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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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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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).
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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).
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:
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).
We, the Shields/Peltier Family, would like to say a big thank you to all the helping hands who built such a wonderful, blessed house for our children. We are all so very thankful and blessed to call this a home of our own. Before moving into our CEB home, we didn’t have a working shower in the trailer we were renting. The children would sometimes go a few days without showering. Since there was no running water, we had to use a garden hose and fix it up to the kitchen sink and use it to flush the toilet bowl. I sometimes had to hand-wash our clothing because we didn’t have a washer or dryer.
In the trailer, the walls were full of holes and the floor was caving in. It had a lot of rodents, bedbugs, and mice throughout the house. All the windows were covered with plastic due to them being broken out. We had problems with the outlets, only a few of them were working. We would have to unplug some things to be able to plug in heaters to warm the trailer. We all slept in one room just to keep warm, which was the living room.
Now our children have a room of their own and can take showers when they want. The children now have clean clothes and can get a good night’s sleep; they don’t have to worry about bedbugs and getting bitten up throughout the night, or worry about mice getting into our food. We don’t have to put up with all that anymore! We are all very thankful to Trees, Water & People, Henry Red Cloud and all those who helped with this home we can call ours, here on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE) and Trees, Water & People (TWP) are continuing our efforts to help Native American communities move towards energy independence. This week we are conducting a solar air heater workshop and installing ten solar air heating systems for the Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe in northeast South Dakota. The training is teaching twelve tribal members about the uses of solar energy and how to install the energy saving solar heating systems. These solar heaters push the number of total systems the LSE/TWP team has built and installed for tribal families to more than 1,000 systems. Additionally, the vast majority of these systems made at the LSE manufacturing facility at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
It is also the first major installation of our new Off-Grid Solar Heaters, which now operate solely on solar power! Heat is provided even if the grid goes off, as it is apt to do all across Native American Reservations. After this training is completed, the tribe has discussed getting 21 more systems and will use their trained workforce to get them installed.
Next, LSE will be taking down the old defunct wind turbine tower at the Kili Radio Station on Pine Ridge. Friends will install a new 10 kW Bergey wind turbine there in September, and a bit later Henry and the LSE crew will install another 6 kW solar electric array. A few years ago LSE installed a 5 kW solar electric array there, as well as one of their solar air heaters. Together, this should reduce the Radio stationed huge electric and heating bills by more than half.
Training and demonstrations like these are possible because of you, our supporters! Your contribution helps build job skills for Native Americans while also reducing CO2 emissions. Please donate today to keep programs like these going into the future.