“This is as big as the moon landing,” said millworker John Romero, speaking of Sioux-Preme Wood Products, in Manderson, South Dakota. “It’s a giant step for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.”
The start-up firm joins several new enterprises on Pine Ridge, where unemployment tops 80 percent but economic development is slowly gathering steam. Sioux-Preme opened its doors on September 17 in two century-old schoolhouses that local tradespeople remodeled and in one newly constructed building. Romero is part of an almost entirely Oglala crew of 10 millworkers, three seamstresses, one tailor and other personnel.
The group spent the last few weeks training to make its first product: affordable high-end burial caskets. They’re made of solid Black Hills ponderosa pine, oak or cedar and can be lined with Pendleton blankets or star quilts especially designed by head seamstress Latecia Hernandez. Designs can also be laser-burnt into the wood. The caskets cost from $590 to $2,400, depending on the wood, lining and artwork, and can be delivered locally or shipped from the nearby Rapid City airport. Eventually, the firm will produce kitchen cabinets, office furniture and more, said general manager Mark St. Pierre.
The Wounded Knee Community Development Corporation, a three-year-old nonprofit, is backing the venture. Employees are glad to be working close to home. “Even with a general-trades degree from Sisseton Wahpeton College, I had to either leave the reservation for work or wait for an outside contractor to come up with a project here,” said millworker Wayne Witt.
Romero agreed; he, too, struggled to find employment as a carpenter, despite college-level training. Sioux-Preme’s jobs are good ones, said St. Pierre. “A year ago, the Wounded Knee CDC’s board chairman, Frank Ecoffey, looked at the then-derelict schoolhouses and said, ‘let’s use them to create great opportunities right now,’" St. Pierre said. "Outsiders come to Pine Ridge with the intention of providing tribal members minimum-wage work, but you can’t live on $7.25 an hour.”
Depending on revenues, Sioux-Preme hopes to double that, or maybe do even better. David Parham, another millworker, said it was important to him that the company cares about the bereaved family. “If they want a quilt in the deceased’s favorite color or a symbol that meant something to the person, we can do that. All of this helps people with the grieving process.” Sioux-Preme Wood Products recently displayed its wares in a booth at the Black Hills Powwow. The limited liability corporation is competing in a global marketplace, said St. Pierre, explaining that undertakers serving South Dakota reservations subcontract through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
“They can choose cheap caskets from China. So we’ve made it our business to hit BIA price points, even though our products are beautiful and upscale. Of course, a family can pick something at the high end of our product line and make up the difference, but we still have to be competitive.” The strategy appears to be working. Sioux Funeral Home, in Pine Ridge, has already purchased caskets, according to St. Pierre. Tobie Beneli, Navajo, owner of Summit Ridge Wood Design, in Cortez, Colorado, and his foreman trained the crew. “Tobie Beneli is a leader in this field,” said St. Pierre. “Starting from scratch, without his expertise, would have made getting up and running a lot harder. He’s taught our young people a profession—everything from how many outlets the building needs to the importance of a work ethic.”
Sioux-Preme collaborates with a network of Native-owned or -staffed companies, including Beneli’s and a Black Hills sawmill that will provide raw materials. The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska’s economic development corporation, Ho-Chunk Inc., purchased stock in the Pine Ridge start-up. So did a non-Native firm, J. Scull Construction, a green-building contractor in Rapid City. More support came from the tribal Workforce Investment Act program, a USDA grant and a line of credit at the First National Bank of Gordon.
Rapid City land-use planner Nathan Barton helped prepare documents and applications. The Wounded Knee CDC has more in the works, including a grocery store and gas station. Said foreman Roby Cottier: “Each day I come to work, it’s a chance to be a part of history.” The company can be reached at 605-867-1068; firstname.lastname@example.org. The community development corporation’s website is www.woundedkneecdc.org.