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: 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.

For more information about upcoming service trips like this one, please sign up for our email list!
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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!

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!

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

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Welcome Eriq Acosta, our new National Director!

by Eriq Acosta, National Director

Eriq Acosta

We are excited to introduce our supporters to our new National Director, Eriq Acosta! He will be working closely with our partner, Henry Red Cloud, on the Pine Ridge Reservation to keep our Tribal Renewable Energy Program running strong. Here’s a little bit about him:

I am a Mexican American Indian man whose education and life have spanned throughout the United States. My passion for working with young people and families has earned me many honors and speaking engagements promoting unconditional positive regard and strength-based programs for youth and families throughout the U.S.  When doing this work of my heart,  I am transparent, authentic, honest, and passionate about modeling principled behavior. With the support from many mentors, I realized the impact that this work provides Native American communities as an inspiration and guide to re-learning and recovering “multi-generational greatness.”

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Looking beyond myself to the future!

I earned my bachelor’s degree from Colorado State University and a master’s at Regis University where I excelled academically and socially. I have spent the majority of my career in the nonprofit sector: United American Indian Involvement, National Indian Youth Leadership Project, and Red Horse Nation, in urban areas and on reservations throughout the U.S. as a teacher, mentor, trainer, guide, and community member.

Currently, I hope to expand the healing work of Trees, Water & People based in Fort Collins, Colorado, by combining my gained experience throughout the years, and most importantly the wisdom of our elders. I will work to assist and learn from the many communities TWP serves, as well as to embrace the multi-generational greatness of Native American communities!

Welcome, Eriq! We know you will be a great addition to the TWP Family!

Richard Fox, Trees, Water & People’s co-founder and former Executive Director/National Director will be retiring after 19 years but will remain on staff to help Eriq transition to National Director through the end of the summer. Following his retirement, Richard will remain involved with TWP as a board member.

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A Trip to Pine Ridge for William Smith High School Students

by Chelsea Audin, Math Teacher at William Smith High School

Chelsea Audin and Matt DiOrio are two teachers from William Smith High School in Aurora, Colorado. They teach math and English (respectively) and recently worked with students on a service based class to Pine Ridge Reservation. William Smith is a High School that values service, community and student exposure to new experiences and culture. 

As two teachers from Aurora, Colorado, we were looking for ways for our students to gain cultural perspective while feeling the ability to engage in lasting work that authentically impacts a specific community. We have partnered with Trees, Water & People in the past to work with Henry Red Cloud and Lakota Solar Enterprises. This year, we were able to expand this learning opportunity and create a short class in which 18 high school students began by learning about the history of the Lakota Sioux Tribe and ended with a week of service and collaboration on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Prepped with historical background of the culture, struggles, and traditions of the Lakota people, students understood the importance of land, nature, and preservation and thus understood the partnership between Lakota Solar Enterprises and Trees, Water & People.

Our first day with Henry, Trees, Water & People delivered 33,000 seedlings that would help reforest lands in Pine Ridge that had been devastated by two wildfires within the last decade. In preparation for the delivery, it took all 22 of us all morning to re-roof the greenhouse. Imagine flying a 75ft by 50ft kite, because that is what it felt like to hold down the roof until it was connected properly — needless to say, this would have been far more difficult without our small army of students.

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The students of William Smith High School work together with Henry Red Cloud to repair the greenhouse, despite windy conditions.

Aside from the physical accomplishment of seeing the new roof secure on the greenhouse just as it started to rain, our experience was enhanced as we worked alongside Henry and others from Lakota Solar Enterprises to accomplish this task. Our students quickly gained the confidence to ask questions and engage in conversation with these individuals in order to enhance their understanding of the culture and traditions of the Lakota, as well as the vast number of people this work would impact.

At home, students are able to travel down the block in order to have access to fresh food; Henry is working tirelessly to provide as much access as possible for others on Pine Ridge through sharing the food produced in this greenhouse and on his farm. Through education and stewardship, he also encourages others to replicate his work in order to provide fresh food for themselves.

William Smith High School students with trees
The students of William Smith High School, along with Henry Red Cloud and Trees, Water & People unloaded over 30,000 seedlings into the newly repaired greenhouse.

The culminating work on our trip was the planting of nearly 600 seedlings.  Henry explained to our students that the trees they were planting would have a 200-year legacy.  Each tree will provide both the habitat and oxygen necessary for the reservation to be sustainable.  Our students left with the knowledge that while they are helping by providing service to a community in need, their work will mean more as it will continue to help a culture in need.

If you are interested in learning more about group trips to the Sacred Earth Lodge on the Pine Ridge Reservation, sign up for our monthly eNewsletter for upcoming opportunities.

 

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Trees, Water & People Welcomes New Executive Director

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

I have long believed that people have the power to craft their own future. While each journey is unique, we all have the capacity to identify what we value, versus what we don’t, and to forge a path that produces more of the former and less of the latter. If we’re lucky, we have a moment where self-awareness, opportunity, and circumstance intersect, and we take that first step toward the future we want to live.

In 2005, I launched into a career in International Development by accepting an internship with Trees, Water & People (TWP) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. There were more “unknowns” than “knowns” in the offer, and the pay would have barely covered my utility bills in San Francisco at the time, but as I stood at that intersection of introspection and opportunity, I knew this was a path I needed to follow.

Sebastian Africano with clean cookstove
Sebastian Africano got his start with Trees, Water & People as an intern helping with clean cookstoves in Central America in 2005.

Now, 13 years after my first conversations with co-founder Stuart Conway, and almost 20 years since the organization was founded, I am happy to take the next step on this path by accepting the role of Executive Director of Trees, Water & People – effective May 15, 2017. This shift comes after years of thoughtful succession planning and several deep conversations and interviews with TWP staff and board.

TWP set me on a path to discover the world through the smoky lens of traditional cooking practices, giving me an intimate, ground-level introduction to what life is like on the margins of global society. Through this experience, I’ve acquired a broad perspective of the uniqueness of life on our planet, and have made hundreds of allies who value our planet and global community enough that they have dedicated their lives’ work to protecting them.

Sebastian Africano working in the field
After many years of working in the field in Central America, Sebastian Africano will be spending more time in Fort Collins as Trees, Water & People’s new Executive Director.

Despite the hard truths inherent to our work, I find tremendous inspiration in the grit, hustle, hope, and smiles exhibited by the people we serve, both in Central America and on Tribal Lands in the Great Plains. Only by working together can we achieve a more sustainable future for our planet, and I’m privileged to support their struggles and aspirations daily through my work at TWP.

In this new role, my goal is to engage more meaningfully with you – our community of generous supporters. None of the impact TWP delivers would be possible without your support, and I know that together we can redouble our efforts to improve the lives of people and the planet.

I’m ready to craft our future together. Will you join me?

Richard Fox, Trees, Water & People’s co-founder and former Executive Director will be stepping down after 19 years but will remain on staff as the National Director through the end of the year. When asked about the transition, Richard had this to say, “I am honored to step down and for Sebastian to become the next Executive Director of this great organization. He has been trained for this position for many years, and we could not ask for a more compassionate, capable, and competent person to provide the next generation of leadership for Trees, Water & People.” Following his retirement, Richard will remain involved with TWP as a board member.

Trees, Water & People is excited to welcome our new Executive Director, Sebastian Africano!