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Spinning straw houses

Red Deather Development Group helps build Native American communities.

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Red Feather Development Group founder and executive director Robert Young.

(Fortune Small Business) -- Cheyenne elder Winfield Russell is a real-life Joe Leaphorn. Like the character from the Tony Hillerman crime novels, Russell was a tribal criminal investigator, for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For the past ten years he has lived in a drafty old trailer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana.

But in July, Russell, 60, moved into a new two-bedroom house with a solar-powered water heater and a covered porch, thanks to a gang of 125 reservation residents and volunteers, assembled by the Red Feather Development Group, who built the house in 28 days.

"We do it with the community, not for them," says founder Robert Young, a former retail entrepreneur who now works full-time for the group. "It's a better investment."

Since Fortune Small Businessreported on the nonprofit's innovative straw-bale houses in 2005, Red Feather has finished 15 more housing projects, produced a handbook on straw-bale construction, and grown its annual budget from $500,000 to around $800,000.

Sweat equity and corporate donations reduce the cost of a new house by 60% - and Red Feather also helps recipients get the $45,000 to $50,000 they need to become homeowners. Next the group goes to Arizona's Hopi Nation to aid a couple whose traditional stone dwelling lacks water and electricity. Their new home will have both.  To top of page

Straw Houses: Helping impoverished Native Americans get the most basic amenities - like shelter and warmth.

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