If I asked you to imagine a place where 40 percent of people live without electricity, more than 90 percent live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate exceeds 80 percent, you might picture an isolated village in a developing country. But in fact, these statistics apply to many Native American communities within the United States. In the US, more than one million people reside on Indian reservations, which are often referred to as the “third world” of America. The Northern Cheyenne Reservation, in southeastern Montana, is one of them.
The Northern Cheyenne are a recognized sovereign nation of the Great Plains. Like many of North America’s Indigenous peoples, they are impacted to this day by the history of European colonization and violence. In the case of the Northern Cheyenne, this history includes the US army-led Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people were killed, the majority of them women and children.
Today, the Northern Cheyenne are among the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people in North America. Broken treaties, forced assimilation, and the lack of any tangible economy since the deliberate extermination of the buffalo by colonists have all taken their toll on the tribe. More than 40 percent of the tribe’s population is under the age of 18 and one-third of households are overcrowded. The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports the unemployment rate at 60 percent, but the Tribal Council will tell you it’s closer to 90 percent. Most people are struggling to pay bills, and many must leave the reservation in search of work to support their families. Life expectancy on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is 55 years — 23 years below that of the average American.
The cost of electricity poses a major challenge on the reservation, with implications for public health and economic development. A large percentage of homes are poorly constructed with little or no insulation, and they rely on inefficient electric heating systems. Electricity costs are inordinately high in Indian country. Many families cannot afford to pay their bills so their power is often turned off by the utility.
Compounding the issue is that in Montana, unlike in most states, utility companies aren’t prohibited from turning off electricity to homes that shelter elders, the sick, or the young. This is particularly problematic during harsh Montana winters, and people on the reservation often resort to burning things to keep warm. Wood is scarce and expensive, so people burn anything they can find — furniture, trash, tires. When they run out of things to burn, people die of exposure to cold.
Knowing all of this, you might be astonished to learn that the Northern Cheyenne could have ensured economic prosperity for their people nearly a half-century ago. The Northern Cheyenne’s homelands sit atop the richest seam of low-sulfur coal remaining in the country. Worth billions of dollars, the coal is a tantalizing resource. Year after year, going back to 1973 when mining behemoth Arch Coal offered the tribe a hospital in exchange for “exploration rights,” proposals have been put forth to mine the coal. Year after year, these proposals have been rejected, and the sacred Cheyenne covenants to protect and preserve Mother Earth have been upheld. In 2017, in a demonstration of their conviction not to mine the land, the tribe — along with a coalition of conservation groups — sued the Trump administration for lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands and exposing southeastern Montana to further fossil fuel development.
That’s not to say it has been easy. The reservation is hemmed in by a large coal-burning power plant and multiple open-cast coal mines. Another coal mine has been proposed along the reservation’s border as well. What’s more, the Northern Cheyenne have seen the economic benefits that extraction can bring, benefits experienced by neighboring tribes like the Crow.
The Tribal Council’s decision to hold off developers has at times been contentious. When the conflict came to a head several years ago, a young tribe member named Vanessa Braided Hair founded a grassroots advocacy group called ecoCheyenne. From 2012 to 2015, with support from National Wildlife Federation and Honor the Earth, ecoCheyenne worked to raise awareness about the threat fossil fuel extraction poses to the land, water, air, and people. The group’s work inspired hundreds of tribal members to implore their Tribal Council to act. And act they did.
After years of consternation and contemplation, in 2016, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council adopted a series of unprecedented resolutions eschewing fossil fuels and endorsing green energy. Conceding the strength of the tribe’s convictions, in March 2016, Arch Coal withdrew its 40-year-old mining application.
In the wake of this victory, the tribe remained resolute in its decision to forgo fossil fuels, but felt insecure about its energy — and economic — future. What followed was a humble invitation to the energy experts who now comprise the Covenant Solar Initiative team to explore green energy opportunities on the reservation. Since then, Covenant Solar has grown into a diverse team of Native American tribal, educational, and community development leaders, coupled with many of the nation’s foremost experts in solar technology, education, and energy policy, all working towards vibrant and vital Indigenous communities powered by the sun.
Previous and even current efforts to deploy solar energy in Indian Country have largely focused on one-off, externally managed projects. These undertakings have value, in that they provide alternative energy sources for tribes, but they don’t address the core issue of energy poverty in Native communities.
The Covenant approach is unique, as it is oriented towards capacity building, long-term economic development, and job creation. We are providing tribes with the knowledge, skills, and tools required to eliminate extractive energy systems in their portfolios, and replace them with clean, regenerative systems. We are leveraging the potential of solar energy as an instrument to transform entire economic, ecological, and social systems.
The Northern Cheyenne are hosts to the pilot Covenant Solar program, which has been underway since 2016. Our first-of-its-kind approach will result in the establishment of Native-employee-owned solar cooperatives on reservations, enabling tribes and their members to reap 100 percent of the benefits of solar. Through the national network of Tribal Colleges, Covenant is creating programs to teach solar entrepreneurship, installation, maintenance, and financing. These programs will enable tribal members to develop, construct, and maintain solar energy systems in a way that is responsive to their unique economic, ecological, cultural, and social conditions, and that maximizes the inclusion and engagement of local labor and businesses.
Learn more about the Earth Island project at: www.covenantsolar.org
We are also engaged with additional tribes — such as the Southern Cheyenne of Oklahoma, the Northern Arapaho of Wyoming, and the Southern Arapaho of Oklahoma — in parts of the US where energy poverty is of particular concern, and where solar energy can effect the greatest positive impact.
Response to our program has been tremendous. We have garnered support from corporations in the form of pro-bono consulting and access to low-cost supply chains. We’ve also launched partnerships with several institutions, including the Yale School of Business and the Environment, which is providing financial modeling for our innovative solar fund, and Berkeley Management Development Practice, which is designing the program’s overall community development framework.
Native Americans are saying “no” to extractive industries and dirty energy, and Covenant Solar Initiative is offering something to say “yes” to. A regenerative way forward. A culturally sensitive and holistic approach — developed through partnership with Indigenous peoples — to building sustainable, solar-driven economies in Native American communities, while honoring sacred covenants to protect and preserve our planet. The need is great, and the time is now.
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