Lorriane DavisBy Marci Narum

Photography: Photos by Jacy

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” –Proverbs 29:18

Without a vision for the future, Lorraine Davis fears that Native American people—and non-natives who share similar struggles—will continue to suffer hardships that have become the norm and part of the culture. A member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, a descendant of the Three Affiliated Tribes, and a graduate of United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), Lorraine shares her own vision with Native Americans transitioning into the Bismarck-Mandan community. She is determined to help them break the cycle of poverty and homelessness which are often the result of lacking higher education, and struggling to overcome addiction and repetitive incarceration.

In fact, she has already started. Lorraine is the founder and executive director of the Native American Development Center (NADC) in Bismarck. Its mission:

To strengthen and advance Native American individuals and families by providing supportive services and resources designed to preserve culture and promote economic security.

Lorraine incorporated the center as a non-profit organization in 2012. She began offering workshops, referrals, and outreach in early 2014 and has been developing additional programs, all from a tiny rented office in south Bismarck.

The NADC recently received its first major funding to expand. Lorraine says this fall the center will launch more supportive services, including life and financial coaching. She says the overall purpose of the NADC is to address clients’ socioeconomic struggles—the same ones she experienced in 2001, when she moved from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation to Bismarck to attend UTTC.

“I came here a single parent with all kinds of challenges and lack of skills,” Lorraine says. “It’s the social challenges of my own life that I see being repeated by others. Challenges that are not specific to Native Americans—alcoholism, drugs, abuse, domestic violence, child neglect, and youth drinking. It all leads to the breakdown of the family. Addiction brings instability. I use socioeconomics as the broad umbrella—your income and job, your house, car, anything you need for survival is impacted because of social challenges.”

Lorraine has spent countless hours explaining the dream and concept of the NADC to community leaders, agency partners, and lawmakers. But as she begins to launch more services, Lorraine hopes she can move from her 200 square-foot office into a larger space to accommodate clients. Her ultimate dream is a community center and affordable housing for families.

“In other urban areas they are called Indian Centers. Basically, that’s what we are building, an Indian Community Center. But we want programs staffed and funded sufficiently. And right now it’s in the early building blocks phase. It takes time.”

Destined for More

Lorraine has spent most of her life thinking about and planning this dream. Her motivation comes from her own experiences and having a vision for a better life and future. Because, you name it—this strong, beautiful, and determined wife and mother has experienced it:

Homelessness.

Physical abuse.

Substance abuse.

Trauma.

Even incarceration.

Throughout those dark times, Lorraine clung to a vision; she could get herself to a better place. She had a keen sense of awareness and faith that however difficult her circumstances, she would overcome them.

“That’s how my whole life transformed. If I had not been visionary, living by faith and not by sight, I wouldn’t have been able to break the chains of poverty, addiction, and homelessness.”

Even at her lowest points, Lorraine believed she was destined for more. She says remembering her roots saved her life; her family values, a mother who was honorable and took her to powwows, and grandparents who raised her in the church.

“You can only go so far going downhill before you realize, ‘Wow, I’m downhill.’”

Lorraine recalls one of her darkest moments, while living on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Reservation. She described a cloudy haze lifting, allowing her to finally see how badly her life had spun out of control.

“There I was, looking out the window of an old beat up apartment with my seven-year old son. His dad is going to prison again. I have nothing. I’m lucky to just have shelter. But I could see for myself that this is not how I want my life to be. I refuse to feel defeated. I’m going to college. I’m getting out of here. At that moment I took the first major step toward taking control of my life and my son’s life.”

Breaking the Chains

Lorraine says choosing higher education is the first step for someone trying to break the chains of poverty, violence, and substance abuse.

“You are halfway there if you make it to college. And you can’t give up. You can’t accept poverty or the social ills as a way of life. Even if you’ve been beaten to the ground and feel hopeless, stay committed that, ‘This is it, I’m going to have a better life.’

“I see it at UTTC. I know students go through it. They’re developing. They’re gaining confidence because they know they’re going forward. They’re doing something good. So many people come to UTTC from reservations all around the country. They come to have a better life. But what I’ve learned over the years is you can keep going to college and striving to break the chains of poverty, but it takes work. You don’t just go to college and all the social ills go away. You have to develop spiritually, mentally, emotionally, culturally, and economically.”

Mentoring with a Purpose

Lorraine collaborates with UTTC, as well as dozens of other community partners, and she says the services of the NADC help fill the gaps individuals experience during life transitions. The center has core focus areas which Lorraine identified as needs based on her own experiences: Housing and Jobs Placement, Financial Literacy, Homeownership and Career Development, and Mentoring.

“Mentoring would have really helped me expedite my personal and professional development. So we want the NADC to have a mentor network for clients, supportive people to call who have values they share and desire. It might be more than one mentor. Some might have the professional background you desire. Another might have a spiritual background you’re seeking.

“That’s a primary reason the center is here,” Lorraine says. “Another is financial coaching services to help a person navigate and build their credit score, understand banking, economics, tribal land ownership, and home buying.

“Traditionally, you’re expected to get a job, go to work, make money, and pay your bills. Today, a person needs a good credit score and clean criminal record. And if you want to give your children a good start, you need to build equity commonly achieved through homeownership. But first you need a good credit score. Your personal value is dependent on your credit score, not so much on cash at hand.

“For example, someone has mineral rights for their land. There are so many Native Americans getting royalties and big checks; it’s life-changing for those who were low to middle income. They get these big checks and don’t know how to manage that money, because, for many of us, we weren’t taught the concept of economics, or banking, or equity. How do I build an investment? How do I think forward? We want our clients to take ownership of their situations. That’s the whole purpose of providing financial literacy coaching.”

Faith and Vision

Lorraine believes when a person takes ownership of their situation and the choices they’ve made, it’s the beginning of embracing a vision for the future. They also become an agent of change for their life, and the lives of their children and others; beginning the process of breaking the chains of social ills.

“When your parents haven’t broken the cycle for you, then it’s up to you. You’re the change-maker for your kids.”

Lorraine and her husband, Scott Davis, the Indian Affairs Commissioner for North Dakota, are doing that for their adult son, and three young children.

“Everything we do to succeed is for them. We want to have something to offer them and not put them in a situation like I was in, alone, trying to make it.”

Meanwhile, Lorraine’s oldest son, who was with her during her most difficult years, is now 22, and struggles.

“He’s figuring out life right now. It hurts because we’re trying to break the cycle and I can’t help him until he wants it.”

Lorraine knows from experience that it will take time to see a transformation. Part of her own effort to be the change for her family, the community, and her people is the Native American Development Center. Lorraine is relying now on not only her vision, but the vision of others—and her faith—to make it happen.

“I used faith to build my own life. Don’t pay attention to nay-sayers. Don’t let them into your inner circle. Faith and vision have been the core of this whole process. It’s not for me. It’s for them.”

To learn more about the Native American Development Center visit nativeamericandevelopmentcenter.com

See more photos of Lorraine here.