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.

Volunteer Voices: Tree Planting on Tribal Lands Nearly Complete

by Rachel Hamalian, Volunteer

From May 18 – 20, I had the privilege to be a part of Trees, Water & People and Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center’s (RCREC) campaign to plant 30,000 pine trees on Tribal Lands in areas most deeply affected by forest fires. I stayed at the Sacred Earth Lodge in Pine Ridge along with good and new friends who volunteered for this project. We all enjoyed breakfast and coffee together in the morning before heading off to locations on the Oglala side of Pine Ridge as well as at Wounded Knee. In the beginning, I felt nervous about plunging a large sharp blade into the ground to create a home for the baby trees – I’m not a particularly strong person, and I don’t pride myself on my manual labor skills. But, Avery and Silas Red Cloud taught us how to properly create a hole, plant the tree, get rid of any air bubbles, and create a nice bed. By the end of the first day, I was a tree planting master.

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Black Hills Ponderosa Pines Seedlings were planted on Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River Reservations

One of the most memorable moments for me occurred on the last day of tree planting. Henry Red Cloud, one of the founders of RCR, spoke to our group of 25 volunteers as we began to plant. He told us about his beliefs for the mission, how we as humans seem to have lost touch with nature, and we treat it as a machine instead of as something alive. It is true, we take and take, and give little back. Henry told us, this is a way to give back, and these trees will continue to give oxygen and life for generations after us. We planted over 2,500 trees that day alone.

I struggle with finding the right words to describe the powerful lessons I’ve learned from my experiences and relationships built in Pine Ridge. While this project has helped to heal the landscape within the Reservation, there is still much healing to be done. I feel a great love for the Natives we worked with on this project, who invited us as volunteers to come back and continue to learn about their culture and how to be an advocate. I plan to accept their invitation, as well as continue my relationship with Trees, Water & People, and the good friends I’ve made who share similar goals.

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Tree planters working during the month of May to fulfill our reforestation goal of 30,000 trees for Tribal Lands

A note from TWP’s National Director, Eriq Acosta: 

Thanks to the incredible donors, volunteers, residents of Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River Reservations, we are 95% complete with our third season of tree planting on Tribal Lands! Although tree planting season takes hard work and dedication, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to put a tree into the ground, and sharing the experience with like-minded people in the fight for a more just and sustainable planet. We will be headed back up to Pine Ridge Reservation next week with a group of 40 volunteers from Lansing Catholic High School from Michigan, and we look forward to keeping you updated!  

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Volunteer Voices: An Alternative Break to Pine Ridge

By James Zafarana, CSU Alternative Break Participant

I feel blessed to have gone to the Pine Ridge Reservation with Trees, Water & People and Colorado State University. Over the past few months, our group of eight students have been learning about the reality of life on Pine Ridge. It was honestly scary. The statistics speak for themselves. Indigenous communities in our country face some daunting institutional barriers. It made me wonder where we can target interventions to chip away at these obstacles. Trees, Water & People, along with the community partners we worked with on the reservation, taught me how we can work collaboratively to dissect these issues.

During our trip, we spent a day at the Allen Youth Center, where we saw how the Center is providing a safe space for youth on Pine Ridge. During the day, we played with kids and learned about how the Center is mentoring the kids and helping to preserve Lakota culture. The mentors told us how they are attempting to combat the high dropout rate, mental health, and substance abuse issues through mentoring.

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The CSU Alternative Break students at the Allen Youth Center painting with some of the children there.

We spent two days at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. During this time we helped maintain their sustainable garden and install a new roof on their greenhouse. Henry Red Cloud, the proprietor of Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), showed us how his community is using renewable energy to provide power and heat homes on the reservation, reducing the economic burden of energy use. He explained how his partnership with TWP has enabled LSE to scale up their operation and provide a teaching space for sustainable energy and gardening practices.

Our last day was spent at the Pine Ridge Girls’ School. This school is working hard to revive their culture by incorporating traditional knowledge systems with Western education models. While this school acknowledges the value of teaching Western methods of scientific discovery, they also feel strongly that their mission is to foster an appreciation for their students’ traditional Lakota culture.

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The CSU Alternative Break student stopped at Badlands National Park before heading home to Colorado.

Each of these places are tackling these formidable barriers in ways that felt more attainable. This trip was one of those unique experiences that helps refine your values and inspires your future. It demonstrated to me how even some of the most daunting, wicked problems can be tackled when members of the community fight.

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Making Native Voices Count

by Katie Murphy, Strategic Partnerships Manager

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) has been partnering with Trees, Water & people since 2012 and we are so happy they are a part of our Partners for a Sustainable Planet program. Over the last six years, we have been working together to not only support their environmental sustainability practices as a business but also support tribal communities throughout Pine Ridge Reservation.

One of the ways that we can make our voices heard is at the ballot box. For most of us, this process seems effortless; we show up to our local polling station, driver’s license in hand, and do our civic duty by checking a few boxes. One thing we don’t often think about is how hard it can be for Native voters to participate in this seemingly simple way.

