Power and corruption = Disaster Capitalism

Screenshot of White Earth Nation's website housing page.

By Winona LaDuke

Government accountability is a challenge. Say that your tribal government signed a secret contract for $4.9 million of your tribal money with a newly created entity you’ve never heard of, for a tribal energy plan. Now, honestly, we need one. Tribal members are paying $800 a month in electric bills they can’t afford. And then of course, there’s the craziness of the fossil fuel industry – from Enbridge to rising propane costs, and power outages. That will get worse.

In 2012, the White Earth Ojibwe tribe put up 30 units of “solar ready” tax credit houses in the villages of White Earth, Rice Lake and Naytahwaush. Those houses never got their solar electric panels on them. Gordon Construction, which had the contracts, never completed the project. So hundreds of thousands of dollars later (money paid by tribal members and tribal government) these houses stand empty and no one is held accountable.

Working together we can make a difference. Ten years ago, our tribe did an energy plan. And with the White Earth Land Recovery Project, our tribe put up the White Earth wind turbine. The reservation has Class Four wind along Highway 59. Last year, with the help of the RREAL (Rural Renewable Energy Alliance), the tribe installed four solar projects. Meanwhile, 8th Fire Solar began manufacturing solar thermal panels to reduce heating bills by 20%, selling these panels nationally, and installing them on tribal houses. Tribal members produce those panels, straight outta Ponsford. In the fall of 2021, the White Earth tribe asked 8th Fire Solar to come up with a proposal to address the 30 solar ready houses, and keep a promise to the residents.

Disaster Capitalism
Enter Disaster Capitalism. That’s when corporations, and corrupt decision makers start allocating disaster funds (ie: Pandemic money) to special projects which benefit the top one percent, not the folks in the housing project. Under the leadership of Secretary Alan Roy, Total Spectrum, a newly created entity received a $4.9 million contract to create an energy plan for White Earth.

Roy wanted tribal members involved, so he invited a group of tribal members to become a special community Green Team. None had real experience with renewable energy. In turn, Roy was able to pay those tribal members well, and it turns out, some of those tribal members helped Alan Roy with a petition to remove Chairman Mike Fairbanks from office. Chairman Fairbanks reported this to the Minnesota Attorney General, as possible “racketeering.” Classic corruption of power.

According to the Total Spectrum Report, “What has $4.9 million bought for the Tribe? The contract price was used to bring in access to corporations, utilities, and others; contracts with accountants, lawyers, finance specialists and experts in renewable energy opportunities; and controlled expenses related to travel, meetings, and reports…”

Usually a tribal energy plan would cost $l00,000, and it would have spread sheets, time tables, business plans and legal documents. This has none. That’s to say, in 2019, the Department of Energy allocated $l million between eleven tribes for feasibility studies like this. Most of those tribes received less than $ l00,000. In fact, Leech Lake received funding in 2019 for the feasibility and planning for a tribal electric utility. Maybe we could just cut and paste from their plan?

The report sounds sort of crazy, frankly. Here’s some questions one might ask: What corporate structure would supply solar power to Bagley, an off reservation city with a municipal utility? How would White Earth participate in a 230 MW solar project and who would be the partners? And are we powering a Bitcoin mining project and installing a hydro electric dam near Roy Lake – proposing a 40 acre reservoir in the Buckboards? Surprise.

There’s no mention of the Class 4 wind in the western portion of the reservation. Nor was there any mention of the small tribal business building solar thermal panels in Ponsford, except to say that the completed proposal for the 30 solar ready homes, solicited by the tribe, now ready for action, should be shelved and put up for a competitive bid. And we should get into hydro power. Dams?

“…the Total Spectrum team has reviewed dozens of existing hydroelectric plants and existing dam sites for potential acquisition and/or development. Many of these hydroelectric plants could be purchased at a fair market price.”

Wait, so the team from White Earth reviewed dozens of hydro electric plants? That sounds rather surprising.

It turns out that Spectrum hired a consultant, Chuck Alsberg, co-owner of North American Hydro Holdings, Inc., which owned and operated 44 hydroelectric projects throughout a five-state region in the Midwestern United States. The company is listed as having one employee. North American Hydro Holdings would profit from Native Nations: “Indigenous tribes are given special consideration and preference for development on federal facilities. This pertains to construction of hydroelectric facilities on Army Corps of Engineer dam sites. This preference could significantly reduce the approval time for tribal development compared to non-tribal development on those sites….”

That’s at the core of this project, a corporate interest using Indians to gain access. It’s an old story. Hydros probably a great idea, but I’d like a full disclosure as to how our $4.9 million was spent. We could have powered the village of White Earth with the Total Spectrum check. How about we work together to make a good future for our people, and not let corruption waste our power?