Henry Red Cloud, founder of Lakota Solar
and the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center. (Photo: Saul Elbein
It's high summer in South Dakota, and a cruel sun beats down
with an endless floodtide of photons that burns skin through t-shirts
and tinted car windows. That's the way Henry Red Cloud likes it.
To Red Cloud -- descendant of a great Lakota insurgent chief, founder
of Lakota Solar, and self-proclaimed "solar warrior" --
that July sun is key to the independence of his fellow Lakota and
native peoples across America; it also embodies a hot business opportunity.
It's July 5, the tail end of Red Cloud's Energy Independence
Day weekend, first announced in the wake of the Trump Inauguration,
and meant to spread off-grid skills throughout Indian country --
possibly with radical purpose.
I walked out of the sun and indoors to find Red Cloud leading
a solar workshop, holding forth to a group of eager indigenous participants
about photovoltaic cells and the danger of phantom
loads -- the way in which many appliances continue drawing current
even when switched off. "Vampire" loads are a constant
suck on household energy, consuming electricity and thereby emitting
carbon to no purpose -- while also draining an off-grid setup with
A set up, like, say, the remote, off-grid camps at the Standing
Rock Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests in 2016.
Red Cloud offers up a hypothetical: "Let's say you have
a Water Protector camp, your solar array is charging, you notice
the inverter is on, but nothing is plugged in." The stocky
60-something instructor, with long ponytail and far-seeing eyes,
frowns and shakes his head, indicating trouble. "Well, that
empty power strip can draw more than your actual daily use,"
draining down the batteries faster than they can charge."
A bearded man in his late 20s raises his hand. "That bad
for the array?"
"Well," Red Cloud responds, "it's not a problem
if you know about it. Just plug in a couple cellphones," and
charge them up so protestors can reach out to the media from the
remote site. That way, he says, at least now the array is doing
Man With a Plan
After the workshop, Red Cloud shows me his innovations. A solar
trailer, small enough to be pulled by a compact car, is mounted
with panels and an inverter. We step into a show-house built out
of compressed earthen blocks -- the hydraulic press that makes them
runs on diesel, the only machine Red Cloud owns that depends on
"And then there's this," he says, pointing to a plywood
box with Plexiglas atop it, a 35V photovoltaic panel that sparkles
in the sun. It's a homemade solar furnace: in the brutal Dakota
winter, it can generate a 190 degree Fahrenheit mass of air, along
with enough energy to blow that warmth through a house, largely
eliminating heating costs. He takes me to see the solar pumps that
move running water through his two-story school building.Red Cloud's
training center and home is a model for something new and, not to
put too harsh a word on it, revolutionary.
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.
Red Cloud shows off a solar-powered floodlight she built for
her car using about $100 in materials. (Photo: Saul Elbein)
solar furnace can generate a 190-degree mass of air, supplementing
grid or wood heat in the brutal Dakota winter. (Photo: Saul
Which, to many Lakota leaders and especially Red Cloud, 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 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.
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.
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. The two of us settle under a shade tree, and
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.
solar arrays helped power the Oceti Sakowin Camp, which rose
on the north end of the Standing Rock Reservation in the summer
and fall of 2016 in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline.
Though primarily powered by wood and gasoline, the camps also
ran on a great deal of solar. (Photo: Saul Elbein)
An Independent Tradition
In the early 2000s, Henry Red Cloud came home to the Pine Ridge
Reservation and realized he had a problem. He'd spent years on the
road, working seasonal construction, building with structural steel,
interlocking the bones of skyscrapers "high above 5th Avenue"
in New York City, and elsewhere, seeing much of America. But that
wasn't the world he wanted to live in.
"I had all these hopes of going home, having a job, getting
to spend quality time with my people," he recalls.
The word "home" for Red Cloud, and his moniker too,
resonate with historic cadences. He is named for his five-times
great-grandfather, the war-chief Red Cloud of the Oglalla Sioux.
Though not a member of one of the traditional Oglalla ruling families,
the original Red Cloud led a highly successful insurgency from 1866-1868
to prevent U.S. expansion into the productive buffalo grounds that
the Lakota were then seizing from the Crow Indians.
During that conflict -- now remembered as the Powder River War
or Red Cloud's War -- the Oglalla and their Cheyenne and Arapahoe
allies, defeated a number of U.S. expeditionary forces, wiping out
an 81-man cavalry unit in the worst American military defeat at
the hands of Plains Indians up to the defeat of Custer's 7th Calvary
at Little Big Horn, Montana in 1876.
The end of Red Cloud's War resulted in the federal government
signing the Treaty of 1868, ceding a vast territory to the Lakota
that made up much of what is now the U.S. Midwest. Red Cloud then
agreed to settle the Oglalla at Pine Ridge, and his fight ended
there. When in 1876 the Hunkpapas under Sitting Bull rose against
the U.S. in anger at the treaty's violation, the elder Red Cloud
stayed out, seeing no benefit in further battles against the Americans.
