It’s not our fault,” Jacob Rosales said. I had asked the recent high-school graduate what he wants people to know about life on the reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. “There’s a liquor store right across from the border,” he continued after a pause, pointing off into the distance. “Right over there.”

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a striking 3,469-square-mile expanse of sprawling grasslands and craggy badlands that sits in the southwest corner of South Dakota, touching Nebraska’s northern edge. Traversing the reservation by car, along its rugged matrix of two-lane highways and unmarked roads, reveals just how vast it is.

Park the car and wander around the softly bustling community hub of Pine Ridge town, and it’s clear there’s also a lot going on beyond the bluffs and tree groves and decaying trailer homes. There are the men in braids and jeans waving at each other from across the street, there are the teen girls drinking frappés at the colorful Christian coffee shop, and there are the “rez dogs” scouring piles of trash. There are also the young people, like Rosales, who are on a mission to make the world understand that it’s not their fault that this reservation—home to an estimated 20,000 Oglala Lakota Nation members—is one of the poorest, and most underdeveloped, places in the country.

Pine Ridge doesn’t get much national attention except when the news is sad. Unemployment and gang violence are rampant. The life expectancy for men is just 48. A youth-suicide epidemic has plagued the reservation in recent years, with a cluster of nearly 200 teens killing or attempting to kill themselves in the span of a few months starting in late 2014. And even though Pine Ridge remains a “dry” reservation, alcoholism is widespread; until recently, residents could, as Rosales pointed out, easily drive just a few miles south into Whiteclay, Nebraska, to buy booze. Mary Frances Berry, the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, once remarked, “Whiteclay can be said to exist only to sell beer to the Oglala Lakota.”

Signs mark the entrance of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Kristina Barker)

When Rosales spoke about culpability, he was referring to both present-day realities—the liquor stores in Whiteclay, for example—and historical ones: the legacy of centuries of oppression at the hands of European settlers and their ancestors. It’s not our fault that one-third of us drop out of school. That we participate in the labor force at a lower rate than any other racial group. That our men are incarcerated at four times the rate of their white peers.

Those realities help explain why, as Rosales explained, “it’s kind of unheard of for Native kids to go far and be successful.”

But it’s becoming less unheard of, and that’s largely because of students like Rosales who see educational attainment as key to reclaiming Native identity and culture. He is spending the summer in the Washington, D.C., area for an internship at the National Institutes of Health, after which he’ll be heading up north to start college at Yale University. Rosales has long been on a mission to attend a prestigious university, but if he hadn’t gotten in to Yale, he had plenty of backups: He was accepted to six other Ivy League schools.

Rosales, who plans on going to medical school after college and eventually working as a primary-care doctor on the reservation, is in many ways the poster child of what students at his alma mater, Red Cloud Indian School, can achieve despite growing up in one of the most destitute places in the country. A Jesuit K-12 institution at the end of a pine-tree-lined driveway in the town of Pine Ridge, Red Cloud boasts an ever-growing roster of alumni who are leaders in fields ranging from medicine to the arts and a network of faculty members with elite-college degrees. Red Cloud also has a record-high 72 Gates Millennium Scholars, more than any other school its size in the nation.

Yet Red Cloud isn’t just some prep school that hones promising Pine Ridge kids for post- and off-reservation success at the expense of their Native identity and community—at least it doesn’t try to be. Many of its educators and staff are themselves alumni of the school, people who left for a few years and then returned to give back. At Red Cloud’s high school, students must take four years of Lakota-language classes in order to graduate—on top of “spiritual-formation” courses that incorporate Catholicism and Lakota spirituality—and they can choose from a menu of culturally relevant electives, including ethnobotany and Native American literature. College and after-school-club posters line the halls, as do signs with inspirational quotes in both Lakota and English from Oglala Sioux leaders and the Pope. Its campus houses a Heritage Center, which includes an art gallery and a gift shop that features work by Lakota artisans.

