“We Native people have always been resilient and adaptive people: assimilation, genocide, and reorganizing have not 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 March 2019 Talk Climate Institute session in Duluth, Minnesota, hosted by Climate Generation.

We need to be at peace with this planet and not at war with it, Blake said. “Living in harmony and being at one with the environment is what has allowed Indigenous people to persevere. We must put our Mother first and treat her with respect once again if we want to continue to exist. I believe this with all my heart.”

Blake’s lived experiences, his passion, his personality, and his vision for a better future were infectious, and so too are his contagious energy and his humor. His life’s story starts from a place of hope and creative solutions, even as he unfailingly acknowledges the critical challenges for the health and survival of his community in the Red Lake Reservation and for the people and for the environmental health of the world writ-large.

That reservation (Ojibwe: Miskwaagamiiwi-zaaga’igan) in northwestern Minnesota covers 1,259 square miles in parts of nine counties. The reservation had a population of 1,691 in 2019, and the Red Lake Tribe as a whole about 5,200 in 2000. The reservation landscape, slightly rolling and heavily wooded, has many lakes, swamps, peat bogs, and prairies. Red lake is unique as the only “closed reservation” in Minnesota, meaning all land is held in common by the tribe, and there is no private property.

There are four communities within the reservation – Little Rock, Ponemah, Redby, and Red Lake – and collectively they share a modern hospital, community centers, a care facility for the elderly, a Head Start program, and a swimming pool and other recreational and group facilities. A new Boys and Girls club and pow-wow grounds are in the works, and there is also an elementary, middle, and high school operated by the state of Minnesota, a community college, and several tribal businesses including a workforce center.

A school business plan for a mythical 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 energy 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 2008 downturn in the economy, a growing housing crisis, and fears of recession growing, Blake started learning all he could about renewable energy. His intrigue with the subject growing, and his entrepreneurial adrenalin peaking, he decided to refocus his life on the subject. 

Upon the unexpected passing of his brother, Blake became a surrogate father to his nephews and nieces. He explained to the Talk Climate attendees that an overwhelming protective feeling came over him, fueling a drive to do something special and good for them, create a better world for them. The founding of Solar Bear and working in the field of solar energy became his way of doing something for his brother’s children and for their future.

One solution to two concerns: Poverty and clean energy

It’s illustrative of an instinct Blake has for combining two problems and creating a solution – addressing poverty on native reservations, by teaching their people how to install and work on solar power.

Robert Blake at work installing solar panel. (Photo: Courtesy of Solar Bear)

“With Solar Bear, we are currently building a 17-megawatt project on the Red Lake Indian Reservation,” he now explains. “We put individuals who are there in the community, we train them through a ‘boot camp’ on solar energy, and we get them installing solar right there on the reservation.” (We can build solar power systems but also build people and communities.)

“If we can do this here in Red Lake, we can bring this out to other tribal nations, and other communities. And the hope is that we can create a workforce that is centered around renewable energy, education, and the opportunities that we hope will spring from having that energy source in the community. We’ll see a ripple effect of entrepreneurial and business opportunities from this hopefully tribal utility.”

Blake clearly thinks big, really big. “The hope is that renewable energy can solve a human health crisis. We know that on tribal nations and reservations there is a high poverty rate, alcohol and drug addiction, missing, murdered and indigenous women. And what I’m hoping is that we can create an energy source that will  give community members a purpose which will then drive them in a direction that is a more sustainable and healthy way of  life.”  The gaming industry is a billion dollar industry. The energy industry is a trillion dollar industry. More education and technical skills are going to be needed to run an energy company than a casino. More education into a community means better decision making by community members. It’s a ripple effect.

All in one direction, hoping disparities fall by wayside

“The idea,” he elaborates, “is to take everybody and move them in one direction, and the hope then is that the disparities will then fall to the wayside.”

At the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ medium-security Willow River correctional facility for men, Blake helps organize and introduce the MREA to teach inmates on how to install solar energy and become NABCEP certified as part of a workforce development program. He turns to climate change initiatives and opportunities to help battle mass incarceration. The idea is to fight mass incarceration with climate change and fight climate change with mass incarceration. The world is giving us this huge problem and it’s saying that we can solve all our little problems with this big problem.

In 2020, Blake worked with others to develop Native Sun Community Power, a native-led nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency, renewable energy and an equitable energy transition through education, workforce training, and demonstration projects.

Central to the mission of Native Sun is reaching and educating the children and youth of the community. The education initiative furthers Native Sun’s vision to help Indigenous nations educate young people about climate change, the environment, and clean energy, and teach them civic skills and a capacity among Native people to provide leadership on an equitable and just energy transition, leading to their energy sovereignty.

Through the Native Sun Education Initiative, plans are under way to capture Blake’s story of Solar Cub and of 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 succeed if we all work together.’

While the fine details of its future remains to be determined, Blake’s belief in and commitment to Solar Bear is 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 me into, but trust me this thing is real,” he says. “It takes a lot of passion, it takes a lot of love, it takes a lot of patience. You are putting your heart, your soul, your mind, everything you have into this entity, you really do breathe life into it. When entrepreneurs say this is their life, it is the truth.”

Message to social entrepreneurs: Keep going, it doesn’t get easier, but rewards await

“As social entrepreneurs, you need to keep on going – it doesn’t get easier, but there is an excitement to putting people to work, giving them jobs, employing them, seeing their faces, knowing that they’re feeding their families, knowing what they are doing is cutting carbon emissions.”

The moral of Blake’s story? He sees it as clear as can be: “Knowing what you are doing is going to be beneficial to the world, that a green future is possible, we can all succeed if we all work together.”

And yet to the tune of boundless optimism and hope, there also comes a sense of reality about the challenges ahead.

“We’re running out of time; this can’t wait until tomorrow,” Blake says. “Knowing that we are a part of that solution is what really drives me. Climate change is real, this isn’t something we’re making up. The last 10 years, every year is getting hotter, and each year we’re seeing something new, SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome], MERES [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome], Ebola, now Covid 19.

“In the future with a warming planet we’re bound to see more of these pandemics, and so tribes need to start diversifying into renewables creating their own tribal utilities. We’re doing this incredible experiment where we’re digging up fossil fuels, and we’re putting them in the air – we don’t know what the end result will be.

“What I would ask people to do is to think about that and vote, vote for people with the right policies, because this is where we’re going to make the change: having the right people in those elected positions making the right decisions for our future – whose policies align with helping and saving the environment. Our future has to be renewable and green if we are going to have a future, because this current trajectory we are on is not healthy for the human existence – we’re committing eco-suicide.”

Julie Marckel is an informal climate science educator and activist in the Twin Cities.