Dec. 13, 2018

Red Cloud's New Energy 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 business, and the heart of a business network that extends to a dozen other reservations.

To many Lakota leaders and especially Red Cloud this energy revolution 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 sustainable energy 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 U.S. fossil fuel-driven economy.

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.

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. 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.

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 coexisting with the earth – the sun, the wind – for most of their history.” 

“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 his first solar course, he decided there was no reason that this native self-sufficiency shouldn’t be reestablished.

Red Cloud declares: “Number 45,” (that being his way of referring to U.S. President Donald 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.

  • Henry Red Cloud, like so many Oglalla Sioux young men, left the reservation to work in construction. When he returned home in 2002, he needed a job, and also wanted to make a difference. He attended a solar energy workshop and saw the future.
  • Today, Red Cloud runs Lakota Solar and the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, which have become catalysts for an innovative new economic network – one that employs locals and connects tribes, while building greater energy independence among First Nations.
  • The company is building and installing alternative energy systems, and training others to do the same, throughout remote areas of U.S. reservations, thus allowing the Sioux and others to leap past outdated fossil fuel technology altogether.
  • Henry Red Cloud’s company has another more radical purpose: it helps provide energy to remote Water Protector camps, like the one at Standing Rock protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Solar power and other alternative energy sources are vital at such remote sites, as they power up cellphones, connecting resistors to the media and outside world.