The atmosphere primes Red Cloud’s students to be both community prodigies and the young leaders of an indigenous renaissance of sorts: The reservation’s young people are driving a new wave of activism, like that seen in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s a subtle yet intense movement that promises to define the future of Pine Ridge. After all, roughly half its population is under 25.

“We are part of the Seventh Generation ... prophesied to be the generation that creates those individuals that will spearhead the economic, spiritual, and social renewal,” Rosales said. The tall, slim 19-year-old sported a sharp haircut, Nike skate shoes, khaki-colored jeans, and a thick, crew-neck sweater when we spoke. Rosales was referring to a prophecy made by the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse, who shortly before his death in the late 1800s predicted that a cultural renaissance was afoot. “We are going to be that group of people that makes that prophecy come true,” Rosales said. “Red Cloud is helping us to do that.”

Rosales at Red Cloud Indian School (Kristina Barker)

But for youth on Pine Ridge, life—and the educational opportunities that shape it—is not confined to a single narrative. Rosales, who grew up visiting his mother’s hometown in Germany every summer, is somewhat of an anomaly even for Red Cloud’s standards. The day-to-day experiences on this immense South Dakota reservation both confirm and challenge stereotypes, complicating pervasive assumptions about the educational needs of Native Americans—and of rural Americans more generally.

As a private school, Red Cloud requires families to opt in—to be proactive about their kids’ education and literally invest in it by paying nominal tuition. The return on investment is huge: Just over 95 percent of this year’s graduating Red Cloud seniors are headed off to college in the fall, compared with roughly 70 percent of recent high-school graduates nationally. But Red Cloud, which is funded mostly by private donations, is different from most private schools in that it serves a population that’s almost universally poor—all but two members of the most recent senior class are eligible for Pell grants. Well over half of the kids enrolled at Red Cloud lack internet access at home, and the school prohibits teachers from assigning homework that requires a computer. Tuition costs a mere $100 a year. Families with more than one child enrolled pay an annual maximum of $200.

Araceli Spotted Thunder moved here from Oklahoma City when she was 13 precisely so she could attend Red Cloud. Neither of her parents graduated from high school and they wanted more for their daughter. For Spotted Thunder’s mom, whose family was originally from Pine Ridge, the school’s reputation and close-to-nothing price tag were enough to convince her that this is where her bright and promising child needed to be. Now a recent graduate of Red Cloud, Spotted Thunder—who has straight black hair, glasses, and a magnetic smile—will be driving 600 miles northeast in the fall to major in sociology at Minnesota State University. “It’s scary thinking I’m going to be the first to be going to college,” she said. “But I’m also really excited about it.”

Inside Pine Ridge High School and Red Cloud Indian School (Kristina Barker)

Yet Spotted Thunder’s trajectory toward college has been far less linear than that of Rosales, and not only because she’ll be a first-generation college student.

“Throughout my entire 17 years, I was told that I wasn’t going to be going to college, [that] I wasn’t going to do anything because I was going to end up like my parents, who were both alcoholics,” said Spotted Thunder, who’s now 18. Unfortunately, it was a message she started to believe. A few years ago, she hit a tipping point and attempted suicide. After taking a short break from school to recover from the incident, Spotted Thunder, at the encouragement of her English teacher, decided to join the poetry-slam team. She had never been part of a group that allowed her to express her feelings so viscerally and honestly. “Having these options that I didn’t really look at beforehand was really eye-opening,” she said. Since then, the poetry-slam community has served as somewhat of a lifeline for her: “It got me thinking that I need to not fall back into that rhythm that I was in before, to start looking at the brighter side of things, which I have, and it’s helped a lot.”

Spotted Thunder’s complicated relationship with her mom has also pushed her. “I didn’t really think I was going to college until last year,” she said, her voice wavering as tears started to set in. “The summer before junior year ... my mom was, of course, drinking one night, and she told me that I can’t end up like her. And so that really sparked a big thing in me to want to do better.”

