Tribal colleges are using solar, wind, and geothermal energy to power their campuses and training students for work in Green energy industries. Stronger economies and healthier environments will be the result.
By Katie Scarlett Brandt
This is part three of a three-part series on how tribes are managing their vast energy resources. Part I examines competing arguments for and against mining and drilling, and Part II focuses on how research coming out of the tribal colleges can influence policy and tribal decisions.
Rochell Carpenter never intended for her last name to become her profession. In college, she set out to study graphic design. Yet, as a child, she’d been driven by a more mechanical curiosity, constantly taking things apart to figure out how they worked.
She eventually shifted tracks and went on to start her own construction company. “I wanted to be self-sufficient, to build things for myself, understand how things work, and repair them. Why did I have to pay somebody to come in and fix something?” she said.
Now, she empowers tribal college students to do the same. Carpenter, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, chairs the department of Career and Technical Education at Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota. The school used to offer a carpentry program, but as physical evidence of a mounting climate crisis became clear, Leech Lake altered its focus to renewable energy and the home’s role as part of the environment.
Carpenter’s classes incorporate solar energy development, which she said isn’t a big leap for the Ojibwe people, who historically built their homes based on the sun’s movement across the sky.
“The students are so open to it. They’re extremely concerned about global warming and energy,” Carpenter said. “They want to be independent of fossil fuels, oil, all of this stuff. Solar has been a great, tangible way to do that.”
While reservations contain a large percentage of the nation’s fossil fuel reserves—and several tribes continue to support mining and drilling as a path to economic sovereignty—Leech Lake’s push for renewable energy represents a shift away from coal, oil, and gas extraction that is placing Native American communities on the front lines of the Green energy movement. As the world looks for alternatives to carbon-based energy, tribal colleges and their students are leading by example.
Montana State Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, a Crow tribal member who represents the eastern Montana reservation, has seen her tribe embrace coal, while the neighboring Northern Cheyenne prohibit extraction for health and environmental reasons. She urges students to become active in their communities. “It’s important for young people to engage, for tribal college students to engage. They need to not lay back and say it’s not for (them).”
Up at the U.S.-Canada border in North Dakota, Turtle Mountain Community College has been focused on renewables for longer than most. Turtle Mountain is one of the smallest federally recognized reservations in the country, and because so many residents live in poverty, they commonly head west to the state’s oil fields, searching for a way out or a way to bring money back in, said Wes Davis, facilities manager for the college.
But the college has big hopes for the community’s future. The 200,000-square-foot campus, built in 1999 with a sustainability focus, runs on geothermal and wind energy. Not only does the school supply its own power, but it sells off the excess $4,000 to $6,000 each month.
“We don’t use any fossil fuels here at all. We’re really unique on a commercial level,” Davis said. “It goes into our culture. We don’t want to hurt the environment.”
The school has seen major financial savings from those efforts. When Davis started at Turtle Mountain in 2008, he recalls fuel oil prices as high as $8 per gallon. “We would’ve spent more than $1 million that year, but we were sustainable,” he said. “As an institution, if we can worry less about operational costs and spend more on inspirational or innovative costs, that’s how I can contribute.”
Turtle Mountain Community College has built sustainability into its structures, too—namely an 1,800-square-foot building made from straw bale. Because farmland surrounds the school, Stacie Blue, who leads the Natural Resources Management program, pushed for local, renewable resources in constructing the building in 2005. The space has radiant heat flooring and maintains comfortable temperatures, even in North Dakota’s subzero winters and hot summers.
Those drastic temperature changes make construction and facility maintenance a challenge in a place where temperatures can drop to 30 degrees below zero in the winter and climb into the 90s during summer. “It’s harder to be sustainable here than anywhere else in the U.S. Our foundations crack because the ground flexes so much, and we’re at a point where the hills meet the prairie, so the uniqueness of the land is crazy also,” Davis said.
In biology and environmental science classes, Blue makes sure students get a chance to see just how unique Turtle Mountain is, that they “understand the value of where we are, where we live, and that they’re able to keep that focus on protecting the land.”
Students spend more than half of their class time outdoors, surveying water and plants. They analyze wildlife and plant diversity among Turtle Mountain’s varied landscapes: forest, wetlands, and shoreline. They discuss conservation area management, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the role of environmental assessment reports and impact statements. Above all, they look at how native culture fits in, focusing on traditional plant uses and cultural respect.
“We’re looking at seven generations from today—that we’re doing a great job by the water, by the land, by the forest, by the plants. Hopefully in 15 years, these students are part of the tribal council and making the decisions on our natural resources,” Blue said.
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Carpenter has similar hopes for her students at Leech Lake Tribal College, where she said the Enbridge oil pipeline is a major adversary, and people need affordable energy options. When the school shifted its focus to renewable energy, they partnered with the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a local nonprofit that supports development of residential and community-owned solar power. The alliance set out to build five solar gardens—community shared solar arrays—on the reservation and funnel the energy into an assistance program for low income families. Although the energy collected from solar panels can make a home or building self-sufficient and lead to huge financial savings over time, the panels cost more to install than most people can afford.
