Reid Carolin is making a documentary about the chaos and shifting political problems in the Congo and Rwanda. Yet despite the distance and challenges, Carolin told URTH Guy, "There's more reporters [in central Africa] than in Indian Country in America. No one goes to the people here and asks them to tell their stories," he said.
Carolin tried to tell some of these stories with his short promo film for Red Feather Development Group, below. The piece is narrated by the well weathered voice of Robert Redford, who is no stranger to important films on the plight of Native Americans living today. In the promo, Redford explains that of the two million Native Americans in the U.S., about 300,000 are homeless. A social worker explains that she often sees four, five or six families packed into one tiny home, often buffeted by severe climate.
Robert O. Young, the founder and executive director of Bozeman, Montana-based Red Feather, explains, "I could see right away what their problem is, and it's housing." That's why Red Feather has been assisting and empowering Native communities in building their own housing -- and they use eco-friendly, inexpensive straw bale construction.
At a recent silent auction benefit for Red Feather's work in the eclectic Dactyl Foundation gallery in New York City's Soho, arty guests sipped wine and enjoyed the traditional flute music of Grammy winner Joseph Fire Crow of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. All donations were matched by the Niles Foundation, and items up for bidding included luxury vacation home rentals, dramatic framed photographs and artwork, jewelry by Native artists, and a guitar signed by the members of Pearl Jam. The cool space was donated by Dactyl Foundation Founder and Board Trustee Neil Grayson and Dactyl Board Trustee Patrick Markey, who is a Bozeman resident and the producer for Robert Redfords films River Runs Through It and Horse Whisperer.
In between filming in Africa, Carolin was on hand to talk about Red Feather, on whose board he serves. He pointed out some of the benefits of building with straw bales: they can take advantage of very affordable materials that are readily available near western Native communities; straw bales are packed so tight that they repel fire and pests; it provides great insulation and sturdy, wind-resistant walls; it requires less skilled labor than other materials; and the technique is easily taught and shared among communities.
According to Carolin, Red Feather's approach is akin to an old-fashioned barn raising. "Our volunteers are teachers," explained Carolin, "and everyone in the community has a role. We center on one house at a time. We help the new homeowners get a loan for the materials, we design the house with them, and we ask that they put in sweat equity."
In fact, it is Ben Yeomans, a community developer with Red Feather, who does much of the heavy lifting in terms of helping Native families line up lenders who will offer products on reservations -- a process that can be tricky due to various levels of regulations. "One of our goals is to establish independently run nonprofits, run by tribal members, that can continue and extend the work of providing housing," Yeomans told URTH Guy.
"It's not how many homes can we build, it's how many homes can they build," Young explains. In Carolin's film, he adds, "One house seems like kind of a small gesture, but it really is symbolic of a whole new thing: it's people crossing all the lines that have traditionally kept people apart."
In a jaded world in which some have accused big nonprofits of doing more to perpetuate themselves than solve actual problems, it's particularly refreshing to note Red Feather's community-building approach. In fact, Yeomans even admitted that if his group is successful, then it won't be needed any more.
"Working with Red Feather was a fantastic experience," said Paul Dumaine, a student at Harvard Law School who had come to Soho to support the group he had volunteered with over the summer.
Red Feather also says that it is committed to promoting renewable energy. "When considering the majority of energy provided to the homes we built is produced by non-renewable coal sources and distributed by utility companies that have historically underserved the communities we serve, it only makes sense that we make the effort to incorporate alternatives into our construction projects," the group points out. Red Feather has begun discussions with NativeSUN, a Hopi owned and managed solar installation company, and is seeking support from donors to begin bringing solar technology to more rooftops.
All too often, Native communities in America are forgotten, or they are actively discriminated against. Red Feather is one of a number of groups who are trying to change that, and are trying to help communities help themselves. They're showing that green building is a great way to meet more than one goal at once.
As Robert Redford puts it in the short film, "These families aren't looking for a handout, they're looking for an opportunity to build a future for themselves."
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