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Native American Leaders Turn to Solar to Power Their Communities

Outside of the Pittsburgh convention center where President Trump was speaking in late October, more than 50 indigenous leaders gathered to lead a water ceremony and march through downtown. 

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The action was part of a programming series called Power Beyond Extraction planned to coincide with the Shale Insight conference, an annual meeting about the future of energy, hosted by the petrochemical industry. The events were organized by a traveling pop-up museum called The Natural History Museum

Fourteen environmental, nonprofit and political groups hosted events all day in response to Trump’s visit to the Shale Insight conference on Oct. 23, 2019. The public was invited to stand in solidarity with members of the Lakota, Seneca, Sioux and other Native and faith leaders. Photo: Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA

Judith LeBlanc, a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Native Organizers Alliance, was one of the organizers of the Day of Action. She said some might call what they are doing a Trump protest, but she doesn’t. 

“We’re actually honoring our ancestors by being here and lifting our voices,” she said. “We’re doing this work to protect water and to generate energy from clean sources because of love of humanity, because of love of mother earth.

Decolonizing Green Power

Later that evening LeBlanc and other Native American leaders were part of a panel called Decolonizing Green Power. The idea is to empower indigenous communities by developing renewable energy on reservations. Henry Red Cloud has been at the forefront of the movement for more than two decades.

“I’ve been doing solar since 1997 when it wasn’t cool,” he said. “Now it’s a necessity. We have to be doing solar.”

Red Cloud was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the home of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He is the direct descendent of Chief Red Cloud, one of the last Lakota war chiefs. Red Cloud started one of the first 100% Native American owned and operated renewable energy companies in the nation. The Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center has also trained nearly 1,000 young people to build and install solar panels. 

Red Cloud said looking to the sun has always been a way of life for indigenous people. 

“It’s who we are, our language, our ceremony, or song our dance,” he said. “So we’re taking this new way and honoring that old way and becoming sustainable; creating economic opportunity.”

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On the Pine Ridge reservation, over 40% of residents live without access to electricity. And it’s hard for many Native Americans in the region to heat and cool their homes affordably. Local renewable energy is one solution

There’s another reason Red Cloud is so dedicated to bringing renewables to Native American lands: climate change. This past year, his reservation was hit with a bomb cyclone and flooding left him and his neighbors stranded with very little food or water for more than two weeks.

“When we think about energy independence, we need to think about local production, local grids, cooperatives rather than conglomerates.”

 “I never heard of any kind of weather like that; I never heard of snowanator or firenator and all these weird names now,” he said. “We’re in the Northern Plains and flooding doesn’t just happen out there. I love water; and always recognizing and saying a prayer to the water. But I never thought I’d live on top of the water.” 

Mark Tilsen is a Oglala Lakota Poet and Educator, also from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His new book of poetry is titled, “It Ain’t Over Until We’re Smoking Cigars On The Drill Pad.” Tilsen became an energy activist after being part of the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access pipeline. He lived at the encampment for more than five months and he’s critical of the Trump administration. 

“This administration is dead set on increasing our dependence on fossil fuels exponentially and taking away all environmental protections,” he said. “When we think about energy independence, we need to think about local production, local grids, cooperatives rather than conglomerates.”

“Green the Rez”

Tilsen said depending on a massive corporations for their power is dangerous, and he argues that reservations need to move away from a corporate model. Many tribes are trying to do just that. As part of the “Green the Rez” movement, nine tribes have created a petition demanding North and South Dakota to pass legislation requiring utilities to establish a Renewable Portfolio Standard of 50% certified renewable energy by 2030. They are also asking both states to pass a solar access law, tax incentives for green building, and a strong “net metering” law.

Both North and South Dakota depend heavily on coal for power. And people who live on the Pine Ridge reservation pay more for electricity than the state average. Power bills can be as high as $1,000 a month and families typically spend 30 to 40 percent of their annual pay on electricity.

“On my reservation, it’s not just that the electricity is expensive, “ Tilsen said. “We have a housing shortage. And also our buildings — I think a third of the reservation is living in trailer houses [with] incredibly thin walls. And it’s incredibly expensive to heat and incredibly expensive to get cool.” 

(L-R) Mark Tilsen, Henry Red Cloud and Judith LeBlanc speak on a panel at Phipps Conservatory titled Decolonizing Green Power. Photo: The Natural History Museum

On the tribal land of the Standing Rock Sioux, a solar farm project is currently underway. Once it’s completed, it will generate enough energy to power the youth activity center and the veterans hall. Judith LeBlanc said its a fitting tribute to the site of the violent conflict that happened there. 

“The beauty and significance of this solar power project is that it shows in life how we have to move from protest and building awareness and into power,” LeBlanc says. “Power in the sense of standing in our spirituality and our values, but also generating power that is an alternative to fossil fuels.” 

According to the Department of Energy, many tribes in the West are sitting on some of the best wind and solar resources in the nation. 

Top Photo: Native Americans receive hands-on training at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. The facilities also include demonstration solar air furnaces, a solar electric system, a wind turbine, green houses and garden, buffalo from the Red Cloud herd, and wind break and shade trees. Photo: courtesy of RCNEC