On a sunny but blustery morning on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Henry Red Cloud prepares for his students to arrive. With both hands tucked into his coveralls to stay warm, he lists off the trainees by tribe. "Northern Cheyenne is here; Rosebud's on their way, as well as Crow Creek …"
Red Cloud is the founder of Lakota Solar Enterprises, one of the country’s first Native American-owned renewable energy companies. With a pair of skinny braids extending from either side of his beige cap, Red Cloud's easy, laid-back manner belies his ambitions. As students from other tribes trickle into the Pine Ridge classroom, he spreads out a crumpled satellite image showing the Earth at night and points to North America.
There are 564 tribes across the United States, he tells his students, and he hopes to bring solar technology to all of them.
Pine Ridge is a place that is characterized by extremes. It is among the poorest communities in North America -- poverty and life expectancy rates rival those in underdeveloped countries such as Haiti -- but it is also home to some of the richest history and culture in the United States. I was there to take photos of a weeklong solar training course hosted by Red Cloud’s company and its nonprofit partner, Trees, Water & People. For the course, students worked together to retrofit a small trailer with batteries. When connected to solar panels, those batteries could be used to power amplifiers at powwows and other outdoor events.
Solar energy is quickly becoming a viable alternative -- both as an energy source and as a job creator -- in a region dominated by coal, Red Cloud tells me. (He had no trouble, for example, finding jobs installing solar panels for two trainees who had driven in from Montana and needed work.) A direct descendant of Chief Red Cloud (who fought white soldiers in the 1860s and negotiated a treaty securing 60 million acres of the Black Hills and surrounding land for the Great Sioux Nation), Henry Red Cloud says he was working construction jobs when he first started thinking about energy issues. "I helped build a power plant in Wyoming, but I didn't like it," says Red Cloud. "But it helped me start asking where our energy comes from."
He moved back to the Pine Ridge reservation in the late 1990s and took training courses in solar energy. With financial assistance from Trees, Water & People, Red Cloud founded Lakota Solar in 2006. And over the past decade, he has installed hundreds of solar air heaters, which help reduce heating costs for homes and businesses, across Pine Ridge and other reservations.
Throughout the week of training, Red Cloud refers to himself and those he works with as "solar warriors" who are providing sustenance for their tribe. "A couple hundred years ago we brought an elk or deer back for the community. That's all we're doing here."
See Henry Red Cloud discuss his work bringing renewable energy to his people:
Images: Mark Andrew Boyer