Skip to main content

Creating an Energy Independent Future for South Dakota's Native Peoples

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Henry Red Cloud is leading a movement toward a sustainable energy future.
A solar technology training class gathered on Energy Independence Day weekend, July 4th, 2017, at Red Cloud's factory on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

A solar technology training class gathered on Energy Independence Day weekend, July 4th, 2017, at Red Cloud's factory on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

It's high summer in South Dakota, and a cruel sun beats down with an endless floodtide of photons that burns skin through T-shirts and tinted car windows. That's the way Henry Red Cloud likes it. To Red Cloud—descendant of a great Lakota insurgent chief, founder of Lakota Solar, and self-proclaimed "solar warrior"—that July sun is key to the independence of his fellow Lakota and native peoples across America; it also embodies a hot business opportunity.

It's July 5th, the tail end of Red Cloud's Energy Independence Day weekend, first announced in the wake of President Donald Trump's inauguration, and meant to spread off-grid skills throughout Indian country—possibly with radical purpose.

I walked out of the sun and indoors to find Red Cloud leading a solar workshop, holding forth to a group of eager indigenous participants about photovoltaic cells and the danger of phantom loads—the way in which many appliances continue drawing current even when switched off. "Vampire" loads are a constant suck on household energy, consuming electricity and thereby emitting carbon to no purpose—while also draining an off-grid set-up with limited juice.

A set-up, like, say, the remote, off-grid camps at the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016.

Red Cloud offers up a hypothetical: "Let's say you have a Water Protector camp, your solar array is charging, you notice the inverter is on, but nothing is plugged in." The stocky 60-something instructor, with long ponytail and far-seeing eyes, frowns and shakes his head, indicating trouble. "Well, that empty power strip can draw more than your actual daily use," he says, "draining down the batteries faster than they can charge."

A bearded man in his late twenties raises his hand. "That bad for the array?"

"Well," Red Cloud responds, "it's not a problem if you know about it. Just plug in a couple cell phones," and charge them up so protesters can reach out to the media from the remote site. That way, he says, at least now the array is doing some work.

Man With a Plan

After the workshop, Red Cloud shows me his innovations. A solar trailer, small enough to be pulled by a compact car, is mounted with panels and an inverter. We step into a show-house built out of compressed earthen blocks—the hydraulic press that makes them runs on diesel, the only machine Red Cloud owns that depends on fossil fuel.

"And then there's this," he says, pointing to a plywood box with Plexiglas atop it, a 35v photovoltaic panel that sparkles in the sun. It's a homemade solar furnace: in the brutal Dakota winter, it can generate a 190-degree Fahrenheit mass of air, along with enough energy to blow that warmth through a house, largely eliminating heating costs. He takes me to see the solar pumps that move running water through his two-story school building. Red Cloud's training center and home is a model for something new and, not to put too harsh a word on it, revolutionary.

His compound represents an all-in-one alternative energy lab and off-grid resistance camp set in the middle of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. That's a highly unlikely place for energy innovation: Pine Ridge is America's second poorest county, a sprawling and desolate collection of about 40,000 spread across the South Dakota Badlands. Most locals are so impoverished, and so estranged from the cash economy, that some 60 percent of them can't afford to hook up to the electric grid.

Which, to many Lakota leaders and especially Red Cloud, represents a huge opportunity—a chance for the tribe to leapfrog over the 20th-century energy economy of coal and natural gas burning power plants and regional transmission lines into a new economy. The goal is to build an energy independent First Nation and modern lifestyle, beyond the reach of oil shortages, price hikes, and the environmental harm perpetuated by the United States' fossil fuel-driven economy.

For more than a decade, Red Cloud has been running Lakota Solar, an off-grid skills school and solar machine factory—one of Pine Ridge's few locally owned businesses, and the heart of a business network that extends to a dozen other reservations.

Over a thousand alumni have learned to build solar arrays, solar furnaces, and solar-driven water pumps in his schools. To Red Cloud, these are practical skills that expand people's economic and political options. But they're also something mystical—a key to a new personal and communal future. The two of us settle under a shade tree, and Red Cloud declares: "Number 45," (that being his way of referring to Trump) "is changing a whole lot in our country. So we need to start banding together, natives and non-natives, and if we're going to build this country let's build it efficient."

He wipes his forehead. "We're all waiting for something. What? I don't know. But it's time to get started," he says.

An Independent Tradition

In the early 2000s, Henry Red Cloud came home to the Pine Ridge Reservation and realized he had a problem. He'd spent years on the road, working seasonal construction, building with structural steel, interlocking the bones of skyscrapers "high above 5th Avenue" in New York City, and elsewhere, seeing much of America. But that wasn't the world he wanted to live in.

"I had all these hopes of going home, having a job, getting to spend quality time with my people," he recalls.

The word "home" for Red Cloud, and his moniker too, resonate with historic cadences. He is named for his five-times great-grandfather, the war-chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux. Though not a member of one of the traditional Oglala ruling families, the original Red Cloud led a highly successful insurgency from 1866 to 1868 to prevent U.S. expansion into the productive buffalo grounds that the Lakota were then seizing from the Crow Indians.

