Photo of the Week: Native Youth Help Grow Solar Warrior Farm
Join us October 11-15 at our Tribal Renewable Energy Program’s headquarters on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota for a long weekend of fun, hard work, and new experiences! Although it is only a five hour drive from the Trees, Water & People office in Fort Collins, Colorado, a trip to Pine Ridge offers an experience in an entirely different culture.
What: Volunteer Weekend
Where: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, Pine Ridge, South Dakota
When: Thursday, October 11 – Monday, October 15
Who: Volunteers who like hard work, lots of fun, and all kinds of weather. Volunteers 14-18 are welcome with adult companions.
Why: Take this opportunity to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation, complete two straw bale buildings, and help us clean up our campus after a major wind storm and other destructive events.
Volunteers are invited to arrive anytime after 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 11th. We will host full work days Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Projects will end by 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, and volunteers are welcome to head home Sunday evening or on Monday morning. Projects will include adding a roof to one straw bale home, making improvements to a second straw bale home, and removing litter from the campus. Additional needs may arise between now and our trip. Projects will take place almost entirely outdoors, and weather permitting, we will eat group meals outside as well.
This trip is for volunteers who enjoy a little adventure! Flexibility is a must on the reservation. You should also be prepared for a lot of fun!
To volunteer, please email Lacey Gaechter at firstname.lastname@example.org, with the following information:
Once Lacey has confirmed your spot, I will email you directions to the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center and provide you additional details.
We look forward to hearing from you soon! It should be a lot of hard work and a lot of fun.
In Western culture, domestic life revolves around the nuclear family: parents and their children who all live under one roof. That is not so with the Lakota. The tiospaye, or extended family, is a multi-generational unit in Lakota culture that typically includes great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and those married or adopted into the family. The word can be broken down into two parts: ti, short for tepee, and ospaye which means a group. In pre-colonial times, Tiospayes would travel together on the plains and share a common tepee. While this family structure is still prevalent on Pine Ridge today, the tiospaye has had trouble adapting to reservation life. Because the bond of kinship is so strong in Lakota culture and because of a severe housing shortage, overcrowding has been a persistent issue on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Not only are there sometimes dozens of people sharing a cramped space, but those homes that they share are often sub-par old cabins or decades-old trailers that have passed their expiration dates, many of which have been condemned but continue to be lived in. It probably goes without saying that these homes are poorly insulated. Some might remember back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when public outcry exposed FEMA’s emergency relief trailers to be toxic with high levels of urea formaldehyde. Unfortunately, those trailers didn’t just disappear. They were placed on Indian reservations as permanent housing. Toxicity aside, the trailers were designed to be used in sub-tropical hurricane disaster areas which were thousands of miles away from the harsh winters of the Northern plains. The housing crisis is a public health issue now as the Lakota are poisoned by the walls that surround them, and suffer from pneumonia and hypothermia when those walls fail to do their job in the winter months.
All of these were factors that inspired the creation of the Tribal Renewable Energy Program and Lakota Solar Enterprises to help alleviate tiospayes from the bitter cold with a renewable heat source. Recognizing that solar air heaters are only as efficient as the home itself, we began to investigate more solutions to the housing crisis. Retrofitting homes with cellulose insulation was part of the equation but it still didn’t address the housing shortage; so, we began to build.
We developed a type of construction that would be inexpensive and efficient – something that would be appropriate for conditions on Pine Ridge. The answer seemed obvious and straw bale construction was the perfect ecological design for this particular climate. The first straw bale was built at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) in 2010, but was later destroyed by the 2011 flood. The second straw bale home went up in the summer of 2011, the design still evolving and responding to what we learned with the first design. Some of the volunteers from last year’s build were so impressed with the RCREC that when they returned to their communities, they convinced their peers to help fund another straw bale project in Pine Ridge. This year’s straw bale was funded by generous Trees, Water & People donors and two Boston-area churches who “sold a lot of cupcakes” to make it possible to buy the materials and travel to Pine Ridge for the construction.
Work on the third straw bale home at the RCREC began on Monday last week and was nearly complete by Friday. Gathering materials for the building began a little earlier. Constructed mostly from locally available resources, straw bale homes are regionally very appropriate for Pine Ridge. The one hundred or so bales of straw came from a Nebraska farmer’s wheat field a week before the walls went up, and clay for the plaster came from the reservation, as did the more loamy dirt.