“Students understand personally the struggle. The cost of solar panels is so expensive, it’s been long thought that solar is not affordable, just for rich people,” Carpenter said. However, when whole communities join together to install the panels in a collective site, costs are shared by all users.
Leech Lake Tribal College agreed to host one of the solar sites, and RREAL has hired students as interns and graduates as employees to help with installations across the area. “The solar industry is one of the largest growing markets, and this is a great way to see solar gardens in action. Students are really excited about this field and interested in off-grid systems, like batteries. They can go get the parts and put things together,” Carpenter said.
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Solar power may be generating excitement now, but it’s not new technology. “There was a big push [for solar] in the ’70s,” Carpenter said. “It seemed like it was going to be prevalent, but then big oil came and pushed for coal instead. They made solar unappealing, didn’t invest, and kept us all enslaved.”
On the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, coal has never been the answer, even though the reservation sits atop a huge vein of low-sulfur coal. The tribe could have benefited financially from mining but has repeatedly rejected development. Then in 2016, “One of the leaders stood up and said, ‘We’ve been voting no on coal. We need to say yes to something,’” remembered David Riley, a former professor of architectural engineering at Penn State who has worked closely on energy projects with the Northern Cheyenne since 2000.
That “something” was renewable energy. On the Chief Dull Knife College campus, Riley’s team of Penn State students built an affordable version of a solar house, where the college president now lives. And in the community, they often begin sustainable projects by working first with the elders.
One elder, a woman named Elsie, showed her electric bill to tribal leaders after Riley installed solar panels on her home. Not long after that, the tribal building converted to solar as well. “It’s a very visible message to the community,” Riley said.
And it’s an important message because when people spend money on utilities, they’re not investing in their communities. However, when families spend less on energy, Riley said, “they generally spend their money on what we want them to spend it on: fixing the rail on the stairs, putting it back into the community. If we can divert that economic away from utilities, that’s the real power of solar in addition to being better for the planet. It’s the only form of energy development that pays for itself over time.”
Riley is a co-founder of Covenant Solar Initiative, a non-profit led by Native Americans and experts in renewable energy, education, finance, and community development. The group promotes solar energy as a partial solution to reservation poverty and the climate crisis.
“The extractive paradigm has no future,” he said. “You extract until you run out, then you give up and go somewhere else. We need living-systems thinking. We need a completely different paradigm, a regenerative paradigm, because that’s how nature works.”
It hasn’t been and won’t be an easy shift.
“People fear change. And you put that fear on top of propaganda and control of the media, and that’s all it takes. A lot of education needs to happen in terms of reality,” said Kandi White, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes who heads the Native Climate and Energy Campaign for the Indigenous Environmental Network.
She doesn’t just say that because it’s her job. White brings her work home with her daily, teaching her daughter “simple things that nobody knows anymore,” she said, such as plants that grow in their region and where to go if she turns on the water spout but nothing comes out.
“I see how easy it is for people to stick their head in the sand and not know or not care. We have such a disconnect to nature. You get in your car, which is climate-controlled. Go to your office, which is climate-controlled. Go get fast food, which is climate-controlled,” White said.
In Montana, Rep. Stewart-Peregoy echoes White’s push for education. “The most important thing is to learn everything you can. It’s important to know one’s history and the politics and the federal laws. Just continue to be a researcher. Never take anything at face value. Research and dig. Be able to look at the big picture but also understand what goes on locally.”
Stewart-Peregoy went into politics because she saw a need for tribal statesmanship as a way to ensure that her community didn’t get lost in the web of complex, big-picture issues, such as energy. “As Indian nations, we have to start acting like nations.” And as politicians, she said, constituents come first. “You have to not be afraid to be their voice, not be afraid to advocate, and not be afraid to stand up when it’s controversial and be that voice of common sense.”
In terms of Montana and the Crow Nation’s energy future, Stewart-Peregoy said there’s no one answer, except balance. “Whether you like it or not, you need a steady flow of energy. If there’s no sun, solar is not going to generate as much. Wind might not be blowing. You need the backup, which is then your hydro, and you need your coal-generated plants. Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at. I believe the future is that if they make room for renewables, we can have a wider portfolio.”
Carpenter, meanwhile, is empowering her students to make their own energy decisions. “I hope to return to a simpler, less dependent way of living for our students. I feel like so many people are caught up in working at service industry jobs, buying their foods, not knowing how to grow their own food or harness their own sunlight,” she said. “I’m hoping we can steal back that knowledge and not be stuck in this lifestyle of working and buying things.”
She worries about sounding extreme, which is only a testament to how far people have moved away from the basics. “I don’t mean to sound that radical. We get back to some of our original knowledge. That’s what we’re trying to do at the school—to go back, to give students the tools.”
Katie Scarlett Brandt is a freelance writer based in Chicago and a frequent contributor to Native Science Report.