Grounding Our Work Across Cultures: Indigenous Perspectives

by Eriq Acosta
Personally, I feel really sensitive and protective of our tribal communities. Although I am not a direct descendant of the Lakota I still feel responsible for keeping our communities safe.
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Solar Training in 2017
One can attempt to understand my hesitancy of bringing strangers to the reservations who want to “come see the native folks and their culture”; the thought of doing this didn’t sit well with me at first. The world, obviously not all, has historically held very skewed perspectives of Indigenous people. On one side of the spectrum, we are described as these glorious people who ate all of the buffalo and roam the plains, moving our teepees from here to there, and living off of the land. On the opposite side of this are descriptors like drunkards, poor, sickly and “without”.
The truth is not all of us live in teepees and eat buffalo. When traveling throughout the United States, one will find many differences and similarities between life on or off the reservation: poverty, disease, or corruption as some examples. These are not exclusive to the reservations, it is everywhere. Being an urban Mexican-Indian myself and having lived with people from urban settings and on reservations, I have seen so much beauty. Beauty in the people, the culture, and the land – it’s all around.
It’s not that I choose to turn my head to the struggles, rather I choose to fuel myself with all of that beauty so that I can continue to do the hard work that needs to be done. In Leonard Peltier’s words, “What you believe and what you do are the same thing. In Indian way, if you see your people suffering, helping them becomes absolutely necessary. It’s not a social act of charity or welfare assistance, it’s a spiritual act, a holy deed.” 
With that said, I was hesitant to host TWP tour groups to Pine Ridge Reservation. However, this is the second year I have hosted the folks from Lansing Michigan Catholic High School and the second year that I have been overly impressed. Volunteers were asked to provide an evaluation of the most recent trip and one person wrote:
“It definitely made a mark on me. Being able to help people who are definitely in need and not only being welcomed like we were but also being able to partake in their amazing culture was an experience of great significance”.
They came to Pine Ridge to learn, to be of service, to enjoy the plains, and most importantly learn the story of Indigenous people from Indigenous people! I am honored to call them friends and family of the human race!
Thank you to all who came and offered their time and energy. Your efforts are much appreciated and we look forward to more opportunities like this in the future.
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Setting sun over rolling hills of Pine Ridge

 

Learn more about our U.S. Tribal programs and how you can help here.

Mobile Power Station Workshop: Creating Energy Independence for Native American Communities

by Art Rave, Mobile Power Station Workshop participant 

I recently attended a mobile solar workshop at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. The amount of information and the training I received at the center was wholeheartedly impressive. During the first few hours of the workshop, I started to learn the basics of solar energy and how solar energy systems work. Within the first few days of hands-on training, I began to truly understand how the solar power energy systems operate. On last day of the workshop, I was ready to take all that I learned back to my community on the Cheyenne River Reservation and begin promoting the absolute necessity of solar energy.

Art Rave at Mobile Power Station workshop
Art Rave (left) receives hands-on wiring instruction by instructor Jason (right) of Remote Energy. Photo by Dave Bowden.

As a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, I understand first hand exactly what energy independence can mean to a struggling community. The vast diversity of organizations that partner with RCREC is a testament to the hard work and indomitable spirit of those at the center and the allies supporting it. Everyone was absolutely dedicated to the environment and sustainable energy. I was fortunate enough to have time to meet some awe-inspiring and dedicated individuals from Trees, Water & People. Their dedication to the environment is reflected by the hard work, devotion, and enthusiasm apparent in each of their employees. The solar energy instructors are an amazing group of educators with years of experience in the field. The passion they showed in helping our Native American communities is inspiring to all!

Carol and Art at Mobile Power Station Workshop
Instructor Carol (bottom center) teaches Art (front right) and the other workshop participants to read the labels on the back of a solar panel in order to connect it to the correct electrical system.

