ISJ Essay: Building a Tiny Home on the Lakota Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota

Nov 28, 2022

A group of seven volunteers from St. Ignatius Loyola joined 17 others in Wave 5 of the National Y Service project to the Cheyenne River Reservation in Dupree, South Dakota. It is here on the YMCA Council of the Seven Fires site where these much-needed four tiny homes will be built.

No special skills are needed to construct these SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) tiny homes. Under the direction of the Y Volunteer Construction manager, George Painter, from Lake George, New York, the panels were caulked, aligned, and nailed in place by 24 volunteers from around the United States. Some of us stayed in a bunkhouse on the Y site, and others stayed in a motel about 20 minutes from the site. Workdays began around 9 AM and lasted until 4:30 PM, with a lunch break from Noon-1 PM. The first day on-site, we were welcomed with snow and a fierce wind. Undaunted by the weather, everyone kicked into gear to begin the task of unloading panels from the container storage onto the foundations of the tiny homes not yet built.

The rest of the week was warmer yet windy, and work was paused during high-wind afternoons. We visited Camp Marrowbone, the YMCA camp about 45 minutes from Dupree, and then off to the Four Bands Community Council, where Alysa and Lakota explained how infrastructure works on the Reservation. They both went away to college and came back to the reservation to help their community. Alysa has an MSW, and Lakota has an MBA, and they help people obtain mortgages to build or buy homes on the Reservation.

Before dinner one evening, we had a visit from Dana Dupris, a Lakota elder. Dana is the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Cultural Preservation Officer, and he shared his story with us.

Dana persevered through difficult years of acculturation by the U.S. government and church-run schools by the grace of his deep spirituality and his resilient core that propelled him to stay centered and not become an angry man. The Lakota are resilient. There is no room to be angry; that is not productive in their eyes. Their culture and spirituality remain alive and well.

Volunteers from St. Ignatius look back on their experiences on the Reservation. Regan Orillac reflected, “The leadership of the YMCA of the Seven Councils and this National Service Project were so passionate and dedicated. The people we were introduced to on the reservation were incredibly inspirational, from a Lakota Elder laying bare the historical challenges of growing up Lakota, to a group of young women working to bring economic opportunities to the native population. And, lastly, the people who joined us as volunteers for the week were some of the most interesting, generous, and kind people I’ve had the opportunity to get to know.”

“I am grateful for the opportunity to have taken this trip. I found it incredible that Dana did not retain anger over his boarding school years. In fact, his sense of humor and his gentle way of speaking quieted the room and drew us to him,” said Maureen Haley.

Rick Scott added, “I came away with a new perspective on a few things: the vastness of South Dakota plains, the incredible work the YMCA does, and the challenges faced by the Lakota people. I felt embarrassment and shame for the behavior of our forbearers as it relates to the Native Americans. But in seeing the work of Andy and his staff, along with the women at Four Bands, I found reasons to be hopeful that life in Dupree will improve. And I came away proud of the work we did. It was quality work for a good cause. “

Xiomara Larios reflected on the trip’s highlights, “There were many, but the brightest highlight for me was the presentation at the Four Bands Council. Those two young, intelligent, eloquent women left me with tremendous hope for the people of the Cheyenne River reservation. It happened to follow a truly sad conversation with Sasha, whose struggles and pain are a product of the harsh life and limited opportunity for the young people of Dupree. Crazy Horse was both a learning and heartbreaking experience. Seeing that awe-inspiring memorial and the portraits of all those fearless dignified warriors was powerful. It gave context to all that Dana had shared with us about the Lakota people’s values. It shamed and humbled me.”

The young adult in our group, Dylan Freeman, said, “I learned a lot about Lakota culture and spirituality while also learning how to put up walls in the construction of a Tiny Home. The best memory of the trip was seeing that last wall panel slide into place, solidifying our trip as a success and a great starting point for future service trips to the Cheyenne River Reservation.”

Philip Anderson had a profound experience on this service trip and shares his longer reflection with us. “My father was a dedicated volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, so when I heard about the National Y service trip to South Dakota to help build tiny homes, it did not take me long to decide to go. This seemed like a way to pay tribute to him. Even though my mother has often said, ‘Philip doesn’t know one end of the hammer from the other.’ I did not let that stop me. And, on this trip, I learned how to use a nail gun!”

When I was 12 years old, South Dakota was the most memorable stop on a cross-country camping trip. This time, I wanted to learn about the Native Americans who live there, the Lakota. We met several Native Americans in Dupree and Eagle Butte who are working to help keep their culture and language alive and helping their people survive and hopefully thrive.

A tribal elder named Dana spoke to us at length about his personal experience of being taken from his family when he was a young boy. He was sent to a boarding school where the teachers tried to strip the children of their culture and language in an effort to make them “American.” Yet, he seemed to hold no particular feeling of anger or remorse. We were all struck by that fact. When asked why he is not angry, he simply said, “What is the point of being angry?”

It was inspiring to work with people aged 17 to 77 and realize that we can work together and get along with each other. There were some hardships, of course, but I will remember the benefits and cherish these memories for many years. Helping others, making new friends, seeing a new place, and learning about another culture and way of life will remain a highlight in my life journey.”

If you would like to donate to the Y National Tiny Home Service Project, visit

— Jean Santopatre, Pastoral Associate