Over the 125 years that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has managed the Pine Ridge Reservation, they have provided almost zero management of the tribe’s forest resources. As a result, the pine forest has shrunk considerably and in many places there are no longer enough trees to guarantee sustainability of the forest. Through discussions with Oglala Lakota leadership and representatives of several local Pine Ridge organizations, serious concerns have been expressed about the condition and viability of the remaining forests.
Due to our long history and success growing and planting tree seedlings around the world, we were asked to develop a tree planting project on the Pine Ridge Reservation. This new endeavor aims to replant the legendary pine ridges, while also engaging Native American youth in the restoration efforts.
To initiate this effort, we established a partnership with the Colorado State Forest Service, who used seeds from South Dakota to grow 10,000 ponderosa pine seedlings in their greenhouses. Over the winter, we worked with our local partners at Pine Ridge to identify and select specific tribal lands for our first reforestation project (about 17.5 acres in total). We also worked with these partners to recruit young members of the tribe who will work with us on this project.
A few weeks back, we moved the seedlings from the Colorado State Forest Service tree nursery in Fort Collins to our greenhouse at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. This was a long journey for the small seedlings, but they all made it safe and sound!
This past weekend, we had a group of volunteers join us to begin planting the 10,000 trees. The rains cleared long enough for 3,300 seedlings to get planted – the start of an important reforestation program for the Oglala Lakota Tribe! In the coming weeks, tribal members will finish planting the remaining pine trees, participating directly in the conservation and management of their local forests. More updates to come as these little trees mature and become an integral part of the Pine Ridge ecosystem!
Thousands of miles and hours of travel cannot dim the spark of ingenuity and inspiration between indigenous peoples when they meet to exchange cultures and ideas. On a recent Work Tour to Guatemala, Tribal partner and owner of Lakota Solar Enterprises, Henry Red Cloud, had the pleasure of joining a week-long tour, along with 15 other Trees, Water & People (TWP) supporters.
Indigenous communities are often isolated, and one of the most important roles we serve at TWP is to facilitate communications, gatherings, and exchange of ideas.
Henry is a sixth generation descendant of Lakota Chief Red Cloud, and aspires to honor his ancestors by promoting renewable energy across tribal lands. He found a lot of similarities between the Maya and Lakota peoples.
“There is a unity there for the benefit of generations to come. Reminded me of what we see back home – lots of small projects that are really starting, and bringing about a change in that direction. Living with the earth.”
Our new Assistant International Director, Lucas Wolf, has indigenous family and work roots in both North and Central America. He joined the Work Tour as part of his first days on the job, and was very moved by the experience:
“One of the most memorable moments of the trip involved our departure day from the small, isolated community of La Bendición. The theme of La Lucha (The Struggle), an important concept in rural Central American communities, was echoed throughout the work trip, but particularly among the community members of La Bendición, and this was a critical aspect of the departing messages on both sides.”
Lucas noted Henry’s powerful final words for the community leaders regarding La Lucha:
“It is important for you all to understand that this has been a moving and impacting experience for us to see the reality of your community and the struggle to maintain your cultural identity and way of life. I want you to know that my tribe, a fellow indigenous group, is also doing the same in the United States, living and working and doing its part to survive and thrive in the modern world. We stand with you in solidarity.”
Trees, Water & People (TWP) will help build an earth-friendly home using compressed earth blocks for Paul Shields, his wife and three children. Paul is the son of Oglala Lakota political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, and is carrying forward dreams of a better future. “My dad will be happy I finally have my own home and can pass it on to his grandkids after I’m gone.” With your help, we will work with builders, volunteers, EARTHinBLOCK, and Lakota Solar Enterprises to construct Paul’s new home this summer.
What is the issue, problem, or challenge?
The harsh climate on Pine Ridge Reservation can vary from -40 to 120 degrees. Typical homes are poorly maintained & insulated, with extremely high energy bills. In keeping with his Lakota values of caring for the Earth for future generations, Paul “wants something more sustainable and better for my children and a room of their own for the first time. I want to provide them with a solid home that stays warm in the winter.”
How will this project solve this problem?