The solar energy instructors are an amazing group of educators with years of experience in the field. The passion they showed in helping our Native American communities is inspiring to all! Overall, what a great place to learn and share! The food, lodging, and staff were terrific! I cannot wait to attend another workshop with Henry and his amazing group of partners in renewable and sustainable energy!

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500 More Clean Cookstoves in Guatemala

By Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Since 2006, Utz Che’ has been a tireless advocate for over 40 indigenous Guatemalan communities committed to protecting and sustainably managing their forest resources. Utz Che’ acts as a loudspeaker for indigenous causes and concerns, which are otherwise easily dismissed from the public discourse and policy-making dialogues.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) was introduced to Utz Che’s leadership in 2010 and has worked with them to add fuel-efficient cookstove technology to their services to reduce pressure on the local forests from which fuelwood is harvested, as well as reduce indoor air pollution. After several years of prototyping designs with Utz Che’ communities and Guatemalan manufacturers, last year we embarked on the full-scale implementation of 500 clean cookstoves manufactured by two local enterprises — ECOCOMAL and Estufa Doña Dora. The project was so successful that this year we are raising funds to install 500 more in high-need communities.

Learning about the new Doña Dora stove
In 2016, this community in southern Guatemala received Doña Dora stoves and were all trained by Doña Dora employees on how to install, use, and maintain their new clean cookstoves.

The cookstove models selected for this project are partially pre-manufactured for consistency but are installed in a brick and mortar body constructed by trained community members. In 2016, this included 159 men and 371 women. Hands-on training in installation, use, and maintenance of the stoves increases local investment in the program through sweat equity and allows community members to become more intimate with the technology. Community engagement improves the local support network around the cookstoves.

New clean cookstove in Guatemala
This woman in southern Guatemala uses her clean cookstove that was built last year to make tortillas for her family.

Cooking is a very personal tradition in Central America, so new technologies must be able to cook the same foods, with the same fuels, in the same amount of time as the traditional designs if they are to be accepted by all members of society. Trees, Water & People’s years of expertise, coupled with a locally fine-tuned design, and the trust and rapport that Utz Che’ has with its member communities make for an extraordinarily effective, participatory, and meaningful partnership.

If you would like to help us build clean cookstoves in Guatemala, or would like to learn more about the importance of this project, click the button below.

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Cante wasteya nape ciyuzapelo (With a Good Heart, I Take Your Hand)

by Kristin Lester, WE SHARE Solar Ambassador 

The sacred ancestral land of the Sioux holds many memories and stories.  Stories, of great warriors and leaders, of wisdom, of culture, and of reverence for the earth.  The land also holds stories of a long history of injustice, genocide, and trauma linked to colonization, and the extraction of non-renewable resources for the purpose of industrialization.

Today, as an unprecedented number of Tribes gather in solidarity in North Dakota, as protectors of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, and the earth and waters (our common heritage); a new story is being written. However, we must also make note that the demonstrated leadership of Tribal Nations extends beyond the front lines of non-violent direct action.

Tribal Nations are deeply engaged at the community-based level to address the perils of climate change. Tribal governments, community-based organizations, schools, and individuals are committed to exemplary solutions-based innovation, and policies related to housing, food sovereignty, education, and renewable energy. Examples of this community-based leadership can be found in tribal communities across the United States. Most recently it was demonstrated at a small teacher workshop at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

In Aug of 2016 the Red Cloud Indian School in collaboration with Trees, Water & People, We Share Solar, and Lakota Solar Enterprises held a teacher curriculum workshop as part of their paid continuing education and 2016-17 school year preparation.  The We Share Solar Education Program curriculum developed by WE CARE Solar is centered around the hands on construction of a small portable solar electric system to provide basic lighting and charging for small electronics. The curriculum has four major components: 1) innovative solar energy technology 2) integrated mathematics for application of energy systems 3) engineering and 4) global energy use.

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The science teachers of the Red Cloud Indian School assembling a Solar Suitcase from WE SHARE Solar’s curriculum.