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Voting in Native Country can be tricky, as many tribes face multiple challenges when it comes to voter registration. Early voting, redistricting, identification requirements, and access to voting sites can often be barriers for many Native Americans. However, our partners at the NARF and the Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC) have been working tirelessly since September 2017 to identify these challenges and are work to overcome them before midterm elections.

Through hosting field hearings across the country, NARF is hoping to uncover some of the obstacles Native Americans face in the voting process and advance their access to voting:

“Field hearings are the most efficient way to learn about barriers that voters face in    Indian Country: directly from tribal leaders, voters, and organizers on the ground. Many reservations are geographically, linguistically, and culturally isolated from the rest of the population.”     –Native American Rights Fund

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While our projects here at Trees, Water & People focus on bringing Native communities opportunities and educational training in renewable energy, we are happy to partner with organizations that help bring Native voices to the table. Supporting our communities in every way possible, whether it’s through green-job training or reaching remote areas for voter education, it is essential work that we must continue to do.

Some of the next field hearings to be held will be in Southern California and Tulsa, Oklahoma. To learn more about hearings in your area and how to get involved with NARF, Contact vote@narf.org. Together, we can help people and the planet.

Volunteer Voices: Sustainable Energy on Native Lands

by Kirstin Moore, TWP Development Intern

It’s saddening to witness America’s Native people living in such poor, inadequate conditions. The Lakota were forced to migrate to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and after decades of oppression many of them are now unemployed, suffering from malnutrition, and unable to meet their basic needs. Some people living on the reservation have little to no access to the electrical grid. For others, electricity is available but the cost of the utility is impractical.

Upon arrival to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), you are immediately welcomed by a huge mural with the words Hau Kola painted in large letters, which translates to “Greetings Friends.” It is a place where like-minded people who share a similar vision are able to connect. It all began with what Henry Red Cloud calls a “hot-air collector.” He was building his own when his curiosity led him to form a natural relationship with Trees, Water & People (TWP).

Photo by Kirstin Moore

Thanks to the supporters of TWP, a week-long workshop was held to educate Native Americans on how to build and maintain off-grid solar systems. What would have been a thousand-dollar training session was free for those interested in participating. People came from on and off the reservations, including Standing Rock, with the intention of spreading the word of harvesting sunlight as an energy source and job creator.

Professionals from Solar Energy International (SEI) taught us how to generate electricity through the simple task of monitoring the sun. Our team developed off-grid, 12 volt solar light buckets and a small 48 volt trailer with the ability to power lights, computers, pumps, and tools. The most amazing aspect of the training was that no matter your skill level, you were able to gain an understanding of what solar power can do and how the systems operate.

Cedric Goodhouse of the Standing Rock Tribe and Lawrence Richards of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation connect wiring on a donated Magnum inverter.  Photo by Dave Bowden

For example, I learned that the PV panel converts solar energy into electrical energy; the charge controller regulates the amount of charge going in/out of the battery, and the inverter changes DC current to AC current and vice versa. Within a week, I had advanced from stripping wires to wiring components.

One merely has to look around, read some news, and watch a little television to understand there is a dire need for sources of clean energy. This innovative technology is affordable and can be applied as a method to reduce energy consumption from the grid and encourage self-sufficiency through renewable energy.

To learn more about the events and workshops of Trees, Water & People, or how to get involved, please sign up for our monthly newsletter.

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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!

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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!

To learn more about the events and workshops of Trees, Water & People, please sign up for our monthly newsletter.

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A Big Thank You to Lansing Catholic High School

by Eriq Acosta, National Director 

I recently had the pleasure to work with a group of Catholic high school students out of Michigan, Lansing while they were staying at the Sacred Earth Lodge. First and foremost this group of students and chaperones were truly amazing. The group was so eager to learn and put effort into the physical work as well; I was just blown away by their generous spirits.

While I was on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I was lucky enough to spend a few days with this group and was humbled by their work ethic and joyful willingness to provide service in the form of maintenance and cleaning at the Red Cloud Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) and tree planting at the new Veterans Memorial. They completed these tasks with ease and smiles on their faces.

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Students from Lansing Catholic High School planting trees at the new Veterans Memorial.

Several times the students and chaperones asked me what more can they could do to help, how they could improve projects they already completed. From my point of view, they went above and beyond their call of duty. At RCREC we have several buildings on the campus, and they cleaned and did general maintenance on at least 90% of the facilities.

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Working hard to tidy up RCREC

The respect that they gave to the residents, especially the children, on the RCREC campus was a beautiful sight to see. They had the opportunity to listen to a tribal member speak about Lakota history and culture, as well as participate in a round dance and play musical chairs in conjunction with the drum playing. I have found that at this age one or two students just aren’t “feeling it” and don’t participate, but what I noticed most about this group is that they acted as one cohesive unit. I found this to be very impressive, and I feel like speaks volumes about their leadership. This was the group’s second time being on Pine Ridge, and by the end of the trip, they were already discussing a third! As a representative of Trees Water, & People I would love to call Lansing Catholic High School a partner and would love to have them on any project we do!

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