As with all good homes, our work started with digging a good foundation. A stake was set in ground to mark the middle, and a 12 foot string tied to the stake created a 450 square foot circle that was then dug 2 feet deep and leveled. This sunken floor will capitalize on the Earth’s natural protection and insulation from the elements and later will also be laid with radiant ground source heating and covered with poured concrete. The concrete floor will be an effective source of thermal mass for storing solar energy and keeping the home warm at night. The circular shape of the house is also efficient because circles have the greatest interior space to exposed surface area ratio of any shape. Walls finally went vertical with a 4 foot high foundation layer of earth-filled livestock feed bags purchased from a local farm store. With the foundation off the ground and above the threat of splashing rainwater, straw bales began to be stacked around the circle, leaving gaps only for the door and windows. As that was happening, a crew was busy sifting apart clumps of clay to prepare for the next step: the long and messy task of mudding all the surfaces. The “mud” mixture was an all natural and simple mix of one part clay, one part dirt, a little bit of straw, and enough water to give the mixture a viscous consistency. Different methods of mixing were used simultaneously to speed up the process: in a cement mixer, with a roto-tiller, and the old-fashioned way with a wheelbarrow and shovel. Installing the skeleton for a conical roof was the final step for us. Large eaves will protect the mud plaster from the rain as well as shade the windows from the hot summer sun. The conical shape was symbolic of a tepee and in fact the original plan was to use recycled tepee poles for the roof but in the end we went with lumber.
There were no blueprints for this design because it is still an evolving prototype. Straw bale construction is still a ever-changing field, and at the RCREC, we’re developing a model of the cheapest, most efficient home available. With each successive straw bale home that we build, we are getting closer to that goal, and soon we will have a flexible and replicable plan that can be exported across the plains. In the meantime, however, we are growing our Solar Warrior Community by providing more housing for the reservation’s first eco-tiospaye.
Aside from being a training center, a farm, and a renewable energy factory, the RCREC is also a home. For three months, I was proud to call it my home and I am grateful to the Red Cloud tiospaye for sharing it with me. As I leave Pine Ridge to go back to school, I’m reminded of something Darrell Red Cloud told me one night as we were looking up at the wide prairie sky. He told me that if I look to the West in the late-night summer sky, the stars form the shape of a tepee. It reminds the Lakota people that there will always be a home for them here on Mother Earth, as long as that tepee shines down upon them.
This month’s featured volunteer, Jordan Engel, is embracing a truly unique opportunity through Trees, Water & Peoples Internship Program. Originally from upstate New York, Jordan moved to Kentucky in 2010 to attend Berea College. With his studies focused on Sustainable Community Development, Jordan’s decision to pursue an internship with TWP for the summer was a no-brainer. “I first heard about Trees, Water & People when I saw Henry Red Cloud’s profile in Yes Magazine,” Jordan explained. A few months later Jordan finds himself (a self proclaimed “Yankee”) smack dab in the middle of Indian Country, working side by side and towards the same goals as our partner, Henry Red Cloud.
Jordan arrived in Pine Ridge South Dakota excited to learn about sustainable building techniques and solar energy. After living on the Rez, Jordan has learned about a lot more than just that. “The numbers only tell part of the story,” Jordan exclaimed when referring to the staggering poverty statistics that exist about life on Pine Ridge. “I’m learning about happiness, and how to be happy…how to live my life and make the most of it.” The Lakota culture is beautiful and can be quite invigorating; Jordan’s learning this firsthand.
The Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC) campus on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the heart of TWP’s Tribal Renewable Energy and Food Security Programs, and the place that Jordan calls home at the moment. As TWP’s on-site assistant, Jordan handles a myriad of tasks including maintaining and improving campus buildings, assisting Henry in accommodating trainees, and assisting Henry with sustainable living and renewable energy projects. When asked what his favorite task is, he said it’s definitely taking care of the Solar Warrior Farm and foraging for traditional foods. “I love working the earth!” Jordan exclaims, “We’re growing food for the people and it’s making waves. This is a little thing that’s making a big difference.” In the end, this is what TWP is all about: Finding culturally appropriate ways to improve lives and help people manage their natural resources.
If you would like to hear more about Jordan’s experiences, check out his regular “Notes from the Field” posts right here on the TWP blog.
Last week, Lakota Solar Enterprises was on the road representing the tribal renewable energy movement at a photovoltaic training in Carbondale. With Henry and crew back on the reservation now, and newly certified as PV instructors, the wheels of that movement are turning ever faster as we prepare for a busy summer at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.
At the top of our to-do list is completing the construction of the training annex – a second Quonset hut with a classroom, kitchen, and dormitory that will significantly increase the number of trainees that the Tribal Program can accommodate. In the first two weeks of July, droves of volunteers will be coming to the center with hammers in hand to help build the interior walls of this new building.
Of course, it wouldn’t be ready for this phase of construction without first insulating the heck out of the exterior walls. The RCREC insulation of choice: cellulose. Lakota Solar Enterprises fortunately has all the equipment necessary to do cellulose installations including a mechanical hopper, a water pump, hoses, and a horse trailer full of cardboard (cellulose insulation) that is sitting outside of the new Annex. This cardboard comes from the only recycling program on the entire Pine Ridge Reservation, and is coordinated by Henry.
