Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs

Leading the Charge: Akwesasne Housing Authority Director Retha Herne

October 28, 2015

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Energy-efficient homes in AHA’s Sunrise Acres Complex include such features as rooftop solar domestic hot water. Photo from Akwesasne Housing Authority.

Energy-efficient homes in AHA’s Sunrise Acres Complex include such features as rooftop solar domestic hot water. Photo from Akwesasne Housing Authority.

Solar panels used to provide power to AHA’s Sunrise Acres Complex. Photo from Akwesasne Housing Authority

Solar panels used to provide power to AHA’s Sunrise Acres Complex. Photo from Akwesasne Housing Authority

Solarize Akwesasne community event night held at the AHA Training Center in June 2015. Photo from St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

Solarize Akwesasne community event night held at the AHA Training Center in June 2015. Photo from St. Regis Mohawk Tribe

Geothermal and solar hot water heater control room at AHA’s Sunrise Acres Complex. Photo from Akwesasne Housing Authority

Geothermal and solar hot water heater control room at AHA’s Sunrise Acres Complex. Photo from Akwesasne Housing Authority

Change doesn’t happen on its own. It’s led by dedicated and passionate people who are committed to empowering Indian Country to energize future generations. Leading the Charge articles spotlight the movers and shakers in energy development on tribal lands.

Photo of Retha Herne.
Retha Herne is Executive Director of the Akwesasne Housing Authority (AHA) in Hogansburg, New York. Akwesasne is the Mohawk name for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which has a diverse membership of more than 10,000 people who live and work on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. With the highest energy costs in the state of New York, the tribe is looking to alternative energy sources to help sustain the community for the long term. Under Herne’s directorship and with support from tribal leadership, AHA is paving the way for the tribe to go green through such projects as building an energy efficient and renewable energy powered elderly housing complex, offering free home energy assessments for residents, and spearheading a community solar campaign and new solar farm. This past year, AHA and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe participated in two U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy-sponsored strategic energy planning workshops. We recently caught up with Herne for an update and more insight on the tribe’s energy vision, challenges, and opportunities.

What do you see as the top energy and climate-related challenges for the tribe and the region?

Aside from the obvious issues such as cost, lack of knowledge/capacity, and decision making—all of which are a huge part of the “green movement”—I believe the answer is more fundamental than any of these issues. I’ve learned that everyone wholeheartedly agrees that actions are necessary to affect climate change. What is difficult is walking the walk, staying the course, and maintaining forward movement toward the principles of green living that we not only should aspire to as keepers of the earth, but are part of the common thread of the Native teachings that our ancestors left to us.

As a tribal entity charged with developing safe and affordable housing for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, AHA is constantly challenged to keep a firm stance against the continual dependence on fossil fuels and we have effectively demonstrated that renewable energy is not only the wave of the future, it is now, and it is real. This reality should seep into everything that we do as an entity responsible for the precious resources we still have available to us.

The challenge to the community as a people is in maintaining a healthy balance between our society’s ever increasing need for and dependency on energy and the sustainability of that energy. Having taken for granted where these resources come from in the past, we must now be creative in providing for our need through the production of low-cost energy and countering the effects of past heedlessness with energy efficiency and conservation. For individuals and tribal organizations, this may mean varying and different things, but ultimately, we should make greater efforts to become more knowledgeable, share in that knowledge, and pass that knowledge on to our children.  

 Ultimately, we can gain all the information and technical assistance and even the funding needed with the greatest amount of effort, but if we don’t have enough momentum and tenacity to stay the course, the mission will be futile.

Our housing entities, our government, our citizens and our neighbors need to become energy champions for the long haul! We’ve already taken the first steps as a housing authority in the realm of clean and renewable energy, but we need to keep the principles of clean and green living alive in everything we do.  I believe that we must keep reminding ourselves until it becomes second nature, that we, as individuals, as a collective community, and stewards of Mother Earth, should always act “earth-minded” in our thoughts and practices. It is this basic belief that will ensure our future generations. The rest will come.

What is the tribe’s energy vision?

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe envisions for its community the creation of a balance toward sustainability and self-sufficiency by: 1) creating sustainable energy systems, and 2) practicing cultural awareness and responsibility for conservation of the earth’s resources. This vision will be supported through the ongoing engagement of the tribe’s leadership and will be included in future strategic planning sessions. Tribal divisions will be empowered to create and support enterprises, initiatives, and activities that cultivate all forms of energy strategy measures. The ultimate goal of the tribe is to work toward energy inter-dependence and to lead its community into energy self-governance.

For us this means being responsible and mutually dependent upon each other as we move forward with implementing strategies to realize our vision for renewable energy. We will agree to concepts and measures that could benefit the tribe and, by extension, our community as a whole. By approaching new projects this way, we can set a great example for ourselves. This common ground of renewable strategies could formulate the basic concept of unity and create a model that could be applied to every other project we take on as a tribe.

What are some of the strategies the tribe is pursuing in an effort to realize its vision?

Through AHA’s facilitation, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe adopted a draft Tribal Strategic Energy Plan, which sets the foundation for our community to move in one direction . . . together. This plan shall guide us governmentally, administratively, program-wise, and individually on one path to renewable energy development, conservation, and energy efficiency. Second, as a housing entity, the AHA has committed to learning as much about alternative energy sources as possible. Our work with agencies such as the DOE Office of Indian Energy, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development’s Office of Sustainability and Office of Native American Programs, and the National American Indian Housing Council effectively connected us with the right people with the right knowledge to ensure our future energy vision. AHA has also connected with local and regional agencies such as Clarkson University, SUNY Canton Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies (CREST), New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), and Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA), and is increasing our network base recognizing that to forge ahead, we must build effective partnerships to reach our mission.

Tell us about your role in advancing the tribe’s strategic energy and climate goals.

AHA can only do one thing in advancing the tribe’s energy and climate goals: lead by example. Demonstrating what can be done, how it can be accomplished, and the benefits that ensue as a result, is really the key to advancement. The myriad details throughout this process, of course, are important factors, but ultimately the results will speak for themselves.

What DOE offerings and services have helped advance the tribe’s energy and climate-related goals and strategies?

The DOE’s very generous technical assistance has effectively served our tribe and has been our guiding light throughout this process. They were instrumental in helping us identify what our energy vision and climate goals should be as a distinct community. Ultimately, and without imposing, the DOE team effectively facilitated our collective beliefs about our community’s unique history, our thoughts and visions for our future, and they helped us become united in a clearer understanding of what our energy needs and ultimately our vision should be.  

What drives you to pursue and champion the tribe’s innovative solutions to these challenges?

It is the tradition of the Mohawk People to look seven generations ahead in making decisions that affect the community. The resources available on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation are limited and dwindle with each year that passes. As a tribe, we must increase awareness of our available resources and ensure that all consideration of these resources is taken into account when initiating a new project.  Focus and vigilance are required to make sure the seventh generation will have all that is necessary to maintain and continue our way of life.

What current energy projects are you most excited about?

AHA is partnering with the tribe to develop a new 274-kilowatt solar farm that will utilize a remote aggregated net metering program offered by the local utility provider, National Grid. The tribe set aside a 20-acre parcel of vacant land just for solar development. The project will initially increase AHA’s solar capacity to 110% of its current energy use, meeting all of the electrical energy needs of the low-income housing units in AHA’s Sunrise Acres Complex. The ultimate goal is to expand the project to power the tribe’s commercial buildings. It’s the perfect partnership effort and will hopefully serve as the foundation for future energy projects.