative of how much it impacted me. It’s been one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. I love getting schooled. With WAVES FOR WATER programs in 12 countries and counting, I get schooled a lot. Each project has its own set of challenges and lessons to be learned— and without fail, as soon as I think I’ve got everything figured out – BAM, life has a way of  humbling me. We recently launched a clean water project right here in the US – our very first domestic project. Since day one, people have always asked me if and when I would be doing a project on our home soil. My response has always been that I would love to, but only if I could find a need that called for it.

My sole focus with W4W has always been identifying and addressing true need— so I wasn’t about to create something  just for the sake of doing a local project. I did look into severely poverty stricken areas throughout many American cities and found that even in the worst crack ghettos people could still walk into a McDonalds and get a cup of tap water if needed – or from a gas station bathroom sink – or even poach water from a garden hose faucet on the side of a building. Point is, people in our country can generally find potable water if they need to.
Then I visited Pine Ridge – a Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. Different reservations around the country had come to mind before, but knowing how insular they are, I had no real idea of how to approach them. Then, through a friend of mine – Amelia Barlow (who has relationships with two prominent families on this particular reservation), I was finally able to get a real look at life on a Rez, and its many challenges. I went into it with a very humble and sensitive outlook. All I wanted to do was learn about their needs and see if I could possibly apply to them, what we do for communities in other parts of the world. Amelia told me that they had big problems with uranium contamination in their water supply. Apparently, when the US government allocated this land for the Lakota reservation they cleverly retained the mineral rights. In other words – “Here take this land, but we can (and will) mine it whenever we choose to—” As a result, there have been a number of uranium mines put in place over the years and the primary aquifers on the reservations are now compromised. These aquifers are what all of the wells on the Rez pull from— So, in this case, when there is a significant and steady rise in cancer cases, there are obvious things to look at. Long term exposure to uranium and arsenic would naturally be at the top of that list.

Again, I will not pretend to be an expert on all of this – but some things in life are just plain simple – it’s actually just math & science. Yes I have my opinion, but it’s based off very basic and relatable facts – if something is considered to be poisonous when ingested (such as uranium and arsenic), then we shouldn’t drink it— or we’ll get sick— simple as that.

Obviously the relationship between the Native American community and the US Government has a deeply sordid past. Again, I will not pretend that I am an expert  when it comes to the complexities of this topic— But I will share some of the things I experienced while working out there:

I learned that Pine Ridge Reservation has the number one suicide rate in the world— THE WORLD!! I learned that the life expectancy in Haiti is higher than on Pine Ridge— and the poverty rate there is almost at 50%. Aside from these being staggering statistics, the biggest eye-opener for me is that it’s all right here under our noses. When people think about America, they don’t think of statistics like these – they think of places like Haiti, Somalia, etc—

So in a nutshell – the folks on this reservation face a wide range of challenges that are as hard as anywhere else in the world I’ve seen… And water is just one of them.

When I first went out there to meet with Amelia’s friends (Alex & Deb White Plume and Tom & Loretta Cook), I knew that it was a very significant opportunity— one that I had to treat with utmost humility and candidness, no matter what I was about to learn. After explaining to them what we do around the world— and thoroughly hearing about their situation, I was very clear in saying that I wasn’t sure if we could help them. I was NOT going to be another guy that comes along making promises that he can’t keep.

Basically, the filter systems we use around the world are primarily for biological contaminants and will not remove uranium, arsenic, etc— There are ways to remove uranium from the water but it is a complex process at an unrealistic price. The only thing I could think of with was to try to create an entirely new source, bypassing ground water all together. So from a page straight out of my Dad’s playbook, the solution of harvesting rainwater came through— He has designed & installed many rain-catchment systems in Africa over the last decade. Everything actually started with that – W4W was inspired by (and essentially born from) his work doing these rain-catchment systems over the years. So, to come full circle and talk about doing a rain-water project, in my own country no-less, was incredibly special.