For Spotted Thunder, staying on the path to college required far more than ambition and exposure to a college-going culture—it required an outlet, a place to reflect on things, cope with hardship, and boost her self-esteem. It also required confronting the generational poverty, trauma, and cultural disconnection that forced her mother and so many other Natives into addiction. She had to really commit to breaking those cycles.

When I asked Spotted Thunder the same question I posed to Rosales—What do you want outsiders to know about Pine Ridge?—her response was almost identical. “It’s not that nobody wants to help themselves; it’s just that they don’t have that help in order to go about that,” she said. “I would just want to say that it’s not entirely our fault.”

Just a small percentage of Pine Ridge’s youth end up at Red Cloud, of course; the rest are scattered across the extensive reservation’s ecosystem of educational settings. In addition to the private schools, there are the tribal-grant schools, which are overseen by a local governing board. There are the county schools, which fall under the state’s jurisdiction. There are the Bureau of Indian Education schools, which are federally funded and often federally operated.

Deanna Mousseau recently graduated from Pine Ridge School—one of the reservation’s Bureau of Indian Education schools, located five miles south of Red Cloud.

Mousseau was working on an assignment for her Native-studies class—using colored pencils to shade in a map of different indigenous populations “before the white people came”—when I approached her in the campus’s small, sunlit library to see if she wanted to chat. Pushing her backpack aside to clear the table, she shrugged. “Sure,” she said without making direct eye contact. With a slight smirk and black bangs nearly covering her eyes, the 18-year-old explained that she only recently moved to Pine Ridge from Pierre and had spent nearly her entire life in the foster-care system.

Pine Ridge is her fourth, and favorite, high school. But if she had been able to choose, she would have skipped high school and gone straight to college. “High school has been really stressful for me, so I’m ready to move on,” Mousseau said, noting she had a “horrible” attendance record and rarely did any homework. “I went through a really bad experience in my life, and it makes me really anxious,” she told me. She alluded to growing up too fast but didn’t elaborate. “So sometimes, I just take breaks. Sometimes maybe too long. Maybe it’s just me being lazy.”

Mousseau’s classroom experiences didn’t play much of a role in inspiring her to come up with a postsecondary plan; she told me she found support and encouragement from other places. From her difficult childhood experiences. From her involvement in social-justice volunteer work. From her boyfriend, who, she noted, was one of Red Cloud’s Gates scholars.

Despite a spotty academic record, when I spoke with Mousseau, all she could talk about was college and beyond. At first, she told me, “I was seeing myself, like, way out of state—like, as far as I can go.” But then she lost her grandparents, home, and belongings in a propane explosion last fall, and her plans were thrown off track. “I had to kind of start over, so now I think I just need to regroup and make sure I’m stable enough to go live in a place where I have no resources and no network of people.” She’s going to Black Hills State University, a two-and-a-half-hour drive northwest of the reservation close to the Wyoming border, for a year or so before transferring to an out-of-state school. It’s all part of Mousseau’s “weird, long eight-year plan,” a detailed blueprint that involves her pursuing a Ph.D. and working as a child psychologist. She’d like to incorporate Lakota traditions into her psychology practice and travel to various reservations to work with Native youth. “I plan to do everything different in college,” she recently told me, noting that she has already secured grants to help pay for tuition, and “I have already enrolled myself in some programs that will help keep me on target.”

Mousseau (Kristina Barker)

That post-high-school ambition is matched only by her passion for social justice. Mousseau is on the youth advisory board of a group called the Encampment, which encourages youth activism and brings members together to engage in community service and workshops, among other activities. Mousseau’s involvement with the Encampment even brought her to Mississippi for six weeks to help residents on the Choctaw Indian Reservation with their powwows and ceremonies.

