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On April 13, I attended the premiere screening of the documentary film “Red Power Energy,” the first in the Denver-based International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management’s 2016 Indigenous Film Series. Shown on the oversized screen at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Phipps Theater, the film delivered an impactful, larger-than-life portrait of renewable and nonrenewable energy development in Indian Country today. Among the tribes featured were the Crow Nation (Montana); Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (North Dakota); Northern Cheyenne (Montana); Oglala Lakota Nation (South Dakota);  Rosebud Sioux (South Dakota); Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes of the Wind River Reservation (North Dakota); and Southern Ute (Colorado). 

Told from the Native perspective, the film explored the economic, cultural, and environmental issues surrounding the development of renewable and nonrenewable energy resources on American Indian lands. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy, a contributor to the documentary, provided background, maps, and data to assist with the film’s production. 

The deeply held yet often incongruous tribal values of economic sovereignty, self-determination, and environmental stewardship intermingled as consistent themes throughout the film. From the Crow Nation’s lucrative coal-mining operation to the Southern Ute Tribe’s expanding oil and gas empire; from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s planned transformational wind energy development efforts to Henry Red Cloud’s Lakota Solar Enterprises on Pine Ridge; from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s longstanding battle to prevent mining and drilling interests from encroaching on their lands to the impassioned Native voices being raised in defense of the soil, water, and air amidst the din of the drilling and fracking boom on North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Plate, the story of Indian Country energy development emerged through the eyes of a diverse array of Native stakeholders.

After the show, Mervyn Tano, President of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, moderated an audience discussion and question-and-answer with Co-Director Larry Pourier (Oglala Lakota).

“It’s difficult not to be cynical as someone who’s been around energy development for a long time,” said Tano as he opened the discussion. “I think the film helps dissipate some of that.”

One audience member commented that she found the segment about residential solar on Pine Ridge to be an especially inspirational part of the film and asked whether there are grants and other federal government support for projects and initiatives like Red Cloud’s Lakota Solar Enterprises. As a communications strategist supporting the Office of Indian Energy’s tribal education and outreach efforts, that was one area I would have liked to see highlighted in the film—along with some of the community-scale tribal energy project successes that are proliferating as more and more tribes take advantage of the information resources, technical assistance, training, and funding available through DOE and other federal agencies. As a journalist, however, I know it’s not possible to hit every angle in a one-hour documentary, which brings me to what I appreciated most about the film: its solid reporting, compelling storytelling, and journalistic integrity. 

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done because of my cultural beliefs,” said Pourier, describing the challenges he faced in putting his own views and values aside to create a documentary that adhered to principles such as accuracy, fairness, and impartiality that are hallmarks of professional journalism. He shared how the making of the film opened his eyes to the humanity, sincerity, and at times even the internal conflicts of those whose perspectives on energy development differ from his own—an impact he hoped the film might also have on others. “Maybe it helps people understand the guy on the other side of the fence and see that he’s human; he has a family too,” he said.

Tano praised the film’s balanced approach to covering the range of issues and interests at play in developing energy resources on tribal lands—a sentiment echoed by several audience members during the post-film discussion. Tano, like others in attendance, saw tremendous value in Pourier’s commitment to giving everyone a voice without imparting any bias or pushing an agenda.

The result, he noted, gives viewers the opportunity to take in a variety of perspectives about both the opportunities and the dangers—and draw their own conclusions.

After the screening, I caught up with Executive Producer, Producer, and Writer/Editor LIsa Olken, who co-directed the film along with Pourier, for an interview.

As the Executive Producer and Co-director of the film, why do you see Red Power Energy as an important work?

When I pitched the idea to Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver (where I produced documentaries for two decades) and Vision Maker Media (who funded our last film, “Urban Rez”), I wanted to explore contemporary Native nations as vital participants in the energy debate and tell the story through the eyes of those who live daily with the joys and fears of energy development and production on their homelands.

Tell us about your interest in this topic and your inspiration for the project.

My advisors on “Urban Rez,” Jonny BearCub Stiffarm and Lori Windle, shared with me the history of the Southern Ute Tribe and how they had gained control of their natural and mineral resources over the years. I was in awe of their hard-won successes and their economic independence, and knew instantly that this local Colorado story could be a much larger—and universal—story about how other tribes were pursuing the same thing.

I understand you attended a couple of DOE Tribal Energy Program Reviews as part of your research for the film. Would you share how that assisted in the film’s development?

I am grateful to the DOE Tribal Energy Program and their willingness and openness to allow me to attend their energy conferences in Golden, Colorado. It was here where I learned about their wonderfully successful projects, training, and funding for tribes around the country. Knowing that there was this valuable assistance and leadership helped me appreciate the journey that tribes undertake as they look toward utilizing their land’s resources.

A consistent theme running through the film is the need and desire to achieve not only political sovereignty for tribes, but economic sovereignty as well. Do you agree that energy development is a key to realizing that goal, and if so why?

I completely agree with one of the film’s narrators, Russell Stands Over Bull, when he passionately speaks about the need for economic development on tribal lands and that energy development can play a vital role. Another way to achieve economic sovereignty and prosperity is owning your own business, like the MHA Nation owns Missouri River Resources and Henry Red Cloud owns Lakota Solar Enterprises. The reason I believe that energy development is key to tribal economic sovereignty is that we all need it—we all need heat and electricity and gasoline! We have to get our energy from somewhere. I argue in the film that we can get it from Native America.

Another recurring theme in the film is the importance of tribes taking ownership of and control of energy development on their lands. From a policy perspective, what do you see as being key to tribes directing and controlling their own energy futures?

The keys are money and education. Congress needs to appropriate more funding for development of clean energy projects on tribal lands, along with assistance and education. The Jewish medieval scholar, Maimonides, said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

What was your biggest takeaway from your experience creating this film?

My biggest takeaway was learning how to juggle the competing sides of fossil fuel and renewable energy advocates, while at the same time, honoring their passionately-held beliefs, environmental fears, and their hopes and dreams for future generations. People opened their hearts to Larry, Boots [Kennedye, Director of Photography], and me when doing so could cause them harm in their communities, and we are grateful to these courageous people. The best takeaway I have ever received, ever, came from my brothers Larry and Boots, when they thanked me for “showing the world our world.” There is no better reason to tell stories than that!

Are there plans for the film to air nationally?

Yes, it is meant for national distribution through Vision Maker Media, the Native American arm of PBS [Public Broadcasting Service]. We hope that either PBS or APT [American Public Television] picks it up this summer for national broadcast this November. Rocky Mountain PBS will air it again.

The film also aired on Rocky Mountain PBS on April 14. Learn more on the Rocky Mountain PBS website.

—Written by Karen Petersen