The curriculum is designed to help educators engage middle, and high school students in project based Solar Energy curriculum to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills, solar energy knowledge, and awareness of sustainable development.

Katie Montez, a science teacher at the Red Cloud Indian School, says, “Solar suitcases not only mesh smoothly with existing science curriculum but also invite the incorporation of other subjects, it is innately interdisciplinary. This curriculum is made with the student, educator, and community in mind.  I feel very supported by this curriculum and its accessibility, as well as its dynamic nature.”

Indeed, the beauty of this curriculum is that it a guide for teachers, to not only introduce basic principles and components of solar electricity but to serve as a platform to develop and layer other subjects within the curriculum.  The hope is that teachers and communities will take the curriculum and make it their own by incorporating history, art, language and story that provides relevance, and guides students toward the best use of technology at the community-based level.

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Red Cloud Indian School teachers (From Left: Katie Montez, Michael Baranek, Ana Conover, and We Share Solar Ambassadors (Linda Gaffney, and Kristin Lester) with a completed solar suitcase.

The We Share Solar Suitcase will undoubtedly prepare students with a foundation of knowledge and skills to prepare them for careers in Solar Energy. However, it is ultimately about inspiring youth with a sense of empowerment to help their own communities develop and meet their goals related to renewable energy and regenerative communities.

Workshop participant and Red Cloud Indian School physics teacher, Anne Conover, reflected,  “An influx of youth who are knowledgeable and excited about solar energy has the potential to change the energy landscape during a time when tribal lands and sovereignty are threatened by non-renewable energy development.”

By virtue of being human, we are all stewards of the earth. We cannot protect the beauty and ecological diversity of the planet without honoring, and protecting the wisdom and cultural diversity to which is inextricably linked. The time is now for acknowledgment and healing of the United States’ long history of ecological destruction and cultural genocide related to non-renewable energy development, and failed educational policy.

In service to ecological and cultural prosperity, we must root deeply in community, and inspire innovation and empowerment for future generations.  Together in solidarity, we have the fortitude, perseverance, and wisdom to create a new story of a regenerative and just world.

 

With a good heart, I take your hand (Cante wasteya nape ciyuzapelo).   

 

~Kristin Lester

 

To learn more about how the We Share Solar curriculum can help meet your tribe’s goals related to education and renewable energy, please contact Trees Water People’s Director of Tribal Programs; Richard Fox at Richard@treeswaterpeople.org

If you are interested in supporting tribal community-based efforts toward renewable energy education, please support Trees Water People and our work with tribal leaders, youth, and community-based organization. Donations can be directed to:
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The views expressed here do not represent that of any one organization. They are solely those of Kristin Lester, a renewable energy professional, and advocate for social justice and ecological stewardship. 

Special thanks to the following collaborators for their shared vision and support of the We Share Solar workshop at the Red Cloud Indian School: Richard Fox (Trees Water People), Hal Aronson, Gigi Goldman, and Linda Gaffney (We Share Solar), Clare Heurter (Red Cloud Indian School), Henry Red Cloud (Lakota Solar Enterprises), Johnny Weiss (Johnny Weiss Solar Consulting LLC) and the Wellemeyer family (Louise, John, James and Douglas).

Making a House a Home for a Lakota Family

by Adelle McDaniel, National Intern

Traveling up to Pine Ridge Reservation for the very first time, I had a lot of questions. Statistics about poverty, living conditions, and health tumbled around my head; I could (and did) rattle them off to anyone who asked where I was going for the weekend. But at that point, I didn’t really know where I was going for the weekend. I didn’t even really know what I was doing when I got there.

When Richard, Trees, Water & People’s Executive Director, pulled up next to a newly built, sustainable Compressed Earth Block (CEB)  house on the reservation and I hopped out, the latter question was quickly answered. I would be helping to clean, organize, and prepare the building for the open house the following day. More importantly, I would be part of giving the gift of a home. The three bedroom earthen block home features solar-heated floors and forced air, a PV system on the roof, and one happy family inside.

