Study Looks at Climate Change Effects On Rural Electrical Grids 

Study Looks at Climate Change Effects On Rural Electrical Grids 

Researchers from across the country are studying how to improve electrical grids across the country with a focus on underserved, rural communities.

Through a four-year, $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, South Dakota State University, University of Maine, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and University of Puerto Rico Mayague will examine how climate change affects electrical grids. The project is titled “STORM: Data-Driven Approaches for Secure Electric Grids in Communities Disproportionately Impacted by Climate Change.”

“The basic idea is to go to a few specific communities, and through community engagement, figure out what are the challenges that they are facing with regard to the impact of extreme weather on the power grid, and then solve some of those issues in terms of community outreach