“I think there’s this new atmosphere, this new optimistic thing for Native youth,” Mousseau said. “I don’t know what it is exactly—there’s just something where we’re changing, we’re starting to realize the mistakes of our parents and our grandparents.” It’s not our fault. “We don’t have to live like this.”

Pine Ridge, like so many other Native American reservations in the United States, bears the scars of a history defined by discrimination and injustice and abuse. “Since the white man first trespassed on these lands known as He’ Sapa [Black Hills], there has been an open season on the lives of the Lakota people,” explained Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota journalist, in an op-ed for Native Sun News Today earlier this year. “Entire Lakota families were shot to death by the gold miners, trappers, and settlers that invaded their lands.”

The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 is a particularly macabre example of Pine Ridge’s tainted history. There, American troops slaughtered at least 150 Sioux natives—roughly half of them women and children. The carnage, which was instigated following a minor clash between a Lakota and a member of the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry, was the last major confrontation of the so-called American Indian War in the Great Plains region. The year before the Wounded Knee massacre, the U.S. government confiscated millions of acres of the Sioux’s sacred He’ Sapa territory and assigned the Lakota to reservations.

It was more or less around the same time that, across the country, the U.S. government started forcing Native Americans to attend boarding schools to assimilate them to Eurocentric education and cultural norms. A motto attributed to Colonel Richard Henry Pratt embodies the philosophy behind this practice: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” At these boarding institutions, which were often run by Christian organizations, students were prohibited from speaking their own languages and forced to adopt European American customs. Children, many just a few years old, were often forcibly removed from their parents; some never saw their families again. Tens of thousands of Native students continued to enroll in these schools through the latter half of the 20th century—students who would become the parents and grandparents of today’s Native youth.

A roadside memorial on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (Kristina Barker)

This context—the massacre, the Eurocentric boarding schools, the attempted annihilation of Lakota identity—underpinned the conversation  a couple of Lakota elders were having on a brisk, overcast morning at the Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort, a motel complex of single-story rooms located in the dusty town of Kyle, South Dakota. The elders get together once a month to discuss the state of education and related issues; my visit to the reservation happened to coincide with their March meeting, so I asked Dayna Brave Eagle, who oversees the Oglala Sioux tribal education agency, if I could stop by.

Hardly noticing me as I tiptoed into their meeting space—a room adjacent to the motel lobby whose walls were lined with mounted deer, moose, and bison heads—the elders were eating breakfast at plastic folding tables, chit-chatting about Lakota identity, and trading jokes about white people’s confusion over Native American names.

The conversation eventually segued into one about college-going culture on Pine Ridge—a discussion that made it clear that for students like Mousseau, Spotted Thunder, and Rosales, the decisions around where to go to, what to study, and even whether to go at all are incredibly thorny. Pine Ridge has a complex relationship with the college-isn’t-for-everyone mantra, because for so many generations its people had been told college wasn’t for any of them. The local reality of unemployment and poverty—combined with the fact that just 14 percent of Native American adults have bachelor’s degrees or higher, a lower rate than any other race in the United States—arguably makes college attendance an even greater priority for youth on Pine Ridge than it is for their peers elsewhere. But blindly pushing reservation youth toward college, particularly when campuses are far away, can set them up for failure. It can also mean depleting the reservation of human and social capital.

“If anyone wants to go to college, there are opportunities, and we will support them, but maybe they don’t want to go,” Brave Eagle said. “Maybe it’s our dream for them to all go. I’m starting to realize that not everybody’s college-bound.” Maybe some are meant to enlist in the military instead, she suggested, albeit skeptically. (Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, according to some statistics, and that has been the case since the American Revolution.) Maybe the best option for others is to go straight into the workforce. The path that isn’t advisable for anyone, though, is not having a post-high-school plan: 41 percent of Pine Ridge youth ages 16 through 24 are neither employed nor in school—as compared with 25 percent of Native Americans in the same age range nationally and 10 percent of their white counterparts.

