The lands of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe sit atop the largest remaining seam of low-sulfur coal in the country. Despite decades of pressure from coal companies, and sometimes even its own Tribal members, the Northern Cheyenne has rebuffed the industry — and its promised riches.

To help keep the coal in the ground, the grassroots group ecoCheyenne, founded by Tribal member Vanessa Braided Hair, went door to door across the 450,000-acre reservation to raise awareness about the harms — both local and global — to mining their coal deposits. The work paid off in 2016 when the Tribal Council passed resolutions against coal and in favor of clean energy.

It was a big environmental win — and no small feat for a community that could use both jobs and money. But after saying “no” for so long, the Tribe needed something to say “yes” to.

A few phone calls led them to Chéri Smith, a descendant of the Mi’Kmaq Tribe, who at the time was working as the head of workforce strategy and training development for renewable-energy company Solar City (later acquired by Tesla).

With the help of the company’s charitable foundation, she established a team that installed an 8-kilowatt solar system on the home of a Tribal elder. The small project made a big difference in reducing the elder’s energy bills, but it also led to much more.

“In that moment, it was like my ancestors spoke to me,” Smith told The Revelator. “I knew I had the skills, a network, experience and resources that could make a difference and help change the trajectory of this Tribe and others.”

Smith left Tesla and started her own nonprofit to help guide further solar development on Native lands — including more projects with the Northern Cheyenne.

How does Indigenized Energy Initiative work?

There’s been a lot of solar development recently on Tribal lands that’s philanthropically funded. It’s good. It’s well-intentioned, but it doesn’t take a holistic, systems-based approach and it often leaves Tribes worse off than before.

Our solution takes a very culturally sensitive, inclusive and systems-based approach to addressing the economic, climate and energy challenges that Tribes have with solar and, in the future, other renewables.

We only build projects with philanthropy as a demonstration of what’s possible. The rest of it is done with federal money and Tribal money. And we — Indigenized Energy Initiative — run on philanthropy so that we can offer our services to Tribes at no cost.

Read the full article about Native-led renewables by Tara Lohan at Tucson Sentinel.