Laying out water tank foundation at Cook site

There are many reasons why I feel this project is significant — some are obvious, like simply providing clean water to people in need. But then there’s the deeper layers, such as the symbolism of two groups (often at odds) coming together for the greater good. Or the empowerment the Lakota will feel from doing something that speaks directly to what their belief system was founded on – nature and mother earth. And lastly, for us (W4W), to successfully implement a solution that is more or less illegal everywhere else in our country. Yes you heard me – catching rain water for drinking purposes is illegal (or ridiculously hard to get approved) in most states across the US. As a matter of fact, the week we were on Pine Ridge a man was arrested in Oregon for doing just that (see story here – It’s all just baffling to me— but again, back to the significance of this project – the Lakota reservation is a sovereign nation, which allows us more freedom to do something like this.
The system is very simple in it’s design. All one needs to catch rainwater is surface area. So following the model that my Dad came up with for all the villages he’s helped in Africa, the concept is to use what’s already there. We use the roof of their house as the rain-catcher – then install rain gutters— then build a foundation on one side of the house, install  a thousand gallon gal tank— and then feed the rain gutters into the tank with PVC piping. All we’re doing is KEEPING the rain that hits their roof instead of trying to get rid of it, like most traditional housing design does.
I often feel like there are bigger hands at play when I’m doing this work and usually, during a project, very clear validations keep showing up to support  that feeling— to confirm all the many choices I’ve had to make over the course of an entire project – ultimately, affirming that we are on the right path and to keep pushing forward.

Example: a few days prior to our trip the current  edition of National Geographic Magazine came out and the cover story is about Pine Ridge. Not only is it about the EXACT area on the Rez that we are working but it features Alex and Deb White Plume, our partners for this project.

These types of magazine features are carefully constructed over a very long period of time and I, too, have been developing our project for almost a year. I had no idea about their story and they knew nothing about ours – so for both of them to come to life in the same week is remarkable to me.

View Nat Geo article below:

It’s an  incredible article that provides a sobering look into this community and the many challenges they face. It goes back to what I said earlier about the majority of us never knowing just how tough some conditions are right here in our own country. Well Nat Geo has brought this topic to center stage and I think a lot of people are now going to take a long hard look at it. I’m inspired to shed light on  a world that has been overlooked too many times, for too many years. A reality with serious needs— can only be met once those needs are known. That said, I am excited that W4W can play a part in the solution.

I have always looked at W4W as a catalyst, of sorts. Yes, we implement large scale programs across the world — which have an undeniable impact — but, beyond the obvious aspect of what we do, I’m aware of a deeper purpose. I see it like this – there are negative patterns that have built up over time in these places — as a result there’s a perpetual state of need that keeps feeding itself. But then something comes along that interrupts that pattern, shifting the energy – a catalyst. The trigger from this occurrence is often just the spark needed to steer things in a new direction – a better possible future.

I have seen it with my own eyes – a simple act, such as giving someone clean water, can (and does) change the course of their overall future. It causes a ripple effect that kick-starts change in many other aspects of their lives. When a village in Indonesia, Africa, or India spends half a day fetching water and the other half gathering firewood so they can boil that water – they’re left with no time for anything else. It’s just pure survival. But, providing an easy way to clean that water, eliminating the need to boil it, half of the their day is freed up to do other things – work on crafts, go to school, etc. Basically, each small act leads to large scale change.
We expect this to be the case for our Pine Ridge project—

We also hope that America will uphold it’s treaties and the Black Hills will be returned to their rightful owners, the Lakota. Through our actions we make this stand: Uranium mines must be shut down and absentee mining companies held accountable for the damage they’ve done—

Before & After – White Plume site

Lastly, I hope that one day reservations across America will all exercise their right to catch the rain that falls from the sky—


PS – I’d like to throw out another BIG thank you to Amelia Barlow for helping to make this project a reality.

3 Responses to “Project Pine Ridge”

  1. Madison Olson

    Thanks so much for sharing this story, Jon & W4W crew, and of course thanks for all your work helping the Lakotas. I just read “Black Elk Speaks” in school…it’s an amazing and touching story about a Lakota man who saw the entire change of the Lakota way of life when Americans came and took over their land. It’s a bit embarrassing to call myself an American after hearing what some have done to the Native Americans…at least there are American people like your crew who give back and pay respect to the original dwellers of this land. I also really enjoyed the NatGeo article. This all ties in so well to Black Elk and my 15 page essay…i’ll have to include your site and the article as sources of outside info in my paper. Thanks again! -Madison


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