The unique role some Tribal nations are taking in the EV transition


The unique role some Tribal nations are taking in the EV transition

Standing Rock. It is here where members of the Sioux Nation began what was to rapidly grow into a historic demonstration against the Dakota Access (oil) Pipeline—challenging the notion that the fossil fuel industry could have its way on and near Tribal lands. 

Bob Blake, a Red Lake Ojibwe Nation member, had a moment of clarity during this call for resistance. That moment of clarity was to build an electric pipeline linking Tribal nations with charging stations and EVs across the Midwest. In Bob’s words, this would bring “good medicine” to these communities and, in turn, the Nation and the World, or “Turtle Island,” as it is often referred to by Indigenous people in North America. Thus, the Upper Midwest Inter-Tribal EV Charging Community Network (UMITEVCCN) was born.

With an initial focus on 26 Tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, the Upper Midwest Inter-Tribal EV Charging Community Network has quickly doubled the number of Native lands and states covered, having a long-term goal of connecting as many of the 574 sovereign Tribal nations in this country as possible. Along with other partners in the Midwest, Bob has undertaken this challenge through the Native-led nonprofit organization he formed called Native Sun. Noting that today’s interstate highway system overlays trading routes of Tribal lands from years ago, Bob’s vision for the UMITEVCCN represents a historical precedent for the overall effort of many organizations—including Plug In America—to connect all of America with electric vehicles. 

The significance of the UMITEVCCN can’t be overstated, as it represents a new strategy to bring electric transportation and infrastructure to what are often underserved communities and rural areas. This is critical if we truly want to achieve a zero-emission transportation system—we can’t have 100% emission-free transport if 100% of the public isn’t participating. That said, bringing EV charging and vehicles to these areas of the country isn’t only about reaching targets and doing the right thing. These communities can demonstrate innovations and a passion to make change happen faster than mainstream efforts to advance EVs alone. 

Just this year in Minnesota, Native Sun’s subsidiary Electric Nation announced the acquisition of 10 Ford Lightning pickup trucks and an electric Ford Mustang–part of the overall $13.4 million in funding for the UMITEVCCN. To start, half of these vehicles will be used in Tribal fleets for the Red Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Reflecting the needs and interests of rural areas, the electric pickups have particularly generated excitement. 

The benefits that Tribal communities bring to the clean transportation movement are not limited to access to EVs and EV charging infrastructure alone. Bob likes to point out that if you are an EV company that’s considering setting up a manufacturing facility on Tribal lands, you don’t have to factor in healthcare for Tribal members who may already receive healthcare as a right, and access to business development loans in sovereign Indigenous territories can be a less bureaucratic process than going through a state’s system. 

Tribal innovation is also coming from the electrical grid. The roadblocks to affordable and effective charging infrastructure that are sometimes posed by traditional utility models have the potential to be overcome through a new type of entity called a Tribal Energy Development Organization, or TEDO.  Through Bob’s efforts, the Red Lake Nation was designated as the first TEDO by the US Department of the Interior. With the designation, Tribes have a greater say in the way electricity is delivered and managed. Tribal nations can, therefore, foster favorable environments for both EVSE manufacturers and consumers through measures like better time-of-use rates, more consistent and reasonable demand charges from service area to service area, and greater use of renewable sources of energy—all aspects that are needed to make EV travel in rural areas affordable and accessible. 

You can see the fire in Bob’s eyes when he describes how clean transportation and clean energy activity on Tribal lands is generating excitement in Indigenous communities across the country. Kids are coming up to him and saying that they want to start their own renewable energy companies, and it’s dawning on many that while casinos are an important revenue source for many Tribal nations, the resource potential of EVs and renewable energy could be much more impactful—trillions vs. billions, as Mr. Blake likes to say. Further, Bob is passionate about doing things “the right way” from his perspective of Indigenous communities having an innate commitment to a more sustainable use of resources. This includes the incorporation of renewable energy and the recycling of batteries for sources of back-up power in future plans for the UMITEVVCCN.

Bob would be the first to say that this excitement is not a result of his efforts with the UMITEVCCN and his renewable energy projects alone. Numerous examples of pushing the EV envelope are happening with Tribal nations. As an example, Northern Arapaho member Patrick Lawson has been leading an effort to install EV chargers at the Wind River Reservation and other areas of Wyoming with his Wild West EV company. This has been particularly important given Wyoming’s overall hesitance toward EV charging infrastructure deployment. Patrick is also the executive manager for Wind River Internet and has found that their small fleet of electric pickups has a distinct advantage during the extreme cold of a Wyoming winter—unlike their diesel counterparts, they have been able to operate onsite and provide power for tools when other trucks have not been able to handle the harsher weather conditions (no block-heater needed!).

Hans Klose of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and a Plug In America board member was recently named president of the new Native American chapter of Drive Electric Arizona, the first Native American chapter in the country. The chapter serves the three Indigenous communities of Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and the Gila River Indian Community. Hans’s ability to help Plug In America view EVs through the lens of defending natural resources and understanding diverse cultural and economic interests helps strengthen our efforts nationwide.

Plug In America looks forward to supporting the Upper Midwest Inter-Tribal EV Charging Community Network and other Tribal efforts as they harness the power of a growing collective of sovereign nations that want to help move clean transportation and energy in a better direction. We encourage our existing and prospective members to get involved with Native Sun and Plug In America by donating to either of these passionate organizations, showing up at each other’s events, and supporting EV legislation and initiatives in states across the country. Together, we can all play a part in Bob’s vision of Turtle Island where our efforts to clean our air and provide access to more sustainable forms of travel are truly good medicine. 

You can find out more about Native Sun at 

Written by Peter Chipman

Pete Chipman served as the senior policy director for Plug In America before becoming the senior policy advisor to the board. Mr. Chipman has nearly two decades of experience and leadership in the federal government at the United States Department of Transportation and in the Obama White House. At USDOT, Pete served under the research arm of the secretary of transportation, as well as an earlier career at the Federal Transit Administration. At the White House, he worked on clean transportation initiatives for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of the Vice President.

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