Native American tribe ditches traditional transportation with multimillion-dollar EV initiative: 'It's really building a foundation of access and awareness and education'

A Native-led initiative is bringing electric vehicles to tribal nations across multiple states.

In January, MPR News reported that, as part of a $13.4 million project, 11 EVs would be delivered to six tribal fleets in an effort to promote a clean-energy economy after the Line 3 pipeline expansion in Minnesota received pushback from Indigenous communities.

"I thought there's got to be an easier way. And I said to myself, 'Hey, electric vehicles are going to become something someday. These electric vehicles are going to become a part of the transition,'" said Robert Blake, the director of Native Sun Community Power Development — a Native-led nonprofit focused on encouraging the adoption of renewables and climate education.

"Then I thought to myself, 'What if Native people could lead the charge against the fossil-fuel companies with an alternative of electric vehicles?'" he added.


The EVs, which were purchased for fleets across the Red Lake Nation and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe through a federal cost-sharing program, will be used by the Standing Rock Renewable Energy Power Authority, Red Lake Fisheries, Red Lake Agriculture Department, Grand River and Prairie Knights casinos, and Native Sun Community Power Development.

According to Utility Dive, the $13.4 million project will also fund five more EVs, an electric shuttle, two electric school buses, and 122 charging stations.

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In the future, Blake hopes to expand the program, dubbed Electric Nation, to other tribal nations and add a Route 66-like EV charging network across tribal lands, telling MPR News that the initiative is a way to push back against "the fossil fuel infrastructure."

The Line 3 pipeline, which was ultimately upgraded and began operating back in 2021 despite protests and legal battles that attempted to shut the project down, has leaked toxic liquids into the surrounding environment hundreds of times over the last 20 years, as detailed by CBS News.

Indigenous groups have criticized the pipeline for violating agreed-upon treaties that protect their rights to hunt, fish, and harvest wild rice.

The Line 3 expansion project followed the Dakota Access Pipeline, which began pumping oil in 2017. The pipeline's website says it is safely operating, but as detailed by Native Knowledge 360, the Standing Rock Sioux passed a resolution in 2015 saying the treaty-violating project would threaten their tribe's survival and "destroy valuable cultural resources."

Joe McNeil, who is with Sage Development Authority and who partnered with Blake to establish Electric Nation, believes that delivering EVs to tribal nations will put them ahead of the curve in transitioning to EVs, which don't emit pollution from tailpipes when driven.

"It's really building a foundation of access and awareness and education. So that it's not a foreign technology. I don't think that economics should dictate a person's access to technology," McNeil told MPR News.

Electric Nation, which intends to install 59 DC fast-charging units on reservations, will outfit all 11 EVs being delivered with data-tracking software to monitor whether they are meeting the needs of the tribes.

"I firmly believe that healing is in the environment. And once we start being right with the environment, I think we're going to start being right with ourselves and with each other," Blake told MPR News.

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