âWe Indigenous people have always been resilient and adaptive people: assimilation, genocide and reorganization haven’t stopped us. The climate crisis is different: I fear it threatens our existence like nothing else we have ever seen. “
The speaker was Robert Blake, a tribal citizen of the Red Lake Nation, addressing a Talk Climate Institute session in March 2019 in Duluth, Minnesota, hosted by Climate Generation.
We must be at peace with this planet and not at war with it, said Blake. âLiving in harmony and being at one with the environment is what enabled indigenous peoples to persevere. We must prioritize our Mother and treat her again with respect if we are to continue to exist. I believe it with all my heart. “
Blake’s experiences, passion, personality and vision for a better future were infectious, as were his infectious energy and humor. His life story begins from a place of hope and creative solutions, although he unwaveringly recognizes the critical challenges to the health and survival of his community on the Red Lake Reservation and for the people. and for the environmental health of the world at large.
This reserve (in Ojibwe: Miskwaagamiiwi-zaaga’igan) in northwestern Minnesota covers 1,259 square miles in parts of nine counties. The reserve had 1,691 inhabitants in 2019 and the Red Lake tribe as a whole, approximately 5,200 inhabitants in 2000. The landscape of the reserve, slightly hilly and heavily forested, includes many lakes, swamps, bogs and meadows. Red Lake is unique as the only “closed reserve” in Minnesota, which means that all land is held in common by the tribe and there is no private property.
There are four communities on the reserve – Little Rock, Ponemah, Redby, and Red Lake – and collectively they share a modern hospital, community centers, a senior care facility, a Head Start program, a swimming pool and ‘other recreational activities and group facilities. A new boys and girls club and powwow fields are underway, and there is also a state-run elementary, middle and high school, community college, and several tribal businesses, including a hand center. -work.
A school business plan for a legendary Solar Bear initiative
Blake in 2007 was working as a customer service representative at Ameriprise Financial in 2007-08 when he first heard about solar power as the green energy of the future. While attending classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, he wrote a business plan for a hypothetical company he called Solar Bear – a company focused on environmental and social justice, sustainability, diversity and job creation.
With the economic downturn of 2008, a growing housing crisis and growing fears of a recession, Blake began to learn all he could about renewable energy. His intrigue with the growing subject, and his culminating entrepreneurial adrenaline, he decides to refocus his life on the subject.
After the unexpected death of his brother, Blake became a surrogate father to his nephews and nieces. He told Talk Climate attendees that an overwhelming sense of protection washed over him, fueling a desire to do something special and good for them, to create a better world for them. Founding Solar Bear and his work in solar energy became his way of doing something for his brother’s children and their future.
A solution to two concerns: Poverty and clean energy
This illustrates Blake’s instinct to combine two problems and create a solution – tackling poverty on native reservations, by teaching their inhabitants how to install and work on solar power.
âWith Solar Bear, we are currently building a 17 megawatt project on the Red Lake Indian Reserve,â he explains now. âWe put people out there in the community, we train them in a solar ‘boot camp’, and we have them put solar power right on the reserve. (We can build solar energy systems, but we can also build people and communities.)
âIf we can do it here in Red Lake, we can make it known to other tribal nations and other communities. And the hope is that we can create a workforce focused on renewable energy, education and the opportunities that we hope will arise from the presence of this energy source in the community. We will see a ripple effect of entrepreneurial and business opportunities of this tribal utility, hopefully.
Blake clearly sees big, really big. âThe hope is that renewable energies can solve a human health crisis. We know that in tribal nations and reserves there is a high rate of poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction, missing, murdered and indigenous women. And what I’m hoping for is that we can create a source of energy that will give community members a purpose that will then lead them in a direction that is a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle. The gaming industry is a billion dollar industry. The energy industry is a trillion dollar industry. It will take more education and technical skills to run an energy business than a casino. More education in a community means better decision making by community members. It is a ripple effect.
All in one direction, hoping the disparities fade away
âThe idea,â he explains, âis to take everyone and move them in one direction, and the hope is that the disparities then disappear.â
At the Willow River Men’s Medium Security Correctional Facility in the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Blake helps organize and present the MREA to teach inmates how to install solar power and achieve NABCEP certification through a program. workforce development. He looks to climate change initiatives and opportunities to help tackle mass incarceration. The idea is to fight against mass incarceration with climate change and to fight against climate change with mass incarceration. The world is giving us this huge problem and they say we can solve all of our little problems with this big problem.
In 2020, Blake worked with others to develop Native Sun Community Power, an indigenous-led nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency, renewable energy and a just energy transition through education, manpower training and demonstration projects.
At the heart of Native Sun’s mission is to reach and educate children and youth in the community. The education initiative advances Native Sun’s vision to help Indigenous Nations educate youth about climate change, the environment and clean energy, and teach them civic skills and capacity among Indigenous people to show leadership on a fair and just energy transition, leading to their energy sovereignty.
Thanks to the Native Sun Education Initiative, plans are underway to capture Blake’s story from Solar Cub and the mythical Solar Bear Family. They call for involving a hypothetical family of polar bears traveling from the Arctic to talk about the impacts of climate change and to teach about the power and importance of solar energy.
‘… a green future is possible, we can all be successful if we all work together.
While the details of his future are yet to be determined, Blake’s faith and commitment to Solar Bear are certain. “I’m not always sure what Solar Bear is going to do, what he’s going to bring to my attention next, what he’s going to talk to me about, but trust me, this thing is real,” he said. âIt takes a lot of passion, it takes a lot of love, it takes a lot of patience. You put your heart, your soul, your mind, whatever you have into this entity, you really breathe life into it. When entrepreneurs say it’s their life, it’s the truth.
Message to social entrepreneurs: keep going, it doesn’t get any easier, but the rewards are waiting for you
âAs social entrepreneurs you have to keep going – it doesn’t get any easier, but there is an enthusiasm in putting people to work, giving them jobs, employing them, seeing their faces, knowing that they feed their family, knowing what they are doing is reducing carbon emissions.
The moral of Blake’s story? He sees it as clearly as he can: “Knowing what you’re doing is going to be good for the world, that a green future is possible, we can all be successful if we all work together.”
And yet, to the rhythm of boundless optimism and hope, there is also a sense of reality regarding the challenges ahead.
âWe’re running out of time; it can’t wait until tomorrow,â says Blake. âKnowing that we’re part of this solution is what really motivates me. Climate change is real, it’s not something that we invent. Over the past 10 years every year gets hotter, and every year we see something new, SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome], MOTHERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome], Ebola, now Covid 19.
âIn the future, with a warming planet, we will definitely see more of these pandemics, so tribes need to start diversifying into renewables by creating their own tribal utilities. We have this amazing experience where we dig up fossil fuels, and we put them in the air – we don’t know what the end result will be.
“What I would ask people to do is think about that and vote, vote for the people with the right policies, because that’s where we’re going to make the change: have the right people in these. elected positions making the right decisions for our future – whose policies align with helping and preserving the environment. Our future must be renewable and green if we are to have a future, because this current trajectory on which we are heading find it is not healthy for human existence – we are committing eco-suicide.
Julie Marckel is an informal climate science educator and activist in the Twin Cities.