Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative Media contact: Kathleen Van Gorden,

MacArthur media contact: Kristen Mack,


Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative Awarded MacArthur Funds to Support Native Transition to Clean Energy

Grant will support Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative’s work to foster regenerative economic development in Native American communities.

Lame Deer, Montana (July 30, 2021) — Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative, a Native-led nonprofit organization that empowers American Indian tribes to replace extractive energy systems with clean, regenerative energy has received a $775,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for its work supporting Native American tribes as they pursue energy sovereignty and a return to self-determination.

This significant grant is part of roughly $80 million in awards the MacArthur Foundation announced in support of the Foundation’s Equitable Recovery initiative centered on advancing racial and ethnic justice. The initiative is funded by MacArthur’s social bonds, issued in response to the crises of the pandemic and racial inequity.

“The MacArthur Foundation is making significant investments to combat climate change, placing a new emphasis on its impacts on BIPOC communities,” said Chéri Smith, founder of Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative. “We are honored that the Foundation has recognized the importance and urgency of our mission to empower Native American tribes to develop and deploy renewable energy to restore their self-reliance. Like the MacArthur Foundation, we are committed to supporting the reinvention of systems that foster just, equitable, and resilient Native communities. Replacing extractive energy systems with clean, regenerative energy is a transformational solution to a dire problem,” Smith said.

Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative has received this grant as part of the Foundation’s “Self-determination of Indigenous Peoples” initiative, which supports uplifting Indigenous communities to enable autonomous pursuit of a recovery guided by their priorities, cultures, and practices. 

“As we emerge from this moment of crisis, we have an opportunity to improve the critical systems that people and places need to thrive. Our systems and structures must be rebuilt,” said MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey. “We are committed to ensuring that our response to the pandemic is focused on supporting the reimagining of systems that create a more just, equitable, and resilient world.” 

Disproportionately high electric rates and discriminatory utility practices exacerbate the deep poverty and many hardships commonly experienced on American Indian reservations. Globally, solar energy has the potential for significant positive effects on economic, social, and ecological systems. In American Indian communities — where a smaller electric bill means more money for food, medicine, and other essentials — solar makes an exponentially greater impact, and is aligned with Native belief systems.

“For eons, my people were self-reliant. The earth provided for all of our needs. The devastating effects of colonization, westward expansion, manifest destiny, and the deliberate extermination of the buffalo by colonists stripped us of our ability to provide for ourselves, causing us to be reliant on outsiders for survival,” said Otto Braided Hair, Northern Cheyenne Tribal Member and co-founder and executive director of Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative. “This funding supports critical efforts to ensure that the regenerative results of solar energy deployment will ignite a systems-level change in the economic and social conditions in our Native communities, leading to a restoration of our self-reliance, and of hope. Coming out of a pandemic, this is more important than ever,” said Braided Hair.

Leveraging U.S. Department of Energy funding, philanthropy, and impact investment, Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative’s scope of work in the next 12 months includes the development of residential-, commercial- and utility-scale projects totaling more than three megawatts on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and more on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. As more funding is developed, the initiative will expand to additional tribes.

Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative is a secular non-profit organization with a diverse team led by Native American changemakers Otto Braided Hair and Cody Two Bears, along with some of the nation’s foremost experts in solar technology, education, energy policy, and finance, hailing from industry leaders such as Tesla, SolarCity, and SunRun. Braided Hair, with his daughter, Vanessa, championed the grassroots effort that led to behemoth Arch Coal’s withdrawal of a proposed mine that threatened their homelands and drinking water, and stopped the development of the associated railroad, which would have destroyed thousands of acres of Native land, stretching all the way to the coast of Washington and through the homelands of the Lummi Tribe.

In the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests that gripped Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative co-founder Cody Two Bears’ community on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, he merged his cultural knowledge and desire for climate justice to create the organization Indigenized Energy, which built and manages a 300-kilowatt solar farm — the largest array in North Dakota — in Cannonball, a community with one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

While many tribes such as the Northern Cheyenne and Standing Rock Sioux have stood bravely in the destructive path of fossil fuel development, few possess the capabilities to pursue solar energy development in a way that maximizes its benefits for their communities. “With this funding, Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative will have the ability to serve the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and begin to engage with more tribes who seek to transition away from destructive fossil-fueled energy,” said Two Bears. “Tribes are truly lining up to join us in this first-of-its-kind effort, which establishes the organizational readiness and skilled workforce they need to pursue solar energy development, form tribal-led cooperative utilities, and ultimately achieve energy independence.” 

This is the first grant Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative has received from the MacArthur Foundation. Almost two-thirds of the Equitable Recovery awards represent new grantee relationships, and most of the organizations are Indigenous, Black, and People of Color-led and/or -serving. 

Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative

Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative, a fiscally sponsored project of Earth Island Institute, 501(c)3, is a first-of-its-kind effort. Led by Native change agents and staffed by a team of solar industry veterans and energy finance experts, Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative aims to eliminate energy poverty, diminish climate change, and create thriving American Indian communities with the clean and regenerative power of solar. Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative was founded in 2017 by a group of Native Americans and solar experts, including Otto Braided Hair, Northern Cheyenne Tribal Member; Cody Two Bears, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Member; and Chéri Smith (formerly Chéri Faso Olf), a descendant of the Mi’Kmaq Tribe. Chéri has held senior positions in the solar industry for two decades, including head of Workforce Development for SolarCity and Tesla, and director of Education & Workforce Initiatives for the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). Covenant Tribal Solar Initiative’s innovative, Indigenous-led solar infrastructure, investment, workforce, and economic development programs are highly responsive to the social, economic, and environmental conditions of Indigenous American communities. 

MacArthur Foundation Equitable Recovery Initiative 

In the fall of 2020, MacArthur established a $125 million Equitable Recovery Initiative. The Foundation deployed $40 million of bond proceeds through 24 grants. Initial grants focused on strengthening voter mobilization and election protection, addressing anti-Black racism, and supporting Native Americans impacted by COVID-19. Grants also supported Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous arts organizations in Chicago, technology and justice, and a fund for social entrepreneurs advancing racial equity.


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