‘They Saw Us as a Threat When All We Wanted Was Fair Treatment’

‘They Saw Us as a Threat When All We Wanted Was Fair Treatment’

‘They Saw Us as a Threat When All We Wanted Was Fair Treatment’

Almost 80 percent of the Cherry-Todd Electric Cooperative’s members are Native Americans—why were there so few on the board?


Our climate is changing, and our approaches to politics and activism have to change with it. That’s why The Nation, in partnership with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, has launched “Taking Heat,” a series of dispatches from the front lines of the climate-justice movement, by journalist Audrea Lim.

In “Taking Heat,” Lim explores the ways in which the communities that stand to lose the most from climate change are also becoming leaders in the climate resistance. From the farms of Puerto Rico to the tar sands of Canada, from the streets of Los Angeles to Kentucky’s coal country, communities are coming together to fight for a just transition to a greener and more equitable economy. At a time when extreme-weather events and climate-policy impasse are increasingly dominating environmental news, “Taking Heat” focuses on the intersection of climate change with other social and political issues, showcasing the ingenious and inventive ways in which people are already reworking our economy and society. There will be new dispatches every few weeks (follow along here).

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Rose Cordier had been watching the lights go off for decades, and the darkness stir up chaos around her, when she decided something had to be done.

Cordier lives on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where 50 percent of people live below the poverty line, the Sicangu Lakota people are waging a fierce battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Cherry-Todd Electric Cooperative services most residents of the reservation. Cordier’s neighbors’ power got cut whenever they were late paying the bill by just a few days. Immediately, they would begin running extension lines from other neighbors, including Cordier. According to Cordier, if they moved in with friends or family until their next paycheck arrived, the tribal housing authority might board up their homes. (The authority receives funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and federal regulations consider a home abandoned if left vacant and without power for 30 days).

Sometimes, this bought enough time for families to gather funds for the bill (not to mention the hefty late fees, disconnection fees, and reconnection fees that accumulated). But not always. One winter, when Cordier’s brother and his wife had their power cut, they moved in with her—and her brimming household of children and grandchildren—and wound up with their house boarded up for weeks.

Cordier knows that energy costs are a huge burden for rural, low-income families, sometimes coming to as much as one-fifth of household income. She also knew that no one on the Cherry-Todd coop board was advocating on their behalf: As a member-customer, she had been attending their annual meetings for over a decade, and she knew that ever since the coop was established in 1946, few tribal members had ever sat on the board, despite membership now being about 80 percent Native. So in 2013, when three of eight coop board seats opened up, she ran in the election with two other tribal members, Shawn Bordeaux and Ann-erika White Bird. That, Cordier says, is when they discovered that the deck was stacked against Native coop members.

Rural electric cooperatives are utility companies owned and operated by their member-customers—together, these cooperatives oversee the largest energy infrastructure in the nation. (Around 900 cooperatives provide power to 42 million member-owners and service a majority of the US landmass, including 93 percent of its “persistent poverty counties”). The earliest arose during the Great Depression, when 90 percent of rural homes lacked electricity, and private companies considered it unprofitable to extend power lines through the sparsely populated regions. Farmers responded by banding together, erecting their own power lines, and forming electric cooperatives. In what is now seen as a triumph of progressive rural organizing, their efforts became eligible for federal New Deal funding in 1936 through the Rural Electrification Act.

This structure of collective ownership and governance is what allows Cordier and other member-customers to run for the board, unlike in private companies or corporations. It also offers a potential framework for what climate activists call “energy democracy,” where people and communities control the source of their energy, its costs, and how to use, manage, regulate, and distribute it.

And as Cherry-Todd’s 2013 meeting began, the Rosebud tribe seemed poised to cash in on this promise. This was the biggest voter turnout in coop history, thanks to voter organizing by the grassroots group that Cordier co-runs, Oyate For Fairness and Equal Representation (or OFFER), and the Rosebud government’s offering support and ensuring transportation for tribal members to the meeting.

But as voting began, Cordier and others say they noticed that some of the white farmers and ranchers had received multiple ballots, one for each electrical meter (their household, their stock wells, their center pivots). (The coop disputes this fact). Cordier says she received only one, despite her separate accounts for her household and her second-hand shop. Either way, after the ballots for the election were counted, there were dozens more votes than there had just been for a floor vote on an amendment. All three tribal candidates lost.

“I just think the bottom line is there’s a lot of racism here,” said Cordier, reflecting on the outcome. “They saw us as a threat when all we wanted was fair treatment.”

