Seeking tribal sovereignty through solar
A group of Midwestern Native American “solar warriors” is working to help tribes break cycles of energy poverty and what they call “colonial exploitation” with access to locally controlled, low-cost renewable power.
Recently rebranded the Indigenized Energy Initiative (IEI), they serve as a kind of utility incubator that assists with the creation of new solar installations, including offering education on construction and how to secure federal funds.
Robert Blake, the CEO of solar development company Native Sun and one of the founders of IEI, says it reminds him “of the old days, when Native people would bring good medicine to another tribe and say, ‘Hey, this is working for our people; it can work for your people, too.’ And we used to call those the old trading routes.”
“We’re bringing back the old trading routes,” he added.
When Blake first began preaching solar sovereignty in 2015, “people called me a kook,” he said.
But the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, in camps on the floodplain north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation with trailer-mounted solar rigs, served as a firsthand experience with the power source for thousands of Native American activists — and imbued solar energy with a powerful political and spiritual dimension, IEI’s leaders say.
And now, Blake said, “I can’t stop my phone ringing,” as tribal government representatives from across the country call about setting up their own solar microgrids.
“We’re doing this to protect the land we live on,” said Cody Two Bears, an IEI co-founder who served as tribal council representative for the community of Cannon Ball, just across the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation from the 2016 protest camps. “We’re giving our people access to sovereignty, to create their own energy — but it’s also protecting our language, our food source, our water.
“And we’re hoping if we can set it up on a solid platform, we can share this with communities all over the country to help them do the same thing.”
Two Bears’s own first experience with solar power came from the trailers that powered the off-the-grid Dakota Access protest camps — many of which were loaned by SolarCity, a company founded by cousins of Elon Musk that was acquired by Tesla in 2016 amid the demonstrations.
The interest in solar power in the camps showed the “need to couple the old ways with the new ways, modern technology with ancient wisdom,” said Chéri Smith, a former head of workforce development at SolarCity and Tesla.
She pitched Musk on the idea that ultimately became IEI: an incubator to stand up solar power in communities like Standing Rock — but he wasn’t interested, she said, so she decided to do it herself.
Which was hard. “The problem is trust,” she said. Tribal communities are often reluctant to work with outsiders they don’t know, and while she is Indigenous herself — of Mi’kmaq descent — “I didn’t grow up on a reservation, I don’t pass and they don’t really trust me.”
By allying with people such as Blake and Two Bears, however, Smith was able to combine her organizational resources with grassroots local skill. Their push was driven by a combination of ingenuity, opportunity and need bubbling across the High Plains — particularly on the sprawling and impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation, where Lakota elder Henry Red Cloud has been running a solar energy training program and research project since the early 2000s.
Together with Red Cloud and Northern Cheyenne solar activist Otto Braided Hair Jr., Smith, Blake and Two Bears began experimenting with what would become IEI to help tribal governments build their own solar plants — help that through fundraising from philanthropic donors, including Adidas, they are able to provide for free.
In Cannon Ball, they built free-standing household solar installations — rooftops in the community weren’t strong enough to support the panels — to power the homes of community elders and put out a call to the rest of the Standing Rock reservation that there was an opportunity to come learn to do solar installations.
The projects injected hope and enthusiasm to communities plagued by depression in both its economic and spiritual forms, Two Bears said.
It’s a technology, he said, “that’s in line with our life ways and our ethics and ethos,” and of which people say they can be proud.
“ ‘And that can give my grandmother a $0 electric bill!’ ” he quoted.
The Cannon Ball work led to a pilot project at Standing Rock, which installed 300 kilowatts of new power generation — low by the standards of the rest of the country, but also the largest solar farm in the oil state of North Dakota.
Solar energy is practical for a landscape with sparse infrastructure, abundant sun and expensive power imports from coal, propane and heating oil, said Blake of Native Sun. In Red Lake Reservation, his home, “we send $40 million off reservation each year for our electric bill. So if we were to put together our own utility, with distributed energy resources — a microgrid — and we supplied even half that power, that’s $20 million back into a community with a median income of $8,000 to $10,000 a year.”
Native Sun just received a $6.6 million grant — split with Standing Rock’s Renewable Energy Power Authority — to build an electric vehicle charging network; and IEI is in the early stages of a $100 million grant proposals to set up a production line for energy efficient modular homes, to replace the often-substandard trailer housing common on plains reservations.
This offers something that is rare on both Western reservations and on the High Plains as a whole, Smith said: a non-extractive, non-casino economy.
“This cultivation of this modern workforce, and it’s — it’s employing all the displaced coal workers, not just Native American ones, but others, and other members that have been displaced by the vanishing coal industry,” Smith said.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.