This story was originally published by Homegrown Stories.

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When storms on the Pine Ridge reservation, home of the Oglala Nation, in South Dakota begin to build, they can be seen from miles away. Above rolling hills, clouds turn into waves and bring the rain. Strong gusts of wind stir up the smell of dirt and sagebrush. Wildlife begins to move along the Badlands long before the weather hits ground and radio broadcasts from KILI radio station warn the community of what’s to come. Evidence of the storm comes slowly at first, setting the scene and then it hits all at once.  

In the same way storms build power, slowly and intentionally, there’s something else gaining momentum on Pine Ridge. People that have been too long at the mercy of colonialism and industrialization have begun to gather, organize, and build the foundation for a more prosperous tomorrow. Red Cloud Renewable has been a landmark for sustainability on Pine Ridge, but there was a crucial piece missing in order for the efforts being made in renewable energy to work: housing. Solar panels on poorly insulated, mold-infested homes cannot solve the energy crisis on the reservation.

 In 2015, Pine Ridge was hit with several severe storms which prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send 50 trailers to aid people during the flooding. This temporary housing is still being used today.

It is estimated that 89% of people living on the Pine Ridge reservation are in need of housing. According to the American Indian Humanitarian Foundation, at least 60% of the homes on Pine Ridge are without water, electricity, adequate insulation, or sewage systems. Summers can reach a blistering 110 degrees Fahrenheit and higher, while winters can drop to -50 degrees. It is not uncommon for monthly heating bills to reach $500 during the winter months.

With the average per capita salary of $7,000-$9,000 per year, an energy alternative is not just a means of cutting costs, it’s survival. 

Solar energy goes a step further than just being a more cost effective form of energy, it also connects the old way of life for the Lakota people to a new way of living. It has the power to give Indigenous people back autonomy by giving people the option to live off-grid.

Henry Red Cloud poses for a portrait in front of a solar panel array at Red Cloud Renewables, October 2022. (Photo by Jessica Plance)

For Henry Red Cloud, it started with a calling. After spending many years working in construction and building with every industrial material, Henry felt a calling back home to the land, to Pine Ridge. For a year, he lived out of a tipi, and he educated himself on sustainable building. “We honor the Sun, we coexist here on the Earth, our language, our song, our dance, our ceremony, our way of life is all based around the sun. So I wanted to take this new way of living and honor the old way, by becoming sustainable,” said Henry. 

After spending six years traveling and learning about solar and all of its applications, Henry returned to Pine Ridge to put what he had learned to work. In 2002, he began doing research on thermal solar heating panels, which led him to turning an old freezer door into a solar heater. Using reclaimed materials from a landfill, some metal and an exhaust tube connected to his car battery, Henry built a heater fueled by the sun. Not long after that, he found himself volunteering to do some solar heating installations with a nonprofit. This would lead him to opening Lakota Solar Enterprises, creating jobs for two employees, and himself. 

Jason Mackie and Leo Bear apply a self leveling flooring in a model home. (Photo by Jessica Plance)

By 2003 they had started manufacturing heating panels. After meeting with the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewert Udall, Henry secured funding to continue building what he started. With the mission of creating economic opportunities and lessening what Red Cloud calls the tribes’ “moccasin print,” he began working with other tribes.

Red Cloud Renewable became a certified training program and created over 500 jobs across those tribes. This allowed Henry to hire 12 more employees to his own operation as well. These partnerships began to grow and build on each other. “That partnership beginning from 1997, I firmed up and did everything that I could to train myself around solar electric grid-tied battery based systems, standalone systems and then brought a training facility, the first ever of its kind in Indian Country,” explained Henry. Since then, Red Cloud Renewable has added programs in food sovereignty, natural-home builds and reforestation.

Not one of these programs functions fully on its own. Without economic and job security, a community has fewer resources to focus on food sovereignty. Without well-insulated and energy-efficient housing, renewable energy cannot function at its full potential. That housing also needs to be affordable for the community that it intends to serve. Red Cloud Renewable has dabbled in various sustainable housing projects and methods but more recently has partnered with a nonprofit, InOurHands. 

Founded by Jason Mackie and Aaron Resnick, InOurHands is working with the Oglala Sioux Tribes and others to address the need for proper housing on the reservation. “There’s a need here for about 20,000 homes,” explained Jason, who has been working with Red Cloud since 2018. “And it’s been common in my five years out here. In fact, every year, somebody that we know, a family member of theirs, has died of exposure, during the night, in their own home, because maybe they thought they’d wait it out, wait another night, and then it got a little bit too cold,” said Jason.

Using a material known as cellular concrete, Red Cloud Renewable and InOurHands have developed a version of a tiny home that ranges in cost from $7,500 to $9,000. The dome-shaped homes are naturally insulated, take only a few days to assemble, are fireproof, and can be heated with a small solar panel. “It’s important to me that we can give something to someone that will sustain them for a really long time and allow them to cultivate some hope and participate in their community and help heal other wounds,” said Aaron. 

 The first phase of the partnership was focused on training, building warming shelters, and providing one home per each of the nine districts on the reservation. They are also laying the groundwork so that this project can continue to grow beyond addressing housing insecurity. In the future, they hope to train more Lakota people in building the domes, so that others can start their own businesses. InOurHands was granted $700,000 from the Turner Foundation, Kind World, and the Minnie Miracle Foundation to continue this work, and the organizations will continue to build on a charitable basis for families with the greatest need. In the future, these homes will be built by Lakota-owned businesses. Families will be able to purchase the homes with a mortgage that the Lakota Federal Credit Union has agreed to underwrite.

Addressing the housing crisis could also lead to an increase in community involvement in government, policies, and voting. Having a permanent address makes the voting process significantly easier. “Once you help folks find hope, they can begin to engage in self-advocacy. And when they can advocate for themselves, they can become stewards of the land,” said Aaron.  

South Dakota sees 275 sunny days a year, on average — enough to heat and power homes if the proper infrastructure and policies were to be put in place. New policies could change the narrative for those facing housing insecurities not just on the reservation but across the United States.

Red Cloud Renewable and InOurHands employees stand in front of a newly built tiny house. (Photo by Jessica Plance)

“It’s at that point, we need to be coming together. Our native history with a non-native history has been a terrible time,” said Henry. “But we’re still in that history book. We’re just in a new chapter and we know now what we can do and what we should be doing. And then we can close the book, bring it to a better ending.” 

Homegrown Stories is a storytelling project from the advocacy group Western Organization of Resource Councils. It celebrates the hardworking people across the West doing things right. The people of these stories are creating community-based food systems, investing in clean energy economies and jobs, supporting just transition work, and fighting for a sustainable future.