Skip to main content

Tribal leadership for the next energy economy

Do you want to bake with global climate change? Or do you want to make a
difference? As my friend Bob Gough said, "When global climate change hits
the fan, it's best to be holding a fan." Those fans are the future for
Native people, but we'll need to work to get them going.

Here's a start. How about a tribal renewable energy plan? How about energy
security? The reality is that we are all pretty much energy junkies; Native
people are increasingly addicted to electricity and other energy resources,
and now (during this generation) would be a great time to come up with a
long-term visionary plan for Native America's energy future.

Let's start with the Kyoto Protocol. Energy consumption, specifically the
burning of fossil fuels, accounts for more than 80 percent of U.S.
greenhouse gas emissions, and the Kyoto Protocol is an international
agreement requiring countries to reduce these emissions by 2012. The U.S.
withdrew from Kyoto in 2001, although we lead the world in greenhouse gas
emissions. In February, the treaty went into effect despite our refusal to
join the agreement. The U.S., however, is also the country with the most
resources to do the right thing by looking toward renewable energy and
energy efficiency, and tribal governments are in a great place to make a

To their credit some cities are moving toward voluntarily making those
changes. More than 150 U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, Salt Lake City,
Denver and Seattle, are working on meeting Kyoto requirements by coming up
with plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and proposals for renewable
energy portfolios. Tribal governments could also volunteer to meet Kyoto
and be leaders and examples for our people and for all of these states.

Wind blowing through Indian reservations in just four northern Great Plains
states could support almost 200,000 megawatts of wind power - enough to
reduce output from coal plants by 30 percent and reduce our
electricity-based global warming pollution by 25 percent. Solar energy has
similar potential. With tribal landholdings in the southwestern U.S.
equivalent to the size of Minnesota, tribal solar initiatives, in the words
of one advocate, could "generate enough power to eradicate all fossil fuel
burning power plants in the U.S."

Finally, the potential for a tribal government joining in the manufacturing
of these components (like a solar photovoltaics or wind turbine facility)
is immense. After all, wind energy is the fastest growing energy source in
the world and these markets will only continue to grow, as there is just
not enough oil and too many problems with combusting Jurassic Age carbon.

As energy junkies, we have to deal with our addiction, and conservation is
the key. If we look at our local energy choices, we begin to see that even
the kind of light bulbs we use makes a difference. Compact fluorescent
lights (CFLs) use about 25 percent of the energy used by standard
incandescent light bulbs. CFLs last up to 10 times longer, so we'd have to
buy fewer bulbs, and produce up to 90 percent less heat in the generation
of light. When you consider that lighting accounts for around 20 percent of
the electricity consumed in the U.S., then changing a light bulb really can
make a difference.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

On the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, we made solar heating panels
out of pop cans - 87 of them, to be exact. Those cans were placed in a
wooden box and put in a sunny place where the system could absorb heat from
the sun. The warm air is then distributed into a building, acting very much
like a furnace run by the sun.

Installing solar heating panels is a way of reducing heating bills. On
White Earth, we've started installing them on the houses of some of our
elderly folks in the housing projects. There aren't any trees there anyway,
so there's plenty of sun; and the solar heaters add much-needed warmth
during Minnesota winters.

Another great plan for averting global climate change is E-85, the motor
fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and just 15 percent gasoline. Ethanol is a
high-octane fuel produced by plant sugars, and today, U.S. ethanol
producers make about two billion gallons annually. Tribal governments could
turn tribal fleets to E-85 and become distributors of the fuel. It's a bit
cheaper than gas, and most new cars have flexible fuel options.

Right now, the U.S. imports 60 percent of the petroleum it uses. And corn
harvests are no less stable than current petroleum markets. We could all
argue a long time about this, but Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia possess three
of the largest world oil deposits and our relations with these countries
are strained, to say the least. Ethanol is also a lot better for the
environment: hydrocarbon and benzene emissions are reduced, as well as
carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. could meet the standards set in the
Kyoto Protocol easily by moving to ethanol.

And, as a side note, even the Pentagon acknowledges global climate change
as one of the worst security threats in the future. So, addressing problems
associated with global climate change is a good idea, even from the
Pentagon's perspective.

The short of it is that Native nations can either participate in the last
energy economy where we combust ourselves into oblivion, or we can
participate in the next energy economy where we become leaders in renewable
energy production. We can wait 20 years and wring our hands about global
climate change, or we can take leadership by passing tribal renewable
energy plans and signing on to Kyoto ourselves. Self-determination and
tribal sovereignty also includes energy sovereignty, and is all about our

Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe, from the White Earth reservation, is program
director of Honor the Earth, a national Native environmental justice
program. She served as the Green Party vice presidential candidate in the
1996 and 2000 elections. She can be reached at