The process of installation is usually quite simple. However, the Quonset hut does present some challenges. The vaulted steel walls require a wet-spray application as opposed to the much simpler dry fill that is often done with cellulose. Our spray is mixed with standard wood glue to ensure that the fibers adhere to each other. Wet cellulose needs time to dry before another layer can be added and that can take time. Eventually, the walls we be layered with 3 to 6 inches of insulation with an overall R-value between 11 and 23. The ingredients in the cellulose are just recycled paper content and borates, which act dually as a fire retardant and deterrent to nesting rodents. Converted horse trailers at RCREC are now a collection spot for used cardboard that will eventually be ripped apart to make more cellulose. Using local materials to create local jobs to build local sustainable infrastructure – now that’s progress.
On the gardening front, the Solar Warrior Farm recently got a huge facelift. Birch Hincks and a group of volunteers drove up from Colorado last week with a truck full of lovely starts donated by the Plantorium nursery in LaPorte, CO. Together with a group of Pine Ridge residents, we planted rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and zucchini (which we now call Sioux-kini: a terrible pun, I know). Inter-planting crops is part of our strategy for maximizing the amount of fertile garden space that we have. In one row alone we have tomatoes, carrots, peppers, sunflowers, horsetail, and sage all growing together. The first three were planted by us Solar Warriors, and the rest was nature’s doing.
More and more, I’m slowly learning the involved ways in which the Lakota interact with the environment. Though agriculture was never part of the old ways here, plants have always played an important role in Lakota culture. As my friend Mary took me up in the hills above White Clay Creek to forage for timpsila (Lakota for wild prairie turnips), we ended up finding much more: wild plums, chokecherries, soapweed yucca (used for bathing), coneflowers, and the list goes on. The knowledge of how to use these native species has been forgotten by most, but has been preserved in Lakota tradition. I am trying to document this knowledge as best I can with the hope of eventually producing a small guide to identifying and using traditional Lakota plants.
The garden is now bursting with plant life, but plants aren’t all that we’re growing on the Solar Warrior Farm. Composting worms, a garden’s best friend, recently found a new home in a re-purposed freezer next to the garden. Vermicompost is nothing new at the center. Henry kept worms to eat his kitchen scraps for quite a while but unfortunately the flood in February 2011 that did so much damage on the reservation also drowned our subterranean friends. With drainage holes drilled into the freezer, the new worms should be comfortable and hopefully they will produce lots of castings that we can harvest and use to fertilize the garden next spring. Maintaining soil fertility each season is an absolute must.
We’re not expecting a flood anytime soon, so we have to be careful about how we use our water. Unless Wakia Oyate, the Thunder People, bring rain from the West soon, we are in for a dry summer. An old method of water conservation commonly used in arid regions of Africa is clay pot irrigation. The pots are buried in garden beds and filled with water. The water then slowly seeps out through the porous clay directly to the plants’ roots and prevents waste in the topsoil. We’ve adapted that on the farm, substituting pots for reused milk jugs with holes drilled throughout. There are a variety of methods that can be used for sustainable agriculture on the plains, and on our educational farm we hope to inspire those who are interested to explore these methods.
Stay tuned for more updates…until then please visit our website to learn more about our Food Security Program and the Tribal Renewable Energy Program.
You are invited to the 2012 Lakota Adventure: Past and Present! Below, you will find an itinerary of events and a registration form. If you have any further questions about this trip please contact Lacey Gaechter, National Director, at email@example.com or by phone at (970) 484-3678.
Demand for the trainings offered by TWP’s Tribal Renewable Energy Program is high as many Native Americans are developing a deeper desire for green jobs and for helping their tribes adopt new renewable energy practices. Fortunately for this Program, a recent gift from a generous Trees, Water & People donor has allowed us to purchase and construct the basic frame for the new Red Cloud Training Annex. This Annex will nearly double the number of trainees and volunteers we can accommodate.
Besides more indoor housing, the new facility will have a much needed kitchen, a classroom and presentation area, showers, and a study and living area. This recent gift enabled us to get four walls up and install a ground source heating system, but we really need your help to build the interior walls and acquire the materials and equipment needed that will transform the new building into renewed hope and real skills.
Your support will enable us to provide the practical skills and assistance to help Native Americans start new renewable energy businesses and get good paying, green jobs.
With your help, we can cooperatively develop a new way that honors the old ways. Your caring and sharing will truly make a world of difference – where good people solve problems by contributing what they know and what they have, so that all people have a real chance at a sustainable future.
To make a donation to the new annex click here and in the “comments” section write “Red Cloud Annex”.
Thank you for supporting renewable energy and green job training on tribal lands!