Native Americans Turn to the Sun (Solar Energy, That Is)

In an interesting show of how established solar energy has become, on Monday, October 12, the New York-based Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) gave one of its 2010 Innovation Awards to Lakota Solar Enterprises, a renewable energy company owned entirely by Native Americans and located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

IREC Chairman Ken Jurman noted that, in a future clean energy society, children would be as familiar with solar (and other renewable energy technologies) as they now are with iPods and the Internet.

A sweeping statement, and one that seems to take a lot for granted, yet one supported by the fact that Native Americans – traditionally slow, if not actually reluctant, to join mainstream America – lead the five groups of recipients taking advantage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) and as a result eligible for the IREC awards.

Lakota Solar Enterprises, an extension of Native American non-profit group Trees, Water & People (TWP), won the prize for its Great Plains Tribal Communities initiative, the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, or RCREC, an educational and training facility where individuals from indigenous tribes across America can get hands-on training in renewable energy technologies, specifically solar panels.

The RCREC is so far responsible for training 38 people from the Rosebud Sioux, Spirit Lake Dakota, and Cheyenne River (Sioux) tribes, who, after 10 days of classroom training, returned to their reservations equipped with Solar Technician I certificates and installed supplemental solar heating systems in the homes of tribal families.

These passive solar heating systems, manufactured on the Pine Ridge Reservation since 2003 as part of a tribal jobs initiative – an outreach which naturally devolved into Lakota Solar Enterprises – are an inexpensive, environmentally friendly and easy-to-use way to heat homes in areas like North Dakota, where the Spirit Lake people endure long and bitterly cold winters.

In spite of their reluctance to adapt to modern America, the Sioux, or Lakota, are quite comfortable with the idea of solar. In Lakota legend, life and traditional belief, the sun, “wi”, is an integral feature of all activity, so the stretch – using the sun to warm one’s home – is not very great.

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