NAME Red Feather Development Group

HOMETOWN Bozeman, Montana

FOUNDED IN 1994

FOUNDED BY Rob Young

NOTED FOR Building straw-bale homes on Indian reservations across the West. In recent years, Red Feather has focused on Hopiland in Arizona, and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.

FAVORITE FOOD Pop-Tarts. Legend has it that the two-dimensional pastries fueled the first Red Feather project and have been a mainstay ever since.

CHALLENGES Fierce high-desert weather that changes on a dime. Packs of feral dogs. Cold showers.

 

Zan Wannemuehler’s lungs bled for days last April. She had been part of a volunteer crew building a straw-bale home on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, and the concrete dust aggravated an already nasty case of bronchitis.

But last September found her back in Hopiland again, working long days in another cloud of concrete dust and heat.

Wannemuehler, a petite 40-something in Carhartts, was one of 75 volunteers from the Montana-based Red Feather Development Group. She’d traveled from Montana, where she helped build a house on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, to the Hopi village of Bacavi. She used up all of her vacation time from her pathology job, and then took another two months of unpaid leave. And she plans to do the same next year. “I can’t not do it,” she says. “Someone has asked for help, and I’ve been given some ability to provide that help.”

The volunteers spent from one to four weeks on a ridge overlooking Third Mesa, stacking and sculpting straw bales, lining them inside and out with chicken wire and covering the straw-bale walls with stucco. Since it was founded in 1994, Red Feather has completed 54 projects on seven reservations across the West, trying to ease the housing deficiencies and substandard living conditions that have long plagued Indian Country. These aren’t handouts — the homeowner is responsible for securing a mortgage. But the cooperative approach, with homeowners and volunteers pitching in together, brings down costs significantly.

The homeowner in this case is Kerri Shebola, a warm-hearted Hopi in her late 20s who has faced more than her fair share of difficulties: Her 8-year-old son, Matthew, has been fighting leukemia for the last five years. His condition is not helped by the mud walls and poor ventilation typical of dwellings in Bacavi, the Shebolas’ hometown. Shebola has had to divide her time between an apartment in Polacca, Ariz., and hospitals and doctors’ offices in Tucson, eight hours away.

This has made for a lonely and challenging life. But this fall, she worked shoulder to shoulder with the volunteers, mimicking the Hopi tradition of anaya, or working communally. With this crowd, she found, loneliness was impossible.

Wannemuehler says the volunteers also benefit in intangible ways. “I think that I grow as a person every time I come to these builds,” she says. “I come away with different ideas; I have an ever-growing network of people and connections.”

On a chilly September evening, with just five days left in the monthlong project, generator-powered lights cast a cozy glow on the interior of the emerging house. Inside, Wannemuehler and a few other volunteers mud and sand the drywall for the next day’s painting. The other members of the crew are resting their aching, chapped and delaminating bodies elsewhere. With fewer people, there’s more room to move, to be loose, and the workers relax into a congenial rhythm. John Vik, one of Red Feather’s longest-serving volunteers, says this is the magic time that makes it all worthwhile.

For Shebola, the magic time will come at the end of the month, when her modest, stucco-covered new home sits among the rabbitbrush and sage. But the Red Feather volunteers did more than build her a house; they helped end her painful isolation. In gratitude, she plans to share the gift, using the knowledge she gained to guide the next applicants through the knotty process of securing utilities and financing for a Red Feather home. It’s a small gesture, she says, but it will produce much-needed results.

“I hope that we can continue to work with one another so that we provide more homes for our Hopi people, because it’s so badly needed,” she says.

 

The writer lives among the boulders and bouteloua in Prescott, Arizona, co-publishing her very own newsmagazine, Read It Here.