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Community members blessing the new home in a drum circle.

Very little is more rewarding than making others happy. Knowing that you created a safe, beautiful place for a family to spend their years, though, far surpasses that. Everyone at the open house could see the proof of that joy on the faces of the two most influential people on the project, Richard Fox and Henry Red Cloud, and we could feel it in their hearts.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Paul Shields, the recipient of the new CEB home. Paul worked tirelessly on the construction of the compressed earth block home and volunteered on many community-based projects on Pine Ridge. Paul’s efforts are not only for his children, but also to share the beauty of Lakota culture with his grandchildren. Though jobs on the reservation are hard to come by, Paul’s dedication to renewable energy and sustainable development exemplifies the inspiring work of the community to create a positive future for the next generation.

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Henry Red Cloud (left) welcoming the Shields Family with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

It was more than a privilege to be included in the occasion. I couldn’t begin to choose my favorite moment from the weekend. Would it be shaking hands with the new owners, or seeing tears in their eyes? Sharing laughs, meals, and work with the other volunteers or gaining a new perspective without even noticing? Maybe just taking in the scenery and the soul of a place I had never been.

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Adelle McDaniel playing with the kids during the open house.

The question of where I was going was perhaps both more and less easily answered than what I was doing. I was going to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I came back from a place filled with devastation and hope, injustice and integrity, and a deeply embedded history with courageous new beginnings.

If you would like to help programs and projects such as this, please donate today! 

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Volunteer Voices: A Bittersweet Trip to Pine Ridge

by Gemara Gifford, TWP Intern and CSU Alum

Those of us who work in sustainable development and conservation know all too well the roller coaster of “inspiration highs” and “heartbreak lows” that go along with this line of work. Working from an office is one thing, but working directly with the communities we are supporting is another. I am so grateful to have had the chance to visit Pine Ridge Reservation as a part of my internship with Trees, Water & People. As hard as it was to see the striking overlap between rural farmers in Guatemala, and Lakota families in South Dakota, it is incredibly important to recognize how these stories weave together.

“For me, it was difficult to see and hear about the state of people’s living conditions on the reservation, and their own personal struggles. Though, I also saw hope in the people we met who take pride in their culture and are excited to share it with others.” – Julia Matteucci, CSU Freshman

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Building a house for a Lakota family using sustainable Compressed Earth Blocks (CEB) from local materials on Pine Ridge. Photo by Vanesa Blanco Lopez

I wasn’t alone on this roller coaster ride, however – nine enthusiastic Colorado State University (CSU) students participated in a week-long service learning trip as a part of their Alternative Spring Break. In fact, the TWP-Pine Ridge-CSU partnership has been in existence for over 10 years! During our week, we worked alongside Henry and Gloria Red Cloud and Lakota community members on a variety of service projects. On our first day, we prepared the Solar Warrior Farm for planting, an initiative that feeds hundreds of people each season who usually only have access to over-priced-and-processed foods found at the only grocery store in town. When I learned that over 60% of people in Pine Ridge suffer from diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, I realized first-hand how important food sovereignty initiatives are and have been within the Lakota Nation.

“By working on the farm, we were setting a foundation for Henry to feed people on the reservation and help educate people on how to grow healthy food and find a sustainable way to feed themselves.” – Amy Borngrebe, CSU Junior

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CSU Alternative Break students and TWP intern, Gem (far left) at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC). Photo by Gemara Gifford

Among the cross-cultural experiences we had, such as meeting a storyteller, visiting Wounded Knee Massacre, and participating in a Sweat Lodge Ceremony, we engaged in meaningful reflections each night at the Sacred Earth Lodge, and embraced the ups and downs of visiting Pine Ridge. After a week of bonding with new friends, and experiencing a forgotten culture so close to home, we promised to return one day.