Compressed earth block (CEB) construction is a very old and proven approach. The blocks have thick thermal mass that provides an energy efficient structure that keeps cool in summer and warm in winter. Paul learned CEB construction last year while creating an office building for LSE, and now has first-hand experience in soil testing, pressing blocks, and applying natural finishes to the outside that protect it from the elements.
Potential Long Term Impact
Paul Shields will finally be a proud homeowner. The value of a well-insulated home for someone living on the Great Plains cannot be underestimated. Like many Native people on reservations, basic infrastructure like running water and electricity is not a given. Building Paul’s home from CEBs will serve as a model for other Native families to consider. TWP will promote this project as a demonstration of how a well-built, low-cost hone can be constructed for families in need.
Renewable energy fields like solar are a bright pathway for women, and for Cheyenne Poor Bear (Oglala Lakota), solar technologies are a great opportunity to live out her values and traditions.
“Growing up Native, we always emphasized taking care of Mother Earth and trying to do less harm. This way of thinking was instilled in us.”
Cheyenne’s opportunity to step through the door into the solar industry came last year during a workshop to install solar PV systems for Lakota Solar Enterprises’ office building and an energy-efficient home for Oglala Sioux Tribal Housing. In partnership with GRID Alternatives, Trees, Water & People hosted the eight-day workshop at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.
After the training, Cheyenne kept in contact, looking for opportunities to take the next steps. She had seen renewable energy companies develop around her home in the Denver Metro area, but college and other courses were too expensive – a common stumbling block for many. Her interest and perseverance paid off, however, and she landed a 12-month GRID Alternatives‘ Solar Corps Fellowship this March. Based in their northern California offices, she is working with low-income and Tribal projects – installing, learning the trade, as well as community outreach and volunteer management.
In stark contrast to other construction and energy-based industries, she isn’t the only woman learning the how to install solar PV.
“It is a great time for women. A lot of people didn’t think women could do renewable energy work, but it completely is a great time for women to get involved. My whole crew is women, my supervisor and mentor is a woman, which is amazing.”
And although Cheyenne was torn about taking this position away from home and family, she wants to stick with it and move ahead in solar.
“The fact that I could work with tribes is important, too, you know,” she said. “I’m really happy I made the decision to do it. I thought during the orientation and new crew training that this is exactly where I need to be. I am excited helping people and helping Mother Earth.”
Trees, Water & People’s Tribal Renewable Energy Program puts the power of nature — the warmth of the sun, the power of the wind, the shelter of trees — to work for Native Americans. In partnership with First Nations communities, TWP builds and installs supplemental solar air heaters for families in need and provides green job training to tribes around the country. These solutions are sustainable, economically beneficial, environmentally friendly, and celebrate the Native Americans’ respect for Mother Earth.
Every year, each solar air heater prevents 1.39 tons of carbon emissions generated by fossil fuels. The Native American Rights Fund’s contribution to this form of renewable energy greatly reduces the organization’s environmental impact and helps Native American families in need by providing clean, free heat from the sun.
Native American Rights Fund’s Statement on Environmental Sustainability
“It is clear that our natural world is undergoing severe, catastrophic climate change that adversely impacts the lives of people and ecosystems worldwide. Native Americans are especially vulnerable and are experiencing disproportionate negative impacts on their cultures, health, and food systems. In response, NARF is committed to environmental sustainability through our mission, work, and organizational values. Native Americans and other indigenous peoples have a long tradition of living sustainably with the natural world by understanding the importance of preserving natural resources and respecting the interdependence of all living things. NARF embraces this tradition through its work and by instituting sustainable office practices that reduce our negative impact on our climate and environment. NARF is engaged in environmental work and has established a Green Office Committee whose responsibility is to lead and coordinate staff participation in establishing and implementing policies and procedures to minimize waste, reduce energy consumption and pollution, and create a healthful work environment.”
After a couple of hours of driving, the lowland cane fields gave way to rolling hills of more extensive monoculture in the form of rubber plantations that envelope the highway on all sides. After a few slight detours through bustling towns, we began a slow ascent back into the extraordinary coffee country that begins near the foot of Volcano Atitlán in the highlands of Guatemala’s Sierra Madre mountain range. With the change in topography and scenery came a surprise pit stop for lunch in the indigenous community of Quixayá, just south of San Lucas Tolimán.
