What if you had to choose between feeding your kids or heating their home?
November is Indigenous Heritage Month and Native Americans living on Indian reservations have had to make the stark choice of caring for basic needs for their families for decades. Fourteen percent do not have electricity, which is ten times higher than the national average. Those that do may pay three times as much for it as people not living on reservations. Many live in the Great Plains states, where winter temperatures frequently drop below zero. Some of these households have had to resort to burning pieces of old rubber tires in their homes to try to keep warm.
That’s why tribes are banding together during November’s Native American Heritage Month to launch the Indigenized Energy Initiative (IEI). The Initiative is bringing together the Oglala Lakota Sioux, the Northern Cheyenne, the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, and the Standing Rock Sioux tribes among others to “diminish energy poverty, mitigate climate change, and create thriving American Indian communities with the power of solar energy.”
Chéri Smith, a cofounder of IEI, is a descendant of the Mi’kmaq tribe in the Canadian Maritime provinces and Maine. She has made it her life’s work to use her expertise for the benefit of Indigenous communities across the US.
Her credentials include leadership positions at SolarCity, the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s SunShot initiatives, and Tesla. Trained as a Climate Leader by Al Gore, Chéri also served as Director of Education & Outreach for the American Council on Renewable Energy. She resigned from Tesla to start Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative, the precursor to the group that has become Indigenized.
A mother of three adult children and a long-time member of Moms Clean Air Force, Chéri has thought deeply about the core issues of poverty, joblessness and injustice that Indigenous communities face. “It’s the wild west out here,” she says, and the health and well-being of thousands of people are at stake.
That IEI launched on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota is no accident. Standing Rock was “ground zero” for grassroots activists fighting to stop oil pipelines that contaminate ground water and perpetuate climate change. Now it is ground zero for efforts to deploy renewable energy to “address the social, economic, spiritual, and environmental concerns of Native people,” said Cody Two Bears, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member and another co-founder of IEI.
IEI leverages solar energy as a tool to “transform entire economic, ecological, and social systems in some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged communities in the country while upholding our commitments to protect and preserve the Earth. This is the new way of honoring the old ways,” added Chief Henry Red Cloud of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe and another IEI leader. Red Cloud and IEI Director of Training Daniel East, who built the solar training infrastructure for SolarCity and Tesla Energy, have created training courses custom tailored for their Native American students, dubbed Solar Warrior Trainees. The Solar Warriors get basic training at tribal colleges, then set up solar demonstration projects. Installers travel to other reservations to train more Warriors, regardless of what tribe they belong to.
“These tribes have banded together to defend their homeland for 400 years,” Smith says. “Now they’re banding together to become energy sovereign.”
“Many Native people believe that solar, wind and other renewables are their last chance for survival,” Smith explains. “They feel they’re on a path to extinction if they continue to allow extraction from their lands.”
Native women aren’t about to let that happen, which is why they’ve played such a pivotal role in fighting to protect their lands from fossil fuel exploitation. Indeed, Smith says that Native women are the reason that Arch Coal withdrew its 40-year-old application to mine Cheyenne coal and put in a railroad. Vanessa Braided Hair, who started an organization called Eco Cheyenne in Montana, amassed a volunteer force that crisscrossed 450,000 acres of land to educate people about how coal mining would pollute their air, land, and drinking water. “Her whole force was mothers!” says Smith.
Smith is proud that the tribes’ clean energy work also puts a “huge focus on kids.” “We need to teach them how to take over the infrastructure” that’s being built in their communities, she says.
Youths who graduate high school can train to become solar installers, electricians, pipe fitters, and carpenters, all skills needed to install solar panels.
“Standing Rock was a place where the world came together to push back on the fossil fuel regime. It was the most visible expression of the millions of people who believe oil should stay in the ground.
“At Standing Rock, our collective voice was saying “no” to more fossil fuels. The Indigenized Energy Initiative is giving people something to say “yes” to.
“When people ask, What’s next? I say, This is next. This is our future.”