Eighty-two years after the passage of the Rural Electrification Act, the experiences of Cordier and the Rosebud reservation’s electricity users are hardly unique, with coops exhibiting exceptionally low voter turnout, and majority-white boards often representing elite local interests in majority-black and majority-Native districts throughout the United States. Organizing efforts have had some success in the past, like the Coop Democracy and Development Project that empowered black coop members against their all-white boards in the rural South in the ’80s and ’90s. But this was ultimately limited by the inequities running through the rest of society.

Ronald Neiss, with whom Cordier runs OFFER, calls it “apartheid, ruled by a board.” And in South Dakota, this is a legacy of federal policy in the American West. The Rosebud reservation emerged from the 1889 partition of the Great Sioux Reservation, which in turn was created after the Lakota people had been forced off much of their lands. Federal authorities also encouraged them to embrace farming and the system of private land ownership that Congress had just cemented for white settlers in South Dakota (and throughout the West) through the 1862 Homestead Act. But by the start of the Great Depression, only 3 percent of South Dakota’s farms were recorded in the census as “American Indian.” The descendants of white settlers formed the cooperatives that brought electrical power to the region. And in the postwar era, when the federal government dammed the Missouri River, producing a plentiful supply of hydropower they sold to rural electric coops and other entities, they also flooded and destroyed massive sections of the Sioux reservations, including Rosebud and Standing Rock.

Today, the Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which generates electricity and distributes it to its own members, including Cherry-Todd and other electrical utilities, produces most of its power from coal, natural gas, and wind. Also, the mostly white Cherry County, Nebraska, has a per capita income of $27,891, while Todd County, South Dakota, located entirely within the Rosebud reservation, has a per capita income of just $11,821, and their uneven history lives on in the Cherry-Todd coop structure—and the way that local energy decisions are made. After the 2013 election, Cordier, Bordeaux and White Bird sued the co-op for voter fraud and discrimination, with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe soon joining the lawsuit too. The utility, they argued, is operating on tribal lands and is therefore within tribal jurisdiction—jurisdiction outlined in the 1868 Treaty.

Four years later, Cherry-Todd and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe are still in the process of settling the suit, and because of this, the coop’s general manager, Tim Grablander, declined to speak to The Nation. But thanks to OFFER, which has encouraged tribal coop members to run, organized voter turnout and empowerment drives, helped candidates to campaign, and secured funding and support from the tribal government, the board is now 50 percent Native. Today, the utility offers greater flexibility with late payments and, most notably, no longer shuts off the electricity right away. It has not yet agreed to reduce the hefty fees associated with late payment and power cutoffs, but another non-Native-held seat is also opening up this fall.

“It is an issue of sovereignty,” said Cordier, referring to a term that, in recent years, has mostly been used to describe the right of Native people to govern their own lands, including decisions about disbursing leases to pipeline corporations. But it might also describe the idea that a majority Native-owned coop, operating primarily on tribal lands, should be governed by Native people from the community. “They’ve been operating on our reservation all these years, and all these years they were un-curtailed.”

Now, this issue of who makes community decisions about the energy they use could also shape the transition to renewable energy, and by extension our responses to climate change. Individual consumers in 11 states, including New York, Texas, and Massachusetts, already have the option to switch to clean electricity providers, but renewables still account for only 11 percent of US energy consumption. In the past, the Cherry-Todd cooperative has opposed Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants, and advocated for the North American Coal Corporation’s Freedom Mine—one of the biggest coal mines in the United States, which supplies energy to Basin Electric’s power plants. But this may now be changing.

“We’ve always had a problem with the pollution presented by coal-fired power plants or nuclear,” said Daniel Gargan Burnette, the Rosebud reservation’s Tribal Utilities Commissioner. “We know that we’re stewards of our own land.”

Recently, the tribe installed a rooftop community solar project on its Wicozani housing development, reducing electricity costs for residents by 20–25 percent, and they hope to install more on the reservation, said Burnette. These would “help with utility bills for tribal members,” not to mention bolster self-sufficiency for people on the reservation.

But the community solar and wind projects will only be financially viable if the tribe can apply “net-metering” rules, which allow the owners of solar panels or wind turbines to sell any excess electricity they generate back into the grid, and receive credit for it at a reasonable rate. And on the Rosebud reservation, that grid belongs to the Cherry-Todd Electric Cooperative. So far, the board has rejected the tribe’s net-metering code, but this could change, depending on the outcome of a separate legal challenge over whether the tribe has jurisdiction over these rules (The tribe is arguing, once again, that the coop is operating on tribal lands.) Or it might change with the shifting composition of Cherry-Todd’s board.

All of this hangs in the balance. Yet for Cordier, the goal was simply to alleviate disruptions to her neighbors, friends and family.

“I just wanted everyone to be treated fairly,” she said. “On our own reservation.”

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