Early Tuesday morning the Bush Foundation announced five organizations who were selected as winners of the seventh annual Bush Prize for Community Innovation, including three which work with and in Indian Country.

The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and Wokini Initiative of South Dakota State University were selected out of 81 applicants. Each organization will receive “an unrestricted grant equal to 25 percent of the organization's prior fiscal year budget, up to $500,000,” according to the press release.

The Bush Foundation was founded in 1953 by Archibald and Edyth Bush and invests in individuals and organizations across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota; including the 23 tribes in those states.

Mandy Ellerton, community innovation director for the Bush Foundation said this year’s awardees have all shown great courage in their respective fields.

"They shake loose solutions to seemingly intractable problems by opening themselves up to surprising partnerships, sharing ownership and bringing together people who don't always agree,” Ellerton said in the press release. “This method of working takes guts, and our region is better because of their courage."

The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance has two main programs, ultimately aiming to make solar energy accessible to everyone. The solar systems program works to reduce energy costs for low-income families and communities, whereas the education and community outreach focuses on solar education and building the solar workforce. 

(left to right: Erica Bjelland, Kyle Tschida, Martha Risedorf, John Vaughn, Brook Shire, Rachel Juritsch; Rural Renewal Energy Alliance. Photo courtesy Passenger Productions)

(left to right: Erica Bjelland, Kyle Tschida, Martha Risedorf, John Vaughn, Brook Shire, Rachel Juritsch; Rural Renewal Energy Alliance. Photo courtesy Passenger Productions)

Founded in 2000, the organization has partnered with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to build a 200-kilowatt solar array in which the money from the solar energy savings go back into the Leech Lake Energy Assistance program. They also did a workforce training at the Leech Lake Tribal College and plan on building a similar community solar project with the White Earth Band of Ojibwe next year.

Program development specialist for Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, Erica Bjelland, said more tribes should consider moving to solar energy because it offers a value proposition and there’s more than one way to look at solar energy.

“I mean, one is the value proposition of reducing pollutants that are in the air. So the environmental side of it, but also the social side of it and the economic side of it where solar energy savings can help save you money on your energy bill,” Bjelland said. “That's kind of our whole thing of this intersection between environmental, social and economic justice.”

Located in the same state, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center is a non-profit that has served Native women in the twin cities area for 35 years. The resource center uses traditional values and teachings in their service programs to help combat the harm that has been caused by colonization.

Patina Park, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (she was also adopted by an Osage family), is president of the organization and said she was shocked upon finding out they were selected for the Bush Prize award.

“It was exciting,” Park said. “I know there was screaming involved.”

Park added that one of the reasons they didn’t believe they’d be selected because their methods aren’t new and exciting but rooted in traditional Indigenous values like wisdom, truth, compassion and generosity.

“This ancient way of responding to the needs is actually the strongest way to do it and it's proven, the millennia of time proved that this works,” Park said. “That's what makes us innovative, that we're not trying to do the hot new thing in non-profit management.”

At South Dakota State University, the Wokini Initiative is a relatively new initiative that is working to build better relationships with Native students on campus as well as with Native communities in the state.

Wokini, which means “new beginning” in Lakota, was announced by university president Harry Dunn during his 2016 inaugural address. During the same speech, he also announced the idea to reallocate South Dakota State University land grant funds to better support Native students and became the first university in the country to make such a move.

(left to right: Barry Dunn, Shana Harming, Erica Moore; Wokini Initiative of South Dakota State University. Photo courtesy Passenger Productions)

(left to right: Barry Dunn, Shana Harming, Erica Moore; Wokini Initiative of South Dakota State University. Photo courtesy Passenger Productions)

The reallocation of these funds have allowed for scholarships to be created for enrolled citizens of South Dakota tribes.

The university is also in the process of building a brand new American Indian student center which is set to open its doors in April 2020. Shana Harming, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, said it’s a campus wide effort supporting Native students from recruitment all the way to graduation.

“Wokini is our collaborative and holistic framework to support American Indian student success and Indigenous nation building,” Harming said. “The other part, Wokini is not just supporting our American Indian students here on campus, but developing better partnerships with our tribal communities here in South Dakota.”

One way the Wokini Initiative has fostered those relationships with Native communities is the president’s Wokini advisory council, consisting of tribal leaders from across the state. Harming said it’s important to receive their input because it’s their family members who are attending the school.

“They know best on how to support their family members and their children and their grandchildren,” Harming said.

What’s clear is all of the organizations are big on collaboration, working to solve the issues facing their communities. Bush Foundation president Jennifer Ford Reedy praised the winners for their creativeness in tackling these issues head on.

"Their problem solving builds strength not only in their local community but also in the entire region,” Ford Reedy said in the press release.

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com