If you would like to donate your time and volunteer with Trees, Water & People, please email Molly Geppert at molly@treeswaterpeople.org to see what opportunities we have available. If you’re short on time and can’t make a trip to Pine Ridge, please consider making a donation.

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Notes from the Field: Not Your Typical Summer Internship

by Kelly Cannon, International Program Intern

Gathering feedback from the community helps us implement successful programs.
Gathering feedback from the community helps us implement successful programs.

So I thought I would attempt to share a little glimpse into my life-changing summer experience. I’ll start with a bit of background. My name is Kelly Cannon. I’m a Global Studies and Spanish major with a Business minor currently studying at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I landed a position as the International Programs Intern with the non-profit organization Trees, Water & People (TWP) this summer. I was enthused. The internship seemed to combine all of my passions – community development, travel, Latin America, Spanish, people, and adventure. I could not wait for the incredible learning opportunity ahead.

So just like that I found myself spending six weeks exploring every corner of Honduras and Guatemala generating market data for a clean energy distribution enterprise. I conducted household interviews, held focus groups, taught communities about solar energy, while also exploring the competitive landscape, supply chain opportunities and developing a marketing plan for solar energy distribution in energy-poor regions of Guatemala.

maizI visited dozens of communities throughout these regions, but I want to share about my experience in one place in particular. La Bendición, Guatemala is surrounded by breathtaking views of lush, green landscape and three volcanoes. The best part about staying in La Bendición was just living life with the people there. I stayed with a host family for four days. I spent a large amount of time with my host mom and her daughter, Silsy. We woke up at 6:00am and brought a bucket of corn to the molino. We waited in line with all the other women, poured the corn through some complicated machinery, and watched it transform into flour used to make tortillas. I’m pretty sure I became a professional tortilla-maker by the time I left the community.

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Another morning my mom and Silsy took me on a long walk to a cornfield where their cows graze. We visited the animals and then picked a big bundle of leaves off the corn. When we returned home, they taught me how to fold the leaves around flour to make tamales. Later that afternoon, they called me out to the backyard for another lesson. They snatched up one of the chickens running around the yard and held it over the pila (the outdoor sink). My mom and Silsy broke its’ neck right in front of me, poured out the guts and blood, and plucked the feathers off the body before putting it in a bucket of hot water. One hour later we were all sitting around the table eating the tamales and the chicken. I treasure my time in La Bendición experiencing a new way of life with my host mom and Silsy. I learned so much about their daily tasks while sharing in wonderful conversation. I fell in love with moments during my time there that I will always cherish.

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The children look on curiously as we conduct interviews with their parents.

In addition to living life with the people in La Bendición, I was of course also working on the solar energy project for TWP. I held a meeting with the women in La Bendición the day I arrived to teach them about the solar energy products that TWP distributes and let them know I would be visiting households and conducting interviews. I wanted to ask families about how they illuminated their houses at night with no access to electricity, calculate their current energy expenditures, demonstrate the products, and gauge their interest in this alternate form of clean energy. The women expressed gratitude and excitement at the meeting and many volunteered to be interviewed first. Over the next few days Silsy and I talked to seventeen different families in La Bendición. The community, as a whole, showed great interest in the solar energy products. The people told me about the extreme need for this project in their community and the obstacles they face on a daily basis due to the absence of light. Many families wanted to purchase the lights from me on the spot. Sadly, I had to explain I was not selling the products just doing a preliminary investigation in order to bring the products to the community in the future.

The experience in La Bendición was eye-opening and encouraging. I felt at home there. The interviews allowed me to learn a lot about the current energy situation in this community and in Guatemala as a whole. The people were supportive and welcoming, especially once they learned my purpose for visiting. When I left on a chicken bus that Friday morning to head to a new community, some of the women came out, kissed me on the cheek, and wished me luck on the rest of my trip. I was sad to leave but also even more excited and passionate about bringing solar energy to families in hard-to-reach communities.