Holding his granddaughter, Red Cloud says, “I see this next generation coming up as the one that’s going to really run with this.” Photo Courtesy Lacey Gaechter.
PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA -- Henry Red Cloud is looking for champions. That’s how he describes his aspirations to train Native Americans in green-building and sustainable living. He founded Lakota Solar Enterprises in 2006, launching a unique 100-percent American Indian owner-operated renewable energy manufacturing and training facility on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Since then, his training courses have led to jobs for 84 people, and the trainees of Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, where his business is headquartered, have built and installed more than 1,200 solar heating systems that help save low-income homeowners 78 percent on utility bills. Author Naomi Klein nominated Red Cloud to the roster of “15 extraordinary people transforming the way we live” for the Winter 2012 issue of Yes! Magazine. The quarterly is dedicated to “practical stories about people creating positive change for a just and sustainable world.” In her nomination, Klein wrote: “Tribes are under intense pressure to allow their lands to be punctured by fossil fuel development. Red Cloud is showing that there is another path out of poverty.” A Canadian author, Klein is an internationally recognized expert on the alternatives that help curb global warming and the scourges of corporate free trade. Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor Talli Nauman agreed to research and write the Yes! profile on Red Cloud. It is available on the Internet and newsstands now. From Dec. 15 through 21, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center held its most recent training, an intertribal workshop on solar radiant floor heating. The “Ground-Source Heat Training” had eight trainees confirmed in advance, thanks to scholarships funded by the Carolyn Foundation. Three of the trainees registered came from the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, representing the Assiniboine and Gross Ventre tribes. Two signed up from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, one from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and two from the Oglala Sioux Tribe. “This will be our first Ground-Source Heat Training, and we are really excited to be able to offer it,” said Lacey Gaechter, assistant national director of Trees, Water & People, which is Red Cloud’s non-profit partner in Ft. Collins, Colorado. “We have a place to demonstrate and install the heating system because we are currently building a new Training Annex to house a classroom, living area, and dormitories for future trainees,” Gaechter told the Native Sun News. The temperature control method involves collecting solar rays to heat liquid and using wind energy to circulate it through pipes under flooring for the purpose of warming interiors. The training session drew foundation support based on a heap of recognition for the 52-year-old Oglala Lakota man. In October, Red Cloud’s Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative garnered Glynwood’s Harvest Award for leadership in regional food systems. His Lakota Solar Enterpises earned the 2010 Nuclear-Free Future Award and the Interstate Renewable Energy Innovation Award. The Corporation for Enterprise Development selected him as an Innovative Idea Champion in 2009. So he knows a little about championship. His job-creation record stands out starkly against the backdrop of an approximately 85-percent unemployment rate on the reservation. His energy-savings figures are remarkable for the Northern Plains region where winters generate heating bills of more than $1,000 – at least one-sixth of the average annual reservation household income. But big names and numbers are not Red Cloud’s stock in trade. “If we start small and get many people involved, it equals the big wind farm,” he says. “This way the homeowner receives the benefits immediately.” His project these days is “A New Way to Honor the Old Ways: Renewable Energy on Tribal Lands.” It’s all about providing immediate relief from the killer cold while harkening to tribal traditions that leave a soft “carbon moccasin print”, Red Cloud says. “I’m looking for some champions so they can take this and run with it.” If the champions are looking for him, though, they best look on the Internet before trying to find him on the res. His address is 1001 Solar Warrior Road, but the street sign hasn’t arrived yet and his presence is a lot more visible in the cloud than on the land. His websites are www.facebook.com/pages/Lakota-Solar-Enterprises/114455735268009, www.lakotasolarenterprises.com, and http://twitter.com/#!/lakotasolar. The top post on his Facebook wall in the wake of the U.N. climate summit in Durban, South Africa this month was: “With a new climate treaty years away, the world will need green technology to help stop climate change.” Meanwhile, back at the ranch … a windmill alongside an unpaved drive in a White Clay Creek draw signals the Solar Warrior community: a straw-bale roundhouse for trainings, a whimsically painted Quonset hut factory, heat collector panels, a horse trailer that doubles as a paper recycling center for making cellulose insulation, a concrete pad for an upcoming 20-person dormitory, a vegetable garden, and bison from the cooperative’s herd. The drum beat during practice of his sons’ Pine Ridge Agency Singers group punctuates the constant siren song of the wind turbine, both beckoning interns to join in Red Cloud’s vision. He is the great-great grandson of Makhpiya Luta, Chief Red Cloud, who negotiated the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which left a 60-million-acre buffalo hunting grounds to the Sioux Nation until trespassing gold miners and settlers served cause for Congress to whittle