A piece of Breckenridge history is being preserved to help Lakota people living on a reservation in South Dakota.
The owners of the Breckenridge Nordic Center recently partnered with The Tipi Raisers, a nonprofit working to strengthen the Lakota community and share its culture, to ensure the lodge they used for decades wouldn’t go to the local landfill.
For the last week a handful of Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have worked to disassemble the lodge and transport it home. They hope soon it will be reassembled and used as a multipurpose community center.
“It’ll be a place where people learn, youth learn,” said Ed Iron Cloud, 50, a Pine Ridge resident and board member of the nonprofit. People who go to the center will be able to learn contemporary life skills as well as Lakota culture.
On the reservation, almost everyone knows someone who has committed suicide. Unemployment, alcoholism, cancer and diabetes rates are heartbreakingly high, and the life expectancy for men is in the mid-40s. Elders worry their language, spirituality and traditions are being lost.
For this community, one of the poorest in the U.S., the Breckenridge lodge is a symbol of hope.
“If we can achieve this, we can achieve building log homes for our children and their families with the help of the Western world,” said S. Ramona White Plume, 53, another Tipi Raiser board member. “I have to have that hope, and I do have that hope.”
The lodge, also called a chalet, was built in 1969 as a Breckenridge Ski Resort patrol hut and warming hut, said Gene Dayton, 71, who runs the Breckenridge Nordic Center with his wife, Therese.
The resort used the lodge for 12 years before replacing it with the much larger Vista Haus on Peak 8, and in 1981 Dayton won a bid to remove the lodge for $3,000.
He relocated it to the Nordic Center, which last year finished construction of a new lodge, five times bigger and more energy efficient.
Now, per an agreement with the owners of the land under the old lodge, Dayton must remove the structure by the end of August. He decided it should be repurposed.
“We recycle plastic bags in this city, but we don’t pay much attention and we turn our heads when whole buildings go into the landfill,” he said.
The Daytons’ relationship with Pine Ridge began when they donated a giant lathe — a piece of machinery that shapes tree trunks into building logs — to the reservation about two years ago. When he visited the reservation, Dayton said, he saw living conditions that resembled a Third World country.
“To me, it appears to be a black hole right now with very little hope for young people,” Dayton said.
This summer, he contacted the Tipi Raisers about relocating the old 2,500-square-foot lodge once again.
Last Thursday, about a dozen Lakota came to Breckenridge to disassemble the structure. They have been sleeping in tipis next to The Church at Agape Post.
From this spot along the Blue River Wednesday, White Plume explained how the organization is driven by a “vision that one day we’re going to build log homes for our children.”
That is the nonprofit’s main goal because the reservation is experiencing an extreme housing crisis. A majority of residents’ houses are infected with black mold, and often three to five families live in a single-family home.
The nonprofit’s executive director, Dave Ventimiglia, said the government has estimated the community of about 30,000 people needs 3,000 homes.
With so many people under one roof, it’s hard for the kids to do their homework, said Iron Cloud, who served as a South Dakota state representative from 2008 to 2012. “Everybody should have the opportunity to have a good home and feel safe and comfortable.”
White Plume lives with five of her children and five grandchildren in a three-bedroom house with a basement. She sleeps on a couch in the living room.
“Everybody’s crammed into one house, and it’s a good thing because we love our children dearly,” she said, “but how come we can’t be like the non-native people with their big homes and the nuclear family?”
Though life is hard, she said, people in the community find happiness and fulfillment in their families, spirituality and knowledge of the Lakota culture.
“We still have our pride intact,” she said. “Our Lakota lifeways and laws are still alive and intact.”
She said the organization wants to construct homes with thousands of beetle-kill logs it obtained through previous efforts, but the nonprofit lacks sufficient funding.
“We’re human beings, and we want to live, too. We want our children to live,” she said. “We’re all involved in helping to reclaim and revitalize our way of life so our young people will live to be old men and old women. That’s our dream.”
The nonprofit barely has the money to bring the lodge back to South Dakota and will have to fundraise to reassemble the structure and turn it into a community center, Ventimiglia said.
The group plans to finish disassembling the old lodge this weekend.
Summit County resident Wayne Walton volunteered with the group Wednesday and talked about the tragic treatment of Lakota and other native people for more than 100 years.
“Obviously we can’t heal those wounds, but it’s a step in that direction,” he said.
White Plume said she hopes the ski-lodge-turned-community-center will be a place young people can go for help,
“We all want our children to heal from this historical intergenerational trauma,” she said. “This is going to help us achieve that goal, so it’s not just an old chalet being moved to Pine Ridge.”
To help the Breckenridge project, call Gene Dayton at (970) 389-3481. For more information about The Tipi Raisers organization or to donate funds, time or supplies, visit thetipiraisers.org or contact executive director Dave Ventimiglia at (720) 412-3335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.