The Oglallas have been at Pine Ridge since, renowned among the
other Lakota and Dakota peoples for the extent to which they have
proudly maintained their culture. It is still common to meet elderly
Oglalla who speak only their tribal language well, and English with
of the portable solar trailers that Red Cloud brought to Standing
Rock. (Photo: Saul Elbein)
Here Comes the Sun
According to Henry Red Cloud, what the Oglallas lack today, and
badly need, is a thriving economy. When he came home in 2002, he
found a reservation that relied on something roughly comparable
to a colonial economy -- indigenous settlements were largely dependent
on franchise stores and chains that brought little money into the
community, but which sucked out dollars to the benefit of faraway
corporate headquarters. About the only jobs on the reservation were
with the tribe -- as police, in schools and government.
With the initial intention of just making some cash, Red Cloud
signed up for a solar installation course. It was a revelation.
"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 that first solar course, he decided
there was no reason that this native self-sufficiency shouldn't
He took more solar courses, learned more about alternative energy
and green technology. He started working as a solar installer, always
expecting to run into other Native Americans who had enjoyed the
same epiphany he had. "But there weren't any," he recalls.
"I encouraged my brothers to come [and learn from me],
but people can't just get up and [come to my workshops]. Everyone
is doing something, like making handicrafts or gathering wild food,
to help their families survive. They can't leave their families
for 19 days. So I thought, what if I bring this knowledge here,
to Indian Country?"
By 2004, he had learned solar installation; by 2005 he was making
his own solar machines; by 2006 he had founded Red Cloud Renewable
Energy and was employing locals to make solar panels to sell to
the other tribes. Meanwhile, his alternative energy training school
began turning out graduates.
protectors planting cedar trees in the path of the Dakota
Access pipeline in September 2016. Mounting an effective resistance
opposition against pipeline projects in remote areas requires
that activists be able to operate -- and stay connected to
the web. To Henry Red Cloud, off-grid solar is the ideal technology
to meet that need. (Photo: Saul Elbein)
Finding an Alternative to the Devil's Choice
For Red Cloud, solar and renewable energy are to the New Economy
what the sun is to an intact ecosystem -- the basis of everything,
offering perpetual sustenance. A place as "underdeveloped"
and remote as Pine Ridge, he says, has always presented its First
Nation inhabitants with a devil's choice: either continue in poverty,
or sacrifice your culture to the world coming in from outside --
usually the malls-and-suburban model of 20th Century America.
"But out here we're rural," Red Cloud says, pointing
to the far horizon. "We're the West of the West. At night you
have a sky full of stars. You can see thunderstorms coming from
100 miles away. We have no Interstate, no banks, no nothing. And
that's how I like it -- being able to go to the hills and see as
far as the naked eyeball can see. I wouldn't want to see mainstream
America flood this place."So, 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.
Ten years on, Red Cloud employs a dozen people at around $12
an hour, well above the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The
products they make, they sell to other tribes, who add their own
innovations to the mix. The nearby Rosebud Sioux have "gone
to the next level," says Red Cloud, installing residential-scale
wind and rooftop solar. But they also buy their solar furnaces and
photovoltaic arrays from Red Cloud. Lakota Solar is now the main
supplier for three other native-owned small businesses -- a solar-powered
paper recycling company and two solar installation firms.
The alternative energy systems Red Cloud builds, and boosts,
are what's known as "grid-tie." For now, they tie into
the conventional electricity grid, providing a household, depending
on its solar setup, with anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of their
power. The systems are designed to be small scale and supplemental,
offering a bit more power (or a bit more saved cash) to families
that otherwise might go without, or fall short.
A mid-range residential setup from Lakota Solar goes for $3,500
and lasts about 30 years; that's drastically below the $25 to $35
thousand dollar average cost for solar arrays found in the rest
of residential America. His systems don't pay the entire electric
bill, Red Cloud says, "but it's still money saved that goes
back into the community. It's enough to help build our own economy
While not the be all, or end all, these inexpensive solar installations
offer more than just extra electricity to High Plains reservations.
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." Clearly, the man
who came back to the reservation in 2002 has found his way home,
and he's now bringing his people home too.
at Oceti Sakowin in September 2016 sit on "Facebook Hill."
The height, being the highest point in the camp, was the only
place to reliably receive the cell service that tied the water
protectors to the rest of the world, including social media.
Charging stations there used diverse forms of renewable energy
including solar panels, bicycle generators or the windmill
seen here in the background. (Photo: Saul Elbein)
an action in September 2016, activists threw rocks into a
trench dug for the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). Building
on the earlier anti-Keystone XL protests, the no-DAPL demonstrations
often framed the fossil fuel economy as a "black snake"
threatening the future of the world. Solar is seen as a way
of breaking free of the grip of both oil and transnational
energy companies. (Photo: Saul Elbein)