In southwest South Dakota, on a harsh windswept area of land larger than the state of Connecticut, sits the Pine Ridge Reservation — one of the poorest communities in the Western Hemisphere. The nearly 30,000 residents struggle with unemployment rates estimated to be as high as 85 percent; increased drug use; high rates of alcoholism, diabetes, malnutrition, and depression; and lack of access to basic utilities such as running water and electricity.
In the midst of this historically significant landscape sits a beacon of hope: one of the nation’s first 100 percent Native American-owned and operated renewable energy companies, Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE). Founded by Henry Red Cloud in 2006, LSE helps Native Americans understand renewable energy choices and alternative building approaches and assists them in implementing projects aimed at sustainability and energy independence. Along with its nonprofit partner Trees, Water & People, LSE co-manages the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), a training and demonstration center for solar electric technologies, small wind turbines, solar radiant floor heating, solar air heating, solar water pumping, and mobile power stations, as well as organic farming and building with straw bales and compressed-earth blocks.
These initiatives bring clean energy to residents without access to energy and job training and employment opportunities to a community that is chronically unemployed. These efforts combine to create something that is much larger than the sum of its parts: hope for a forgotten and struggling community.
We spoke with Henry Red Cloud about the systemic challenges in Native American communities, his vision for energy sovereignty for his community, and finding new ways to honor the old ways.
“We cannot change the harsh tales in the previous chapters, but we can change the future.”
What inspired you to start this venture?
Henry Red Cloud: I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but then went away for many years and became a professional structural steel worker. When I came back home, everything was about the same, and I had neither a home nor a job. But I could see that Native people needed to embrace their heritage and build on their long history of working with the natural world. We needed a new way to honor the old way, and I started to learn everything I could about renewable energy and natural building.
One day in 2003, I was driving down the road and I saw what looked like a solar air heating workshop happening at someone’s house at Pine Ridge. It was Trees, Water & People in its early days of bringing renewable energy to tribal communities. We had very similar goals and worked well together, and we have since built a strong partnership that is still vibrant and growing 13 years later.
Last year, we started a new tree- planting project at Pine Ridge and planted 10,000 pine seedlings. This year we have expanded and will plant an additional 17,000 seedlings. We often try things here at Pine Ridge and then expand them to other reservations, and bring in our Green Team members whenever possible.
Can you explain the process that your organization uses?
HRC: Our students at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center are Native Americans who have often had little exposure to renewable energy approaches and alternative building methods. We provide them with hands-on workshops that each focus on a particular sustainability approach, but give them access to a much broader look into renewable energy and new building approaches while they stay at the Center. For those interested, we provide training and assistance on starting their own businesses. Slowly we have been building up a Green Team network across the Great Plains of students who have attended multiple classes and have expressed interest in working with us on various installation and building projects. This year, for instance, we built a three-bedroom, compressed- earth-block house on the Pine Ridge Reservation for Paul Shields and his family. Paul has been a stalwart crewmember at Lakota Solar Enterprises for years and also happens to be Native activist Leonard Peltier’s son.
There is a staggering statistic that Native American households lack access to energy at ten times the national average rate. What do you believe is the root cause of this disparity?
HRC: By 1889, when the Oglala Lakota were initially gathered up, we were confined to what was then called Prisoner of War Camp #334. This was when they were still managed by the Department of War. Later on it was renamed the Pine Ridge Reservation and put under the Department of the Interior.
The reservations were meant to be a way to manage the final destruction of the “Indian Problem.” The reservations were created on the harshest land that no white person wanted because it was too hot, or cold, or windy, and the land was usually not much good for agriculture. They were not looked at like the rest of the United States. Roads were few and poorly maintained. There was also no rural electrification effort like mainstream America received and the electric grid was not pushed down every road. Many electric companies even today charge outrageous prices for energy provided to Native American families, and seldom have any Natives on their boards of directors, even when the majority of their customers are Natives. The result, over the years, is limited access to the grid, high energy costs, and very limited representation or political support for better energy approaches.
You have said, “My biggest dream is for First Nation communities to become energy independent before mainstream America.” What does energy sovereignty mean to you and your community?
HRC: Native people have always had a deep personal relationship with the natural world — the sun, the wind, the water. The Lakota in particular are sun people, and we have a deep sun dance tradition. When we talk about using solar power — for electricity, for heat, to pump our water — Native people understand; they get it. And our need for energy is extreme, because we have had such limited and costly access for so long. Each year, we lose some of our sacred elders to Grandfather Winter, and it is unacceptable that someone should freeze to death in their own home. Unacceptable.