As our group of 15 Work Tour guests exited the vans to stretch and take stock of the new surroundings we followed our guide, Ramiro Tzunun, towards the edge of the small town. From a strategic perch we took stock of our bearings – we now stood on the precipice of a cliff overlooking a lush river valley. Ramiro informed us that this was, in fact, a unique and special place – a collective and familial agriculture and aquaculture system divided into three unique zones: a valley floor and riverbank sector devoted primarily to watercress, tilapia and shellfish; a mid-level sector with flatter plots used primarily for impressive companion planting of corn, coffee and bananas; and, finally the higher reaches of the valley that marks the transition zone to the mountainous forest, primarily devoted to agroforestry and woodfuel.
In 2010, Hurricane Agatha swept through the river valley and caused widespread destruction to the community´s main economic lifeline, but since then there have been impressive rebuilding and development of terraced ponds designed for tilapia and watercress production. The community is mostly self-sufficient and autonomous, content to carve out a living from their special place on the earth. In fact, the community has received very little foreign NGO or state assistance, but guidance from the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture (IMAP) has been particularly important and Ramiro is one of their co-founders. He bases his approach to development on the farmer-to-farmer methodology as well as ancestral knowledge and the overall Mayan cosmovision.
Following our hike down the ridge and through the river valley, we stopped at a bucolic dining spot that also functions as a gathering place for workshops and educational events for the few groups that are fortunate enough to visit. Lunch consisted of the local tilapia and watercress, accompanied by broccoli, carrots, peppers, and potatoes – all harvested directly from the fertile valley. Many of our Work Tour guests were positively impacted and moved by the beauty and the special energy of this valley, a strong testament to the power of human potential when combined with solid permaculture design and Mayan cultural philosophy.
The permaculture and Mayan elements are a powerful part of IMAP´s mission, which is “to empower communities towards self-sustainability through permaculture education, Mayan ancestral knowledge and conservation of native seeds.” Upon the completion of our Quixayá visit we ventured up through more mountains heavily dotted with coffee production before arriving at the idyllic lakeside location of IMAP´s main center just outside of San Lucas Tolimán. Once settled in, our group received an informative introduction into the history and mission of the center and its work in surrounding communities along with a more holistic discussion on the Mayan cosmovision on agriculture, water, and ecosystems.
This single day was short compared to the more extensive time in our focus community, but the overall impact was deep and helped our group to understand alternate approaches to development and environmental management. Additionally, it provided crucial perspective on the indigenous approaches to agriculture and permaculture and their relationship to overall community development. The Mesoamerican Institute is conducting profoundly important work in Guatemala and our relationship with them is only in the preliminary stages, but we certainly look forward to continuing our collaboration in the future to continue the process of positive community development in Guatemala and Central America as a whole.
In March of 2015 I had the pleasure of joining a work tour with Trees, Water, & People (TWP) to visit Guatemala and volunteer in the community of La Bendición. Guatemala is a country full of pride, hard work, and friendly smiles. When signing up for this tour, I knew that volunteering on a trip was one of the best ways to visit a country but had no idea what I would learn about communities supporting communities.
During the trip, we had the opportunity to tour several areas of the country with well-informed guides from Trees, Water, & People. For five days in the middle of the trip, we visited one community and volunteered our skills and supported another community. The people of La Bendición are true leaders in the growth of a self-sustainable structure that provides a healthy diet and thriving lifestyle for all families. We assisted the community members with building clean cook stoves, repairing a water aqueduct that supplied power, and worked in their tree nursery.
One of my favorite experiences was the exchange of ideas between the groups. The community has organized several divisions of leadership including a Men’s Group, a Youth Group, and a Women’s Group. Each works diligently to better their community’s systems for sustainable living and development. The women from our volunteer group in the United States met with the Women’s Group from the community. The women of La Bendición wanted to know how they could gain input from other cultures to better their sustainability and contribution to their community. Together, we formulated ideas on how the women of the community could make jellies and medicinal salves from their land to sell in local markets. This is only one of their efforts to better their community and become a contributing force in their development.
The only challenge of the trip was that we wanted to do so much more work for the families of La Bendición, but we ran out of time during this trip. TWP is doing such a great job supporting their efforts and will continue to need support from volunteers and donors to continue this work in Central America.