But things get tricky even when talking strictly about the Pine Ridge youth who are college-bound. Should they stay on the reservation and go to one of Oglala Lakota College’s nine campuses? Should they go off the reservation to one of South Dakota’s state universities? Should they leave the state altogether? The answer is different for every student, of course, but it’s tinged with all kinds of trade-offs.

Leaving the reservation for college often means more than just moving elsewhere to get a degree—it can also mean landing in a place where your ethnic and cultural identity is no longer baked into the fabric of everyday life, a place where that identity is treated as insignificant or exotic. College life often amounts to a culture shock that can be especially overwhelming for a student who’s already one of the very few people in her community to even consider college in the first place. “We kind of laugh about it,” Brave Eagle said. “When you go off [the reservation] and you’re hungry, you’re hungry … You’re just gonna be hungry. If you stay on the reservation and go to [Oglala Lakota College] and you’re hungry, you’ve got relatives. You can go to their houses and eat, and you won’t be hungry.”

Of course, staying on the reservation has downsides, too. “You get the peer pressure from others that aren’t in college with you, just saying, ‘Ah, you don’t have to go to class. You don’t have to do that. Let’s go do this,’” she said. “When you’re out there on your own, you have no choice but to go and get it done.”

Then there is the battle of expectations. Every student who leaves for college and doesn’t come back is just another drip down the reservation’s brain drain. And every student who leaves and comes back prematurely and never manages to return to school is just another Native who failed to fulfill her higher-education goals.

“We lose too many of our kids because somebody from the outside, with good intentions, based on their perspective and their values for us” told them to go to college elsewhere, said John Haas, one of the elders and a veteran educator. Such advice led two of Haas’s daughters to the University of Iowa, both of whom lasted only a year before coming back.

Programs like the American Indian College Fund’s Native Pathways to College exist to provide Native students with advice and support that are tailored to their unique needs and developed with these cultural challenges in mind. Native Pathways sends coaches to high schools across South Dakota, North Dakota, Washington, Montana, Wisconsin, and Alaska to conduct workshops and provide one-on-one guidance. Perhaps most importantly, the coaches rigorously engage with prospective college-goers through social media and text messages to make sure students are on track in the search process and confident in their application choices. I accompanied Davida Delmar, the coach assigned to Pine Ridge, as she visited schools across the reservation. She consistently encouraged students to friend her on Facebook, to add her on Snapchat, to take down her cell-phone number.

Indeed, while a big part of the College Fund’s work involves helping Native students find a way to pay for college, the Pathways program is dedicated largely to helping them find the best postsecondary match. Stationed at a round table in Pine Ridge School’s library and facing shelves of basketball trophies, Delmar encouraged kids who trickled in between classes to apply for travel scholarships so they could visit campuses before applying. Actually experiencing a campus before attending is especially key for Native kids, explained Delmar, a Navajo who went to Brown University as an undergraduate and returned to her home state to pursue a graduate degree at Northern Arizona University. She made it through her four years in Rhode Island, she said, largely thanks to a core group of friends she made through her university’s Native Americans at Brown student organization.

Delmar (right) helps Pine Ridge High School student Aisha Helper apply for college financial aid. (Kristina Barker)

Lyle Jacobs, who graduated from Red Cloud in 2012 and attended Duke University on a full-tuition scholarship, likewise stressed the importance of finding peer groups. Speaking on an alumni panel hosted by Red Cloud one afternoon, he admitted to an audience of high-schoolers that he was close to dropping out his entire first semester. “I go from living on the rez for 18 years to I don’t know anything,” he said. “I went from being one of the top students here to [a place where] everyone took 15 A.P. classes in high school … Everyone sounded so smart. I wanted to go home.” But he eventually realized those were just growing pains: “After the first three months, by November, I had a bunch of friends. I had stuff I was doing; I joined clubs and stuff. And Duke was the best four years of my life after that.”