it down into five smaller reservation parcels. “Our ancestors made a treaty with the U.S. government,” Red Cloud recounts five generations later. But they also made “a pact with the Creator for seven generations,” believing in a well-known prophecy that they would suffer if they did not uphold their obligation to provide for their descendants’ future prosperity, he says. His 16-month-old granddaughter, a representative of the seventh generation, toys with a puppy at his feet as he speaks, then tentatively picks up a drumstick from the drum circle on the family’s mobile home porch. Red Cloud wants to rename the group Solar Warriors. Many families already are promoting cultural preservation and community resilience by making music and crafts, Red Cloud observes. “I want to help them take the next step. With that same spirit we can bring renewable energy back and put it in people’s hands. “I’m just a little twig on the fire. I see this next generation coming up as the one that’s going to really run with this. We’ll all dance around that fire when it gets big,” he says. The first-born of 12 siblings in the fifth generation, the Oglala Lakota man who is now 52 was raised by his grandparents according to tradition. His grandfather put him to work on the farm driving a tractor, riding horseback and piling wood. “You can get an education and you can live a comfortable life,” he remembers his grandfather saying, “but if you want to have a really good life, create some work for other people.” In 1971, Red Cloud became active in the civil rights movement. “That set a spark that helped me come to where I am today in doing work for a peaceful cause,” he told the Native Sun News. He learned construction methods walking high steel and helped build “many man-made wonders across the country.” One day, he found his hopes for a homecoming were higher than the steel girders he walked, and he returned to the reservation. The next day, they were shattered when he faced the reality of joblessness and housing shortage. In search of housing alternatives, he made teepees and took volunteer green building training from Trees, Water & People. One night while trying to get comfortable enough to sleep in the back seat of his car he had the vision for Lakota Solar Enterprises: training people right on the reservation so they could study at home and support the extended family, or tiospaye. Nurturing the same interest, he later added the buffalo ranching cooperative to his portfolio. The small herd of bison restores the prairie ecology and provides food for its caretakers. The herd animals are allowed to roam and they eat only wild forage. They are sacrificed with ceremony and processed in a mobile butcher shop, then shared for meat, hides or sales income. “It’s empowering. It makes me feel good: the house, the buffalo, renewable energy. I’m not into it to become a millionaire. I’m just here passing it on to the next generation like the grandfathers did for us. That way surely their prophecy is going to be realized,” he says Red Cloud took a 1970s concept of solar air heating and fiddled with it during two years of “intensive research and design” to come up with the unit his trainees produce today. “We’re using 21st Century material and twinking it Lakota style,” he says. The word “twinking” is also his invention. The many publications that have quoted him translate it to “tweaking”. His project has been written up twice before in the Native Sun News, as well as being featured in Changemakers Magazine, and Solar Today, as well as in several other national and South Dakota news outlets. His home heating systems is based on an air circulation device that is activated like a conventional furnace blower. Switching on when a household thermostat detects a temperature drop, its 60-watt motor pushes 480 cubic feet per minute of air from the inside across a solar panel located outside and back into the living space. It costs $2,500 installed and works at least 25 years for pennies a day. The unit reduces heating bills 30 percent. Recycled “res paper” insulation creates another 40-percent savings, and other measures such as plugging holes or tree planting contribute an 8-percent cost decrease, according to energy audits conducted by Lakota Solar Enterprises. Together with Trees, Water & People, Red Cloud’s operation has planted 2,000 trees for wind breaks and shade in residential yards. One of Red Cloud’s recent achievements was to engage 24 Northern Plains tribes as partners. They are sending tribal members to training sessions year round, he says. The tribal governments receive federal funding for energy efficiency improvements. Now instead of spending millions of dollars on propane for tribal members, they are using some of their wad to pay for Red Cloud’s renewable energy courses that offer either 80 hours or 160 hours of credit. Tribal governments also are buying heating units and undertaking work programs for installations in homes and public buildings. Red Cloud has contracts with the Oglala Lakota Oyate and the Rosebud Sicangu Oyate for installing wind turbines and solar arrays atop public health clinics on their South Dakota reservations. These will serve as renewable energy demonstration models. Red Cloud hopes they will help topple what he considers to be a wall of skepticism about green building techniques. He says the negativity is a legacy of years of unsuccessful development projects on reservations. Lack of awareness is the biggest barrier for him to overcome in making cleaner more efficient alternatives available, he says. “We are just getting back to the memory of the old way and becoming sustainable again,” Red Cloud says. “We have always had our Sundance ceremonies. We’re warriors doing our warriors’ deed in the 21st Century for the seventh generation.” (Talli Nauman is Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Join the Conversation