CANNON BALL, N.D. — The American Indian tribe at the center of tumultuous protests against the Dakota Access pipeline unveiled a solar farm Friday that came about partly due to the tribe's fierce opposition to the oil pipeline's environmental impact.
Located just 3 miles from the pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's solar project is meant to be the first step toward clean energy independence and a way to power all 12 of the reservation communities in North Dakota and South Dakota. It also shows that the protests that began in 2016 and ended in 2017 weren't for naught, even though the pipeline began carrying oil more than two years ago, said Cody Two Bears, the project leader and executive director of Indigenized Energy, which promotes energy within the Sioux Nation.
Two Bears said the solar project "pays tribute to everyone who's come to Standing Rock and all their hard work and tireless dedication toward protecting our people and land."
The project has 1,000 panels covering about three acres of wide-open prairie near Cannon Ball, with plans to expand to 10 acres.
A night of Native American dancing, music indigenous foods and gift giving was kicked off by actress Shailene Woodley, a loyal protester who was returning to the reservation for the first time in two years. She tearfully hugged and greeted dozens of people when she arrived at the solar farm and told the group afterward that they are "sharing their wisdom" with the rest of the world.
"This is the beginning of something incredibly massive that I don't think anyone of us can began to fathom at this moment," she said.
Presidential hopeful and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard rode into the farm on horseback.
Woodley visited the protest camp several times where thousands of people lived for months and sometimes clashed with law enforcement. More than 700 people were arrested during the protests.
Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, an executive with the economic development entity of Nebraska's Winnebago Tribe, which began dabbling in solar energy a decade ago, said the national interest around the protests should translate into promotion of renewable energy.
"Tribes have always been strong advocates and set the marker to where we need to be on," Bledsoe Downes said. "If there's any good from what happened at the DAPL protest, I hope that it was a catalyst to that."
Numerous tribes have turned to solar power and other forms of green energy in the last decade as a way of creating jobs and cutting down on energy costs without harming the environment. Bledsoe Downes said the Winnebago Tribe is saving $100,000 a year, money that "goes back into housing or down payment assistance or tribal roads or infrastructure costs or youth programming."
Several solar energy nonprofits joined forces to build the $470,000 Standing Rock facility, and those organizations are billing it as the largest solar energy farm in North Dakota. It currently powers the Sioux Nation Community Center and Veterans Memorial Building.
Hayes Barnard, president of San Francisco-based GivePower Foundation, which made the largest donation of $370,000, said the solar farm is a "testament to the tribe's steadfast commitment to going beyond protesting and inciting real change."