Being a person of color at a predominantly white college can be overwhelming, and that feeling of isolation can become unbearable when that person is a Native who has spent her entire life in a place where her cultural identity is integrated into every institution. From Red Cloud to Pine Ridge School, students and counselors and teachers cited homesickness as one of the biggest obstacles to postsecondary attainment for reservation youth. Nakina Mills, the director of advancement and alumni support at Red Cloud, has witnessed too many students go off to college with big dreams only to return to the reservation months later overwhelmed with a sense of detachment from those dreams.

Mills spends much of her time striving to prevent that from happening—ensuring students not only end up at a college that’s a right fit for them but also persist once they’re there. Which is why, on top of helping kids figure out the financial picture, Mills tries to ensure everyone has a post-high-school plan that’s tailored to their needs. Does the school offer supports for Native students? Is the school too far away? Too close? Is the campus diverse enough? Is college even the appropriate next step? (She doesn’t make that concession often, but it happens.) The warm, no-nonsense 37-year-old constantly quoted current and former Red Cloud students, citing a litany of hypotheticals that can make or break a Native’s chance of success after high school.

For example, sitting across from me at a table in the principal’s office at Red Cloud, Mills recalled a former student who had just finished his first semester at a small, liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania. After returning to campus from Pine Ridge following his first winter break, the student told Mills that he wasn’t fitting in at college, that he wanted to come home. “I was trying to get him support … to try and get him to just wait,” she said. “I told him: ‘This is part of the process. You’re homesick. This is gonna happen every time you get back to school. You just gotta get out, get involved, do things.’ Blah, blah, blah.” Mills even connected the student with someone on campus who took him out to dinner. “Come to find out, his mom ended up buying a plane ticket home for him that weekend,” she said, “so he withdrew.”

The student was one of the few high-school seniors Mills didn’t have a one-on-one conversation with the previous year.

Charles Cuny Jr., the superintendent of Little Wound, a tribal-grant school in Kyle, agreed that whether or not a student stays on track with their postsecondary plan—be it in college, the military, or the workplace—is just as important as whether or not she had a plan to begin with.

Cuny stands in a hallway at Little Wound High School in Kyle on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. (Kristina Barker)

Far too often, where Native students are at socially and emotionally is not where they should be. According to Cuny, that’s largely because schools lack the resources to adequately equip kids with the skills they need to persist once they’re no longer engulfed by the safety net that is high school on the reservation. “Schools—their primary responsibility is education, but particularly in circumstances like this, teachers are also tasked with being counselors and social workers and nurses,” Cuny said. “This mental-health element, it’s not separate from this question about college attainment, and college retention, because you can’t improve their educational-achievement levels without addressing first their mental health and their well-being.”

After all, even when students do have support from people like Mills and Delmar and Cuny, getting through college is a daunting task. At the Red Cloud alumni panel, one of the students was candid about how tough her experience at an Ivy League school has been and how eager she is to finish. Her sophomore year was particularly bad, she noted, as she was in and out of the hospital on suicide watch. Life hasn’t gotten much easier: She doesn’t have many friends, and the few she does have are her middle-aged coworkers at her campus job.

“It’s really difficult because I get homesick a lot ... I’m 1,800 miles away from home,” she said. “I mean, occasionally I get good grades and I think I bounce back, but on my most recent midterm I got a 39.5 [percent] … My professor emailed me, and she emailed my dean, and it made me mad. I was like, Why can’t you just leave me alone? I know what kind of grade I got, but it’s hard because I don’t care. I’m just trying to graduate.”

In part because of how strapped it is for resources, and because of how deeply entrenched historical trauma is in the lives of those on Pine Ridge, the reservation’s education system often fails to give its youth the variety of opportunities that it gave to people like Rosales and Spotted Thunder. Official high-school graduation statistics for Pine Ridge are hard to come by, but one official estimated that, for every 100 children who enter kindergarten, just 30 will get their high-school diplomas. Native youth, in general, have the lowest high-school graduation rate of students across all schools, and the graduation rate for Native Americans in South Dakota is roughly 50 percent. Finding a decent-paying job can be challenging even for the small percentage of kids who do manage to get their high-school degrees. The limited support students get in school and the limited employment options they have outside of school help explain why poverty and drug and alcohol abuse are so widespread in Pine Ridge.

Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a local nonprofit, strives to fill in the gaps for these non-college-bound young people and to empower Lakota families with a grassroots approach. Working in seven core themes, from language revival to food sovereignty, Thunder Valley steps in where, and when, schools fall short. Its slogan: “Native youth on the move.”

One of Thunder Valley’s programs focuses on workforce development by engaging young adults ages 18 through 26, many of whom dropped out of high school, in construction. They’re in charge of building a housing development with energy-efficient townhomes and rentals that could eventually serve as many as 900 people. But the 10-month program involves much more than a vocational-training course: Built into the model is an emphasis on social-emotional health and cultural revitalization, with activities such as trauma-sensitive yoga and equine therapy complementing the workforce-development projects.

Trainees with the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (Kristina Barker)

“We really try to arm them with not just construction skills, but [also] coping skills,” Andrew Iron Shell, Thunder Valley’s community-engagement coordinator, told me as he showed me around the construction site in the town of Porcupine one blustery morning. “Yeah, it’s nice we’re going to have a physical structure, but the process is way more powerful … That just gives people something to hang on to. There are not a lot of success stories that people here see every day.” Off in the distance sat several unfinished two-story houses, blue tarps blowing in and out of the holes that would soon become doors and windows. The slap of the sheets were met by the sounds of tractors and hammers; a few trainees were lifting wooden pillars into one of the homes.

The workforce-development program has swelled in popularity over the years: For this class of participants, according to Iron Shell, it received more than 100 applications for its 15 spots. Perhaps that is in part because it’s a paying gig—participants get paid $6.25 an hour plus bonuses. But the demand can also be explained by one of the program’s core goals: to not only give students job-training, but also to give them the confidence and financial savvy to become homeowners themselves.

“They come in with a deer-in-the-headlights look because a lot of them—maybe it’s their first job or they grew up not seeing people get up and go to work—don’t really understand the work culture,” Iron Shell said, pointing out his favorite highlights as we toured the lot—the chicken coop, the greenhouse, the bright mural of two Lakota children surrounded by dragonflies. “My sales pitch to the community is that the young men and the young women building these houses could technically buy one of these houses.”

That morning had started as it always does, with the students and trainers standing around tables arranged in a rectangle in a dusty room in Thunder Valley’s trailer complex. After a sage-smudging ceremony, the participants proceeded to go around the table and say what they were thankful for that day. Almost everyone said they were grateful to be there.

A mural at a Thunder Valley workforce-development site (Kristina Barker)

Earlier this year, just before I traveled to Pine Ridge, I spoke with a man named David Espinoza. Espinoza is a Lakota Indian who was born and raised on the Rosebud Reservation, which sits just east of Pine Ridge, and who cofounded a group called Boys With Braids that promotes cultural pride in Native youth.

“This cultural shame, it was a tool designed to dehumanize us,” he told me, “to basically just destroy our idealism, the foundation of who we are as people.” He spoke of the “intergenerational trauma” that has permeated reservations over the centuries—of his mother who abandoned him when he was 15, of his time spent in federal prison, of all the Lakota people who end up lost or in trouble because they don’t know how to deal with the stress that’s ingrained in them. “We’re operating out of pain,” he said. It’s not our fault.

Young Natives today are starting to peel back the layers of that trauma and confront it in a meaningful way, largely through the pride that education is helping them cultivate.

“[Crazy Horse] said, after that seventh generation … there will be a regeneration and a regrowth and a remembering within our people of who they are, and we’ll start coming back,” Espinoza said. “We’ll start coming back and coming to fruition. It’s happening.”