Heavy clouds sit on the horizon as a brisk autumn wind picks up and blows across the rolling plains of the Cheyenne River Reservation. In the distance, the gusts gently ripple the surface of the Missouri River.
The peaceful October day stands in stark contrast to the many dark ones these tribal lands have seen.
To put it mildly, the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation have led a painful existence. The westward-driving colonial frontier clashed harshly and violently with the Sioux. The U.S. government forced tribal members from their homeland, relegating them to reservations with dwindling resources. Starving families were torn apart; children were shipped off to boarding schools and encouraged to renounce their Native American identity.
The Great Sioux Nation was struggling.
The wind project will help sustain not only that tradition of deep-rooted appreciation for the Earth, but also the long-standing customs of an entire culture.
More than a century later, the Sioux tribes, known collectively as Oceti Ŝakowiŋ (O-chet-EEE Sha-KO-wee), or Seven Council Fires, still see lingering impacts from those darkest of days.
In 2016, more than one in four American Indians lived in poverty—the highest ratio of any ethnicity and nearly double the national rate of 14 percent. But even that figure fails to accurately portray the economic depression experienced on many reservations.
“Historically, we’ve lived in poverty, and the unemployment rate has always been high,” says Ryman LeBeau, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe council representative and father of four. “There haven’t been jobs on the reservation to sustain our population.”
Change Is on the Horizon
Blossoming from this heartbreaking history is a culture of revival, a spirit of determination, and a deep respect for the land these tribes call home. And now, a force is uniting the tribes and driving them forward into a promising new future.
That force is Ta’teh. Wind.
The gusts that cross millions of acres of tribal land in North and South Dakota are some of the strongest in the country. In 2015, after years of tribal discussions, several Sioux Nation tribes formed the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ Power Authority (OSPA). The group, comprising representatives from the Cheyenne River, Flandreau Santee, Oglala, Rosebud, Standing Rock, and Yankton Sioux Tribes, hopes to harness the wind to generate clean energy and a brighter, more independent future.
“In order to be sovereign, we have to have an economic base,” says Faith Spotted Eagle, a member of the OSPA council of elders and chair of the Ihanktonwan Treaty Committee, which works to protect treaty lands. “Our dream is that this project will bring income to our people so we can be more self-sufficient.”
This dream, truly decades in the making, is finally taking shape.
“It’s a very long journey, but a very meaningful, very collaborative journey, and all different aspects of the tribal government and the tribal membership have been involved in this process,” says Caroline Herron, an OSPA consultant. Herron and her husband, OSPA general counsel Jonathan Canis, have dedicated themselves to making this wind project a reality.
After years of discussion with wind energy companies across North America, OSPA selected Apex Clean Energy as its partner in the development process. Together, the two formed 7G Renewable Energy to develop wind on the reservations.
“Apex has demonstrated a respect and an understanding of what it means to work in a multi-tribal partnership [and] is committed to making sure every tribe prospers from the project.”
A Spirit of Collaboration
“This situation is unique in that the tribes are not just landowners; rather, we are working as partners,” says Eamon Perrel, Apex’s vice president of business development, who has led the early stage project development. “We’re making sincere efforts to incorporate tribal representatives into every aspect of the project—from resource assessment now to job training programs in the future.”
Since the very beginning, that collaboration has been vital to the success of the project, which will encompass several facilities across the land of numerous reservations.
“The tribes are equally at the table in making the decisions and in sharing the benefit of the wind farms,” says Herron. “Apex has demonstrated a respect and an understanding of what it means to work in a multi-tribal partnership. The tribes are dispersed across the Dakotas with differences in the wind resources and transmission capacity that’s available, but Apex is committed to making sure every tribe prospers from the project.”
“There are several benefits with a project of this magnitude,” says LeBeau, who serves on the OSPA board in addition to his role as council representative. “There will be jobs during construction—putting in roads to the towers, laying the concrete for the foundations, and putting up the turbines themselves—and then there are the long-term maintenance jobs.”
The project will contribute millions of dollars to the tribes, enabling them to introduce new social programs and expand the infrastructure on reservations.
“This is a source of non-government revenue that could help make these tribes economically independent and culturally self-sufficient,” says Canis. “But even more than that, this is a model of joint tribal action that could be replicated in other areas of economic development among our tribes.”
“This project will help sustain an entire culture that is an integral part of this country’s history and that has overcome many hurdles, but still faces hardships,” Perrel says.
And perhaps most important for the tribes, the project will provide a means of preserving Unci Maka: Grandmother Earth.
Sustaining a Sacred Culture
“When the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ Power Authority began to form, I felt like it was really important to always keep grounded and humble that we’re working with one of the powers of the world,” says Faith Spotted Eagle. “This wind project is an exercise in sovereignty; it’s an exercise in development; but above all, it’s based on spiritual knowledge.”
“We have a history with the wind,” says Lyle Jack, OSPA chairman. “If we can utilize these winds to produce clean energy that will actually save Mother Earth, that aligns well with our culture.”
The wind project will help sustain not only that tradition of deep-rooted appreciation for the earth, but also the long-standing customs of an entire culture—customs that shine through at events such as the RedCan Graffiti Jam, a festival at the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s Waniyetu Wowapi Art Park.
“This art park means so much to the community,” says LeBeau, looking across the park at a vibrant mural celebrating female empowerment. “We’re faced with problems like drug addiction and childhood depression, so having a place for people to express themselves creatively and culturally is such a critical outlet.”
Then there’s the annual He Sapa Wacipi Na Oskate, or Black Hills Powwow, now commemorating its 31st year and attracting thousands of dancers, singers, artisans, and spectators. Traditional Native American music fills every inch of the arena, accentuated by the sound of feet pounding to the drumbeat. Dancers don stunning regalia adorned with bright feathers and long fringes that sway gracefully as the performers move, reminiscent of tall prairie grasses blowing in the wind.
Traditions like these celebrate the past, present, and future of the Great Sioux Nation. Traditions like these depend on careful preservation of Sioux culture.
With that in mind, the Seven Council Fires joined together to ensure their cultural sustainability. The tribes of Oceti Ŝakowiŋ have not partnered like this in more than a century—some tribal leaders say not since the Battle of Little Bighorn—but the wind has united them once again.