So our needs are great, and we have a culture that is used to working closely with nature. And today, many of the reservations that were selected for Native people because they were too sunny or too windy are recognized as having high solar and wind power capability.
These are powerful components and incentives for becoming energy independent. Now at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, we are adding a major missing ingredient. We are educating Native Americans so they understand renewable energy. We are helping them to work with renewable energy approaches and build with sustainability in mind, and to do so in a manner that uses local materials and creates local jobs. Oh yes, we are moving towards energy independence, and I am honored to be helping our people — especially our young people and veterans —to gain the skills needed to move our communities back towards the old way of being sustainable and respectful of the Earth in every way.
Do you believe your model could be replicated in other similar communities?
HRC: Our model was created from the beginning to be shared and replicated in different communities on different reservations. Each community will approach it differently, but we have worked now with students from more than 40 tribes. There are 567 tribes, so we have a lot of growth in the years ahead now that we have established the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center and our program of training and demonstrations.
What is the biggest challenge that you’re coming up against, and how do you address it?
HRC: Native people are starting from a great hole. We have not been included in the American Dream, nor have we shared even close to proportionally in the resources available to most non-Natives. Pine Ridge, for instance, is the size of Connecticut, but we don’t even have a single bank. We have one major food store, and, as I mentioned earlier, our grid access is very limited and expensive, as are all of our energy costs.
As a people, Native Americans signed treaties, the highest level of contract with the United States government. Most would not consider them “fair,” and the “negotiations” were highly one- sided. And the housing, food, health care, and much more that these treaties promised in perpetuity have been a dismal failure. So our efforts are hindered by generations of poverty impacting my people and limiting their options. But we have not only survived, we are growing. And we are growing stronger.
If we had more funding, we could provide more training for the many students out there who want to learn more, who want to support and help their communities. Our efforts to bring energy costs down and achieve energy independence are already having a huge impact across Indian Country. We just need it to grow so we can address the incredible demand and yearning we see out there in tribal communities all across the country.
Can you tell us more about the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center?
HRC: The Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center is a unique training and demonstration center. The Center itself includes three solar arrays, a wind turbine, a mobile power station, two straw-bale houses, a compressed-earth-block of ce, radiant floor heating, cellulose insulation displays, and much more. It also houses the solar heater manufacturing facility, which includes a solar experiment section.
Hundreds of students have attended classes at RCREC. Many more visitors have come through and have seen what we are doing, or just used the lodge as an affordable place to stay while they are visiting Pine Ridge or the Black Hills area.
One of our students is Leo Bear, who is from the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and lives on the Fort Hall Reservation in southern Idaho. He attended multiple workshops at RCREC and then interned there for many months. He then went on to create his own renewable energy company, Off the Grid, and he is working with us now to develop a bid for a 112 kW solar array that the tribes want to build. Also Jeff King, Landon Means, and Kale Means, from the Northern Cheyenne tribe, attended a variety of our workshops. We were able to get them hired on by Bella Energy, where they have now worked on a variety of solar projects in Colorado.
What is a common misconception that you have faced, and what is your response to that misconception?
HRC: Many non-Native people in the US have very little knowledge of Native Americans. They hear horrible stories about some of us and then think it applies to all of us. Some even think that we still live in tipis. This is one of the reasons we encourage people from across America to visit and stay with us at the Sacred Earth Lodge, so they can have a safe and reasonable place to stay while they explore the area and meet people. We often have Lakota storytellers and drum groups come to add to their cultural immersion and experience.
What are you most proud of with your work to-date?
HRC: I am most proud of my students. I am a vanguard, a trailblazer, a mature buffalo with lots of strength and experience. But they are young, smart, and courageous, and they will fundamentally improve reservation life for decades to come. And there are already a lot of them, and there will be many more before I am done.
What is giving you hope for the future?
HRC: All of the people I mentioned who are contributing to our success. They are all contributing their skills and talents and are helping to write a new chapter in the book about the relationship between Natives and non-Natives on this great land. We cannot change the harsh tales in the previous chapters, but we can change the future. And this new chapter we are writing is being built on mutual respect and caring and on a new approach to sharing resources and knowledge.
We have indeed planted the seeds of hope with every tree we plant — for every elder that gets a solar furnace, for every student who has the light come on when they see that they can understand renewable energy and it is something they can do. It makes me proud to be part of this new story and I am very excited to see where it goes in the years ahead.
Photos: Lakota Solar Enterprises