A Nod to Standing Rock Turns Into a New Clean Energy Fellowship

  Photo: Diyana Dimitrova/shutterstock

 Photo: Diyana Dimitrova/shutterstock

While demonstrators made history and headlines back in 2016 for their resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline construction, less attention has been paid to efforts in surrounding tribal communities to build their own renewable energy sources. 

Such efforts were already underway, but even at the height of the Standing Rock demonstrations, there was an undercurrent of planning for what lies ahead—to envision the future of renewable energy production in Native communities.

That spirit hasn’t let up. In fact, when the Standing Rock water protectors were honored as finalists in MIT Media Lab’s highly competitive Disobedience Award, an acceptance speech called on the school to partner with the Sioux people in advancing technology. The result is the inaugural MIT Solve Fellowship with the Oceti Sakowin (Oceti Sakowin is the proper name for people known commonly as the Sioux), which invites people living or working on the reservation to test out new projects related to renewable energy, food or water, and travel to MIT to broker partnerships and funding. 


Even if they didn’t win the big prize, the Standing Rock water protectors were in good company as runners up for the MIT Disobedience Award, which went to the two scientists who used their research to expose dangerous levels of lead in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan. That competition, which had a grand prize of $250,000 supplied by co-founder Reid Hoffman, drew quite a response, with more than 7,800 entries in six weeks. 

As finalists, they did take home $10,000, and Phyllis Young, Joseph White Eyes, Jasilyn Charger and LaDonna Bravebull Allard accepted at the ceremony. Young challenged those at MIT to partner with Sioux tribes, and that resulted in follow-up meetings, a visit to Standing Rock for the first Oceti Sakowin Energy Summit, and ultimately the fellowship. 

While it’s not a financial prize, the fellowship is part of MIT Solve, which describes itself as a “marketplace connecting innovators with resources.” Winners will travel to Cambridge to mix with faculty and students, industry, philanthropy, nonprofits and academia, including as part of Solve’s largest annual event. So it could very likely result in investment or grant dollars. 

The fellowship is far from the only clean energy win for Native American communities in the Midwest. As we reported last year, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe landed the inaugural Henry A. Wallace Award from the Wallace Global Fund, with a $250,000 prize and up to $1 million in investments toward the transition to renewable energy. 

The six tribes of the Sioux Nation of North and South Dakota have also formed an independent, nonprofit, governmental entity called the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority to jointly develop tribal renewable energy resources. The consortium is working toward developing an immense wind farm, and has landed philanthropic support from the Clinton Global Initiative, Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors, the Bush Foundation, and the Northwest Area Foundation.

The announcement of the new fellowship is a good example of a philanthropic initiative making valuable connections that can go beyond a grant. It’s also a reminder that the resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline was part of something much bigger, and hopefully, the ripple effect continues and more funders join in.