The Cannon Ball settlement of the Standing Rock Reservation where 35-year-old Cody Two Bears grew up is in one of the poorest counties in the nation. Conversely, energy costs there are among the highest, Two Bears said.
“Just growing up in that area, all we had was culture. All we had was culture and a way of life that we could thrive and live off of the land for so many years,” said Two Bears, a Standing Rock Sioux member.
In the wake of the #NoDAPL protests that gripped the area in 2016, Two Bears merged his cultural knowledge and desire for climate justice to create the nonprofit Indigenized Energy. Last year, the company opened a 300-kilowatt solar farm on Standing Rock. Two Bears’ work centers on the collaboration of Western science with Indigenous traditional knowledge.
“Who better to learn from than the peoples of this land that we live on today, that have lived on this land for many, many centuries?” he said. “We have all these great scientists, but at the same time we also need to bring the First Peoples of this land to definitely set a plan and collaborate with one another to move forward in a way that makes sure we’re taking care of this environment in the way we’re supposed to.”
Renewable energy is not only a way to mitigate the effects of burning fossil fuels, but it also helps Standing Rock economically. The solar farm can power 60 homes, though the reservation uses it to power its activity center and veterans memorial building. The rest of the power is sold back to the grid, which helps the reservation maintain economic sustainability. In its first year the solar farm will wipe an estimated $10,000 from Cannon Ball’s municipal utility bill.
Two Bears said historical trauma deeply affects Indigenous communities today, especially as the government and private companies continue to exploit Native land. Two Bears is working toward a solution that empowers the community through renewable energy.
“If we create infrastructure on the reservation, we’re able to create jobs in renewable energy, and we’re able to build more projects by selling energy back as well,” he said.
Two Bears has a background in service to his community. At age 26, he was the youngest elected tribal council member at Standing Rock. In 2013, he brought President Obama to the reservation. It was the former president’s only visit to a Native American reservation in his two-term tenure. Instead of having the president address the community, the organizers had the community’s youth address the president and tell their stories.
Youth empowerment is also central to Indigenized Energy’s work. The company has a program called Indigenized Youth which focuses on encouraging young Standing Rock Sioux tribal members to continue traditional ways of tending to the earth. They teach the children that renewable energy is just as attainable as iPhones and iPads — and it plays a big role in helping the community break cycles of poverty. When the pandemic hit, Two Bears also led an initiative to provide students with new laptops to ensure they had the proper resources to continue their studies online.
By building power for his own people, Two Bears said he hopes to do the same for other communities.
“We’re one of the poorest counties in America, but look what we can do here,” he said. “So if we can do it here, you can do it anywhere.”
While colonization, genocide, poverty and marginalization are part of Native American history, so is resilience, wisdom and innovation. Two Bears said he wants to begin hearing more positive stories about Indigenous triumphs in the media.
“Knowing all the struggles that we’ve faced as Indigenous people, I truly believe that our Creator has built us a certain spirit of our Indigenous people to continue to hold something that’s so sacred and important moving forward,” Two Bears said. “They never, ever were able to break us …. And now, I feel like it’s time for us to express that knowledge.”
Top Image: A Standing Rock Sioux flag flies over a protest encampment near Cannon Ball, North Dakota where members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters gathered to voice their opposition to the Dakota Access oil Pipeline (DAPL), September 3, 2016. | Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images.