In 2012, one in four American Indians and Alaskan Natives lived in poverty, according to Pew Research Center. Joblessness is a big problem on reservations, where the median income is just over $35,000, compared to more than $50,000 nationwide.
Henry Red Cloud was a steel worker in the late 1990s, traveling around the country. “But my heart was always back home,” he says. When he returned to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he was struck anew by his community’s hardships. He volunteered on home-building projects, then moved on to DIY solar installations and wind turbines. Red Cloud soon realized that he could manufacture his creations–and that he could train and hire locals to help.
In 2004, Red Cloud launched Lakota Solar, a Pine Ridge–based company that builds and installs solar thermal systems, with a focus on bringing solar power to reservations. In 2008, he opened up the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, funded by a combination of private donations and public fundraising, which trains Native Americans from tribes countrywide in solar installation and support.
More than 450 students have gone through his training program, many of whom now have jobs in the renewable energy sector. A few of Red Cloud’s students have even started their own businesses, continuing the cycle begun by Lakota Solar (which currently employees nine full-time local workers and has manufactured more than 4,000 solar units) of bringing new jobs to reservations across the country.
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
I share and I talk and listen to the elders of our community or for that matter any elder or older person–non-native, native–and listen to them and get direction, understanding, guidance there.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I give thanks to the creator. That’s the very first thing I do, and I put a little water on my palm and put it on my head. My grandmother said it needed to be done because water is the first medicine. Within that time, it’s quiet time. I give thanks for the day, for my life, and just kind of meditate there. I sing one of my ceremonial songs, and it’s really nice. It’s my favorite time of the whole day.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
That I’m native and I’m doing this. That’s what really surprises people. They think I’m native, this average person, so if Henry can do it, I can do it. I’m really glad for the opportunity to share and show them. Since I opened the doors to Lakota Solar, up until two years ago, I was the only Native American renewable energy business/manufacturer. I could have made several million dollars, but that’s not what it was about. It was about sharing and helping other native communities. I’m a karma believer. Everything I put out there comes back to me. This past August, I received a call from The White House. The White House saw what I was doing and declared me one of the White House Champions of Change. So I went to D.C. and had lunch with the president. That was my payback. That was my million bucks.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
I think about my ancestors, my grandfather. I think about him and what we wanted in our way of life and the generations since then, and then think about my cousin Billy Mills. Billy Mills, back in 1964, in Tokyo, Japan, he set a world record at the Olympics in the 10,000 meter run. Where I live is about 8 miles from his homestead. He’s also Oglala Lakota. He gives me a lot of inspiration, thinking about him.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
My grandchildren inspire me. They’re not in the field of renewable energy, but they’re the ones that are going to take this on to the next level. My grandchildren are near and dear to me. I have 5 boys and 5 girls.