No Fear of the Big Bad Wolf

Nov 15th, 2002 | By | Category: 14-2: American Indian Higher Education Consortium 30th Anniversary, Tribal College News
By Suzanne Hackett

The winds of the Great Plains won’t stop two Montana tribes from making their newest buildings out of straw. The two-week building blitz began July 14 on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations with 60 architecture and engineering students from both coasts among the volunteers. The building project represents an ambitious step forward in the use of inexpensive straw as a remedy for the severe housing shortage on America’s Indian reservations.

Among the 2 million reservation residents, more than 300,000 suffer in overcrowded dwellings that lack insulation, plumbing, or electricity, according to the American Indian Housing Initiative of the University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, and Red Feather Development Group.

The initiative partners have spent five years developing a solution from straw, now a waste product discarded by the millions of tons. The faculty, students, and volunteers turn bales of compressed straw plastered with stucco into cozy and durable homes that can be erected largely by non-professionals. The group has built three such homes, and on July 14 sent 60 students from the two universities and other volunteers to help “blitz build” educational facilities at the two neighboring Montana reservations.

“These are our first public facilities, which will allow us to partner with the whole community,” said Sergio Palleroni, UW associate professor of architecture. “Everyone will have a stake in the project.” “The initiative’s overriding goal is to promote self-sufficiency,” added architecture engineering professor David Riley, who heads the program at Penn State.

Dozens of tribes around the country are asking for similar training and technical support. Straw-bale homes are two-thirds the price of the manufactured homes now ubiquitous on reservations – and several times more energy-efficient.

At Chief Dull Knife College on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, university students and Red Feather volunteers helped build a literacy center for adult and early-childhood reading development. The projects are intended to help build strong relationships with the tribes and develop housing solutions as a team. This will be an annual project, ultimately designed for tribal members to develop the skills to build their own homes. “It’s not just about putting up a single building,” Palleroni said. “It’s imagining a different future for these communities.”

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