The Beginning of a Solution: Reducing Waste, Generating Local Power, Education and Jobs
We Lakota Sioux of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation have been unwilling environmental refugees for more than a century and a half. From the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1851, which forced us to either farm arid, infertile land or starve, to the seizure of our holy site, Ȟe Sápa (the Black Hills) in 1876 after white settlers claimed its gold for their own, to the illegal “divide and conquer” breakup of the united Great Sioux Reservation into smaller, isolated communities, to the flooding of our remnant lands by Army Corps of Engineers dams in the 1960’s, we have too long been denied a healthy ecosystem by others' greed. Our latest struggle came when the Dakota Access pipeline was rerouted from its original course 10 miles outside 90 percent-white Bismarck for being too risky to the city’s water supplies. Instead, it was built half a mile away from our reservation directly under our sacred lake and primary source of water, Lake Oahe, despite the explicit condemnation of my people.
Despite all we have paid, the supposed benefits of fossil fuels are still kept from the 10,000 citizens of Standing Rock. Poverty is rampant. Electricity (generated primarily from coal) costs 1/3 more than in Bismarck, an hour away, and, unlike nearly every other cold-weather state, residents have no legal protection against utilities shutting off power due to nonpayment. Meanwhile, our local utility provides neither help nor encouragement for us to conserve energy or go solar. Though many states have “net metering” laws that allow customers to more easily afford solar, the Dakotas do not. Nor do they require any of our already-expensive electricity to be generated from renewable sources like wind, hydroelectric, or solar. They are not interested in change.
But we are. Standing Rock is already an island of ecological awareness in an area over-reliant on unsustainable, exploitative industries. That’s why Standing Rock’s transitioning to green energy is important, even historic. This project will accelerate the momentum of indigenous environmental action in the Dakotas: a region that desperately needs better, more sustainable solutions.
We know that it will be a great challenge for Standing Rock to take back our power. But I am committed to finding a way to do it, and my tribal council is supporting me and my partners in the worlds of business and education. We know that it’s imperative that we as Native people control our own energy supply so that we may teach others how to be stewards of the land, as we have since time immemorial.
Over the course of the next several years, we intend to do exactly this. Our ultimate vision is to establish a “microgrid” so that we have the option of detaching ourselves from the main grid entirely. We will kick-start a new Lakota renewable boom, establish aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standards, and overhaul our energy infrastructure to be completely renewable. We will use the first round of funding we receive to build a Revolving Green Fund as a source of sustainable financing, using the success of past projects to pay for future ones.
Specifically, we will:
- Identify high-yield energy efficiency measures for Standing Rock tribal buildings;
- Assist the Tribal Council in finding seed money for a Green Revolving Fund to create a self-sustaining financing structure;
- Plan the overhaul of energy supplies for these sites using locally-generated solar power or other renewable technologies;
- Develop a Sustainable Energy Education program to train tribal youth for clean energy careers;
- Guide funding to local entrepreneurs to ensure local job creation.These steps can then serve as models for the 14 Oceti Sakowin communities and the 26 Indigenous communities in our region.
We have already done energy efficiency and solar assessments for tribal buildings in half of Standing Rock’s eight districts, and we are turning our attention next to our largest casino. To give an example of the potential savings from these retrofits, the tribe stands to save $1.5 million over the life of the project from installing efficient lighting and solar in one building alone, our gym in Fort Yates.
The Lakota People’s Law Project and the Standing Rock Tribal Council have proposals out to the Southern Ute Tribe, and are exploring grants and loan guarantees from the US Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program. We have already identified a local company in Bismarck that can help Standing Rock with its transition to a more efficient and sustainable energy infrastructure. This company provides free energy efficiency and solar assessments. The company has already come to Standing Rock and assessed several government-owned buildings, and are scheduled to assess Standing Rock’s largest building and energy user, the Prairie Knights Casino, in October. Rock Industries, a tribally-owned manufacturing company located in Ft. Yates, is already a world-class machine production facility supplying goods to both commercial and government customers. They will partner with the Lakota People’s Law Project to add solar panel installation and manufacturing capacity to the project, stimulating job creation and sorely-needed economic opportunity at Standing Rock.
We have the unique opportunity to help our tiospayes (families/communities) become leaders in the global energy revolution. This will be our legacy—establishing standards and mechanisms such as regulatory bodies for our people to participate fully in this new energy future, connecting technology with our traditional ways. It’s a crucial time for sustainability work right now. With climate change already threatening the fabric of our society, Indigenous leadership on environmental issues is becoming more critical with each passing day. We Indigenous set an example with our culture of how we can heal the earth and end our fixation with wealth creation.
The support of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity would give me the added boost I need to make a large difference within my community of Standing Rock, and within the larger environmental movement. I have developed many partners already while doing this project, and have learned many new facts and skill sets. MIT Solve, the Lakota People’s Law Project, the tribe itself, and tribal entrepreneurs are all contributing in their own ways to making the dream of a transition to reliance on renewable energy a real possibility for our community.
It will not be easy, or fast. But every step we take sets an example for how principled action can bring progress even within one of the poorest communities in North America. If we can develop a Revolving Green Fund at Standing Rock—which to my knowledge would be the first tribal-run “RGF” in the country—we would prove that the transition to renewables is not something just for the wealthy and privileged. Indeed, if we are to avoid climate catastrophe, all communities—rich and poor, Indigenous and non-Indigenous—must shift rapidly. I hope that my work at Standing Rock can provide a model for the change we need.