During that conflict—now remembered as the Powder River War, or Red Cloud's War—the Oglala and their Cheyenne and Arapahoe allies, defeated a number of U.S. expeditionary forces, wiping out an 81-man cavalry unit in the worst American military defeat at the hands of Plains Indians up to the defeat of George Custer's 7 Calvary at Little Big Horn, Montana, in 1876.

The end of Red Cloud's War resulted in the federal government signing the Treaty of 1868, ceding a vast territory to the Lakota that made up much of what is now the U.S. Midwest. Red Cloud then agreed to settle the Oglala at Pine Ridge, and his fight ended there. When in 1876 the Hunkpapas under Sitting Bull rose against the U.S. in anger at the treaty's violation, the elder Red Cloud stayed out, seeing no benefit in further battles against the Americans.

The Oglalas have been at Pine Ridge since, renowned among the other Lakota and Dakota peoples for the extent to which they have proudly maintained their culture. It is still common to meet elderly Oglala who speak only their tribal language well, and English with difficulty.

Here Comes the Sun

According to Henry Red Cloud, what the Oglalas lack today, and badly need, is a thriving economy. When he came home in 2002, he found a reservation that relied on something roughly comparable to a colonial economy—indigenous settlements were largely dependent on franchise stores and chains that brought little money into the community, but which sucked out dollars to the benefit of faraway corporate headquarters. About the only jobs on the reservation were with the tribe—as police, in schools, and government.

With the initial intention of just making some cash, Red Cloud signed up for a solar installation course. It was a revelation.

"I thought, as natives, we've been embracing the sun for eons," he says, offering the Sundance as an example, the most sacred rite of the Plains Indians, in which devotees dance ecstatically for four days, exposed to the elements, without sleep, food, or water.

"We have always believed in living off the land," he says. After graduating from that first solar course, he decided there was no reason that this native self-sufficiency shouldn't be re-established.

He took more solar courses, learned more about alternative energy and green technology. He started working as a solar installer, always expecting to run into other Native Americans who had enjoyed the same epiphany he had. "But there weren't any," he recalls.

"I encouraged my brothers to come [and learn from me], but people can't just get up and [come to my workshops]. Everyone is doing something, like making handicrafts or gathering wild food, to help their families survive. They can't leave their families for 19 days. So I thought, what if I bring this knowledge here, to Indian Country?"

By 2004, he had learned solar installation; by 2005 he was making his own solar machines; by 2006 he had founded Red Cloud Renewable Energy and was employing locals to make solar panels to sell to the other tribes. Meanwhile, his alternative energy training school began turning out graduates.

Finding an Alternative to the Devil's Choice

For Red Cloud, solar and renewable energy are to the new economy what the sun is to an intact ecosystem—the basis of everything, offering perpetual sustenance. A place as "underdeveloped" and remote as Pine Ridge, he says, has always presented its First Nation inhabitants with a devil's choice: either continue in poverty, or sacrifice your culture to the world coming in from outside—usually the malls-and-suburban model of 20th-century America.

"But out here we're rural," Red Cloud says, pointing to the far horizon. "We're the West of the West. At night you have a sky full of stars. You can see thunderstorms coming from 100 miles away. We have no Interstate, no banks, no nothing. And that's how I like it—being able to go to the hills and see as far as the naked eyeball can see. I wouldn't want to see mainstream America flood this place." So, Lakota Solar and the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center have become catalysts for an innovative economic network—one that employs locals and connects tribes, while building greater independence.

Ten years on, Red Cloud employs a dozen people at around $12 an hour, well above the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The products they make, they sell to other tribes, who add their own innovations to the mix. The nearby Rosebud Sioux have "gone to the next level," says Red Cloud, installing residential-scale wind and rooftop solar. But they also buy their solar furnaces and photovoltaic arrays from Red Cloud. Lakota Solar is now the main supplier for three other native-owned small businesses—a solar-powered paper recycling company and two solar installation firms.

The alternative energy systems Red Cloud builds, and boosts, are what's known as "grid-tie." For now, they tie into the conventional electricity grid, providing a household, depending on its solar set-up, with anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of their power. The systems are designed to be small scale and supplemental, offering a bit more power (or a bit more saved cash) to families that otherwise might go without, or fall short.

A mid-range residential set-up from Lakota Solar goes for $3,500 and lasts about 30 years; that's drastically below the $25,000 to $35,000 average cost for solar arrays found in the rest of residential America. His systems don't pay the entire electric bill, Red Cloud says, "but it's still money saved that goes back into the community. It's enough to help build our own economy here."

While not the be all, or end all, these inexpensive solar installations offer more than just extra electricity to High Plains reservations. For Red Cloud and other Native American leaders, these solar solutions possess a deep philosophical appeal, extending beyond economic or environmental motives, and extending into the communal, and even to the nearly spiritual.

"People don't like being on the grid here," Red Cloud says, "because they've been co-existing with the earth—the sun, the wind—for most of their history." Clearly, the man who came back to the reservation in 2002 has found his way home, and he's now bringing his people home too.

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.