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Lifting A Tribe’s Fortunes With the Wind

Marketplace Morning Report Bill Radke: A huge gathering of American Indian businesses continues today. It's the The Annual Reservation Economic Summit in Las Vegas. There's plenty of talk there about tribal casinos, Native American entrepreneurship and poverty, which still plagues many reservations. But in the first of two parts, Laurie Stern of American Radio Works profiles one Indian reservation trying to lift its fortunes through wind power. Laurie Stern: The Lakota Sioux call the wind their relative: constant and strong. Now, they're going to put that relative to work. Eileen Briggs: Our focus is developing the wind and getting it sold now, that's our focus. Eileen Briggs is president of Four Winds Energy Corporation. She says the tribe has been measuring the wind for a decade, getting ready for the right deal. The "right deal" turns out to be an agreement with Boston-based Citizens Energy to build a $400 million wind-farm. Caryle Duchenaux works for the tribe's environmental department: Caryle Duchenaux: There's been a lot of interested developers going back eight, 10 years. They were wanting to give the tribe a portion rather than a piece of the pie. But with Citizens Energy, the tribe will get a 20 percent ownership stake, and will also collect fees from leasing land for the turbines. The project could help the tribe become financially self-sufficient. Briggs: We need hope. I mean our young people need to see that we have something that's moving us forward. The Cheyenne River reservation lies just west of the Missouri River in central South Dakota, more than a million acres of grazing land for cattle and buffalo. But leasing land to ranchers isn't very lucrative, and the only other jobs here are with the tribal government or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The average income is only $8,000 a year. Duchenaux: Tribe ain't got no money, so you're working for $12 bucks an hour or less. The wind project may not be profitable for years. But it will provide jobs of all kinds, and a way to retain native talent. Duchenaux: Well, you would need your biologists, archaeologist, all the sciences. We have those kinds of people, but they've left the reservation. That would bring them back. The tribe has applied for a place on the grid that supplies electricity to South Dakota. If the plans ply out, turbines could be turning in three or four years. In Eagle Butte, South Dakota, I'm Laurie Stern for Marketplace. Featured in: Marketplace Morning Report for Tuesday, March 10, 2009 Bill Radke: Yesterday, we told you about a deal between a Boston energy firm and the Lakota Sioux to build a wind farm in central South Dakota. Well today, Laurie Stern of American Radio Works looks at how the project could help transform the lives of tribal members. Laurie Stern: Ashley Elk Nation is driving her 14-month-old-son home from daycare. She's 21 and a single mother. She works part-time as a cashier and lives with her parents. Ashley Elk Nation: I can't have my own house because the bills are too high. My job's not enough to be paying bills and stuff, and I can't afford to get my own car -- this is my stepdad's car. Ashley wants to be a carpenter. She may soon get a chance. The Lakota Sioux just signed a $400 million deal to build a wind farm with Boston-based Citizens Energy. The wind has always been strong and steady up here. Now it may also be profitable. Carlyle Duchenaux: It could definitely turn the economics around, the poverty around. Carlyle Duchenaux monitors water quality for the tribe. He says the deal will provide up to 40 jobs initially, and more as the project grows. Duchenaux: We contract out a lot of services. We could have all that here. So that professionalism that we seek, this could certainly provide that. Ashley Elk Nation says she plans to apply for a job at the wind farm. Elk Nation: I like that it's gonna be energy sufficient or whatever. Hopefully it will help out on global warming, and maybe the electric bill won't be so high. It may be years before the monthly electric bill gets lower. For now, there will be jobs and job training. A tribal college on a neighboring reservation begins offering classes on wind turbine maintenance next fall. In Eagle Butte, South Dakota, I'm Laurie Stern for Marketplace.

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