The lands of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe sit atop the largest remaining seam of low-sulfur coal in the country. Despite decades of pressure from coal companies, and sometimes even its own Tribal members, the Northern Cheyenne has rebuffed the industry — and its promised riches.
To help keep the coal in the ground, the grassroots group ecoCheyenne, founded by Tribal member Vanessa Braided Hair, went door to door across the 450,000-acre reservation to raise awareness about the harms — both local and global — to mining their coal deposits. The work paid off in 2016 when the Tribal Council passed resolutions against coal and in favor of clean energy.
It was a big environmental win — and no small feat for a community that could use both jobs and money. But after saying “no” for so long, the Tribe needed something to say “yes” to.
A few phone calls led them to Chéri Smith, a descendant of the Mi’Kmaq Tribe, who at the time was working as the head of workforce strategy and training development for renewable-energy company Solar City (later acquired by Tesla).
With the help of the company’s charitable foundation, she established a team that installed an 8-kilowatt solar system on the home of a Tribal elder. The small project made a big difference in reducing the elder’s energy bills, but it also led to much more.
“In that moment, it was like my ancestors spoke to me,” Smith told The Revelator. “I knew I had the skills, a network, experience and resources that could make a difference and help change the trajectory of this Tribe and others.”
Smith left Tesla and started her own nonprofit to help guide further solar development on Native lands — including more projects with the Northern Cheyenne.
“I spent five years gathering this team and trying to flesh out an approach to developing renewable energy as a means to mitigate climate change, eliminate poverty and restore sovereignty in Tribal communities,” she says. That team, now called Indigenized Energy Initiative, also includes Vanessa Braided Hair, her father Otto Braided Hair Jr., a traditional Tribal leader, and Cody Two Bears — who helped lead the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock as the youngest Tribal council member of the Standing Sioux Tribe.
The Revelator spoke with Smith about why jobs should come with clean energy, how to scale Native-led solar projects, and what hope looks like for young Tribal members.
How does Indigenized Energy Initiative work?
There’s been a lot of solar development recently on Tribal lands that’s philanthropically funded. It’s good. It’s well-intentioned, but it doesn’t take a holistic, systems-based approach and it often leaves Tribes worse off than before.
Our solution takes a very culturally sensitive, inclusive and systems-based approach to addressing the economic, climate and energy challenges that Tribes have with solar and, in the future, other renewables.
We only build projects with philanthropy as a demonstration of what’s possible. The rest of it is done with federal money and Tribal money. And we — Indigenized Energy Initiative — run on philanthropy so that we can offer our services to Tribes at no cost.
When a Tribe approaches us, they say, “How much does it cost to have your help?” We say “Nothing.” We can do the initial energy planning and work with them to build their capacity, develop projects, help them procure federal funding, and help administer those funds at no cost.
Many are skeptical, of course. But because we’re Native-led, and we have Otto Braided Hair and Cody Two Bears visit a Tribe for the first time, there’s a trust level that’s higher than if we were to just walk in off the street.
That’s the first step.
There’s also a ton of federal funding available right now, but most Tribes historically haven’t had the resources to take advantage of that. There are some — and a few that have established their own utilities. That’s now the end goal for most of the Tribes that we work with — they want to become sovereign.
How can a Tribe be sovereign if they’re dependent on the very colonial construct that puts them in this predicament in the first place? It’s really important that this development be done by Native people, for Native people, because solar and other renewables can be almost as extractive as fossil development if they aren’t done right.
Why focus on solar?
Three factors are really converging to make this the ideal time to deploy this new approach to solar development in Tribal communities.
The first is that — and I’m speaking in the words of Otto, my cofounder — he and many other Indigenous people feel that they’re on a trajectory toward extinction and are desperately in need of life-changing interventions, as opposed to Band-Aid remedies.
Second, as coal and other fossil fuels continue to become less economically viable, displaced workers from these industries — including many members of Tribes who have been working for the coal mines and coal plants in the area — are well positioned to become the workforce that’s needed to deploy these renewable technologies in their own community.
Third, solar is now the lowest cost form of energy. And it’s a well-established and reliable investment.
We’re taking advantage of this convergence of these powerful dynamics and we’re working to secure the place that Indian countries should hold in this global effort to advance solar and renewable technologies in communities that can really benefit the most from their effects.
What are the obstacles for growing solar systems on Native land?
Developers recognize the tremendous value of the land that these Tribes have and they’re bringing in their own people, importing their own labor. They leave the Tribe with a lease payment [for the solar project]. That’s OK. That’s nice. But it doesn’t transform the economy for the Tribe. It doesn’t employ Tribal members and it doesn’t establish businesses.
Usually how it works is that an external developer approaches a Tribe and says, “Hey, there’s this funding available. Let us work with you.” And they end up milking consulting fees and everything else out of that grant. The Tribe ends up with a very small amount of solar, and it’s the developer that gets the bulk of the profit.
Our approach is different. For example, the Northern Cheyenne that we’ve been working with for the longest time — a subset of us for 10 years now — we’re doing a $4 million Department of Energy project there.
When we come in, we’ll help them procure the solar. We may take a small amount from the federal grant. For example, this $4 million project, we’re making $75,000, but we’ve put in four years of work.
This year we’ll be erecting — depending on the supply chain — 1.25 megawatts. That includes 15 10-kilowatt residential systems on the home of elders whom the Tribe identified as being in need. Then we’re doing three larger, commercial-sized systems on a water-pump facility, a Head Start childcare facility, and a high school. And then we’re doing a 1-megawatt array that will be in the shape of the morning star — the Cheyenne are known as the morning star people.
That’s just the start. The Tribal energy manager’s vision is the creation of a Tribal utility and that’s the end game, but there’s a big delta in between now and when the Tribe can disconnect from the utility.
We also just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. They’re one of the richest fossil fuel developing Tribes in the nation, and they called us and said that they need to divest. I was just in the Menominee homelands — so-called Wisconsin — in August for a signing with the Menominee Tribe. They have a sawmill and a small casino. We’re going to be electrifying their mill with solar, and their goal is a Tribal utility.
And there are others. We’re working with eight Tribes now. The number of Tribes that we can help depends on our capacity, and right now we’re limited only by funding.
The Inflation Reduction Act will make developing solar on Tribal land more beneficial. It’s momentous. But with that also comes the potential for exploitation of Tribes. And this is where we come in. Our most beneficial role that we play is that of a buffer between Tribes and colonial, Western energy business utilities, developers and even policymakers.
How does your effort help provide jobs?
Young Native peoples’ lives are so difficult. Every day is filled with trauma. Historical trauma and present-day trauma, depression, suicide, poverty, racism and being basically exiled to the most godforsaken parcels of land. It’s not like when reservations were formed, they gave them the cream of the crop as far as land. It’s hard. Things don’t grow. It’s hard to make a living. The sustenance lifestyle doesn’t really work well.
That’s why our first step is to go to the community and talk with young men and women about our Native-led training programs. The work is very physical, so it’s mostly young men and women that tend to be attracted to it, but we do have older folks.
We’re training a workforce of solar warriors who are installing this infrastructure on their own homeland, for their own people. They have well-paying jobs. And while they’re waiting for all the work to begin on their reservations, they’re working for solar companies right now.
It’s especially poignant when you have a Tribal member who says to you, “I was planning to commit suicide this week, and you guys came, and now this is hope.”
Not only is it hope, it’s happening. I can’t express the power of it. It is a beautiful thing. To be able to have a well-paying job that’s doing something that’s good for the Earth, good for their people, and they don’t have to leave the reservation to get the job — it’s life-changing.
What can people do to help scale Native-led solar projects?
Awareness is the first step. I’m not kidding, there are actually people who aren’t even aware that Indians still exist.
There are 574 federally recognized Tribes in this country. We want all of them to be able to have these skills and to be able to do this themselves. We are working closely with the federal government. We have excellent relationships with the Department of Energy, Interior, the National Renewable Energy Lab. They’re just now seeing that they need NGOs like mine to bridge that trust gap and help bring this funding into Indian country in a way that is logical, feasible, and that Tribes can use effectively.
What was happening before was that money was being thrown at Tribes with a match requirement.
For example, this $4 million project on the Northern Cheyenne, the federal government wanted the Tribe to pay $2 million of it. The Tribe doesn’t have $2 million. So we negotiated on their behalf and got the match down to $800,000, which we’re in the process of raising. I still have $300,000 left to raise, and that shouldn’t even be the case.
We also need philanthropy to step up — and they are, but it’s not enough yet. Native American causes only receive 0.6% of philanthropic donations in this country. We need an endowment for this. We need $10 million a year for 10 years and then we can bring this to every Tribe. It’s time for the people with the money in this country to make reparations in this way. We’re a first-of-its-kind initiative. We need support and we need partners of all kinds.
The most important thing is that Tribes want to do this. They’ve stood bravely in the destructive path of fossil development. But few possess the capabilities to pursue clean energy in a way that is beneficial and inclusive. And this is that way.