Lakota Activist and Builder Christinia Eala
Volunteers constructing foundation of the Indigenous Wisdom Center. Courtesy of the Indigenous Wisdom Center
The values of her Lakota culture inform Christinia Eala’s work helping to build sustainable reservation housing.
“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it,” Paulo Coelho writes in his novel The Alchemist. These are the words that keep Lakota activist and grandmother Christinia Eala moving forward in the effort to provide homes and help for her people.
Christinia directs her nonprofit, Tiyospaye Winyan Maka, from the sweetly chaotic apartment she shares with her daughter’s family in Fort Collins, Colorado. But the heart and action of her mission are found on the windswept plains of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.
Empathy is a driving force for Christinia. “I know what it feels like to be homeless, to work and take care of children as well.” In 1989, as a divorced mother of four, Christinia was unable to find housing for herself and her children. She was referred to the Colorado Coalition of the Homeless by an unsympathetic Rural Housing Service administrator. The director of the coalition recognized her as the leader and activist she is. With his encouragement, Christinia found herself in the streets of Washington, DC, at a “Housing Now!” march and her life’s purpose began to take shape.
She inherited the Tiyospaye Crisis Center, where she volunteered, from her spiritual mentor in 1999. Wishing to find permanent solutions rather than deal with day-to-day crises, she morphed it into Tiyospaye Winyan Maka (Extended Family of Women of the Earth). Indigenous cultures are usually matrilineal; the name honors those who are most often responsible for home and children.
In the years since, she has served on the boards of the Coalition for the Homeless and the United Nations Association. These organizations provided the networks Tiyospaye Winyan Maka needed to build homes, organize food supply caravans during floods, and deliver propane in winter storms. She also partners with groups like Engineers Without Borders, The Indigenous Wisdom Center (Slim Buttes, South Dakota), Her Many Voices (Boulder, Colorado,) and Neighbor to Neighbor in Fort Collins.
Christinia realized sustainable, owner-built housing with solar alternative energy was the direction she needed to take for reservation housing. She studied earthbag construction at Cal-Earth Institute, inspired by dome designs that are flood, fire, and earthquake-proof and architecturally based on the sacred circle. She teamed up with a solar school, experimented with hempcrete and pallet houses, spending years researching and planning. Building houses took years as well, through infrastructure challenges, unproductive monsoon seasons, excruciatingly cold winters, tornados, and health crises of her own.
In 2014 Christinia underwent open-heart surgery. As she was recovering, an incident occurred that, she says, “truly tested my spirit.” The large tent for volunteer builders, a car, a truck, and most of the money for the housing project were stolen by a family she had set out to help.
“It was like starting over.” She recalled.
But, remembering the words from The Alchemist, as well as her cultural values, Christinia forgave and moved on. Many times the magic and synchronicity bestowed by Spirit has seen her through.
Future projects for Tiyospaye Winyan Maka include partnerships with the Mothers Against Meth Alliance (M.A.M.A.) in South Dakota, a center in Arizona dedicated to teaching the regenerative agriculture of the Diné (Navajo) people, and a “neurodiverse university” for youth in Colorado. The youth program will include the Horse Boy Movement Method, a form of equine therapy. Christinia’s influence is obviously being felt further afield than where it all started in Fort Collins. Even Chicago will see the benefit of her vision, as her daughter works to establish a Native housing program there.
Christinia relies on the Seven Spiritual Values of her Lakota culture: Prayer, Respect, Compassion, Honesty, Generosity, Humility, and Wisdom. And Wicozani—the good way of life—balances the Four aspects of Self: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
“If you live by the values," says Christinia, “everything else will fall into place.”