Indian Country moves closer to the sun; takes Saga Solar with it


By Lee Egerstrom

Northern Minnesota’s Indian Country is reaching out to the sun for clean energy and is finding innovative ways to get it.

In the most recent development, upstart photovoltaic solar panel manufacturer Saga Solar SBC will move from St. Paul to Cass Lake in the second week of December to become the first indigenous-owned manufacturer of the 21st Century technology products on tribal land. Saga Solar was founded in St. Paul about a year ago by R. Marie Zola, a Minnesota solar energy leader of Cherokee descent.

Aki Development LLC, a newly formed company based at Cass Lake, acquired a 60 percent controlling interest in Saga Solar in September. It is one of three ventures for Aki, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe chartered corporation that is not tribally owned. One of the other startup businesses it is launching will construct housing. The third business is a new “green” industry venture, like Saga Solar, and will have a factory where employees assemble and test LED street lights.

Mike Myers, founder and chief executive officer at Aki Development, said the green companies could have as many as 24 employees within the next year. The LED light factory – LED is short for “light emitting diodes” lights – will have eight employees at the start of the coming year. Twenty jobs in the two businesses will be in manufacturing with pay starting at $12.80 per hour. Four additional jobs in marketing will be created along the way.

Aki Development recently received a $29,000 job-training grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to train employees for both businesses through the Leech Lake Tribal College at Cass Lake.

These developments further Northern Minnesota Ojibwe commitments to green, or environmentally effective and sustain-able enterprises. In August, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa opened a 1-megawatt solar farm projected to light 150 homes and 10 percent of the band’s electric power needs for its Black Bear Casino. While doing so, it is also projected to cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-generated plants by 2.6 mil-lion pounds annually.

Earlier this past year, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa entered agreements with construction and engineering companies for an even larger solar farming project from rooftops of its largest buildings. Design plans call for 15-megawatts, or equal to 15 million watts, harvested by solar panels that should light the tribe’s three casinos, government buildings and the tribal college. The first phase to power tribal buildings is anticipated to save the tribe $2 million a year in energy costs.

Red Lake Band Chairman Darrell G. Seki Sr. said the goal over the next five years is to generate enough solar power on tribal land to meet the electricity needs for every home on the Red Lake.

Solar and wind generation both reduce harmful carbon emissions that come from fossil fuel burning power plants. LED lighting, meanwhile, is more energy efficient than compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and the incandescent light bulbs in homes and offices.

The environmental goals are a combination of economic and the social-cultural objectives widely shared in Indian Country. But they are only part of the story evolving in Northern Minnesota. Aki Development is reaching into the economic development tool box and grabbing newer, less understood methods for starting business and promoting sustainable developments.

Myers (Seneca) started Aki Development to foster development along dual paths. Its businesses should have community development output of benefit to the entire community, he said. And, it should have “human development” objectives as well, creating good, sustainable jobs for local people over time.

Having a tribally chartered corporation rather than a tribally owned holding and management company is rare, if not unique. Myers has studied development tools and business models used by tribes and First Nation communities throughout the U.S. and Canada and has served as a business and economic development consultant and educator.

His plans for the new businesses at Cass Lake, however, are almost certain to create a new business model for tribes. He wants employees who are trained to operate the solar and LED businesses to eventually acquire 80 percent of Aki Development’s holdings. This, he said, would most likely make the Cass Lake factories the first employee-owned manufacturing enterprises on reservations.

Zola, meanwhile, shares Myers’ multiple bottom line objectives for the businesses. She founded Saga Solar in late 2015 as a public benefit corporation, or “B-corp.”, although it was incorporated under Minnesota’s 2015 law as s Specific Benefit Corp. There are now 30 states that have such laws to allow companies to declare social and environmental business goals in tandem with generating profits for investors.

These laws that allow for “double bottom lines” and “triple bottom lines” are an out-growth of socially responsible investing (SRI) practices that have emerged in the past three decades. They can be traced to religious and socially conscience investment groups opposed to apartheid policies around the globe and inspired by civil rights and social justice movements. Somewhat ironically, the B-corps closely resemble the multiple mission objectives of tribally-owned enterprises (TOEs) that use native sovereignty rights to create “crown corporations” for the public benefit dating back to Colonial times.

Zola, who previously worked as chief operations officer for Simple Ray Solar LLC in St. Paul and in executive positions with other companies, used the Iroquois admonition when stating the public benefits while founding Saga Solar, “Sustainable practices today that insure a thriving, dynamic and secure future for the Seventh Generation.” She will continue with Saga Solar as chief operating officer and will also maintain an office in St. Paul.

Aki Development, the LED factory and Saga Solar are already gathering attention for what they are doing and for how they are doing it. They were saluted by President Obama among up and coming new manufacturers in October for National Manufacturing Day. “This collaboration with the local tribal college will train the next generation of solar manufacturers, encourage indigenous engineering and research, and lead to economic and environmental sustainability in the community,” the White House statement said.

When the DEED job training grant was announced, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said partnerships “between state government and innovative companies like Aki show how renewable energy can drive innovation and economic opportunity in every corner of Minnesota.”

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has already named Saga Solar among a handful of companies the state is promoting as “Made in Minnesota” manufacturers of clean energy technology.

Myers  expects the creative uses of business development tools and financing will attract academic researchers and tribal planners to monitor progress at Leech Lake.

For more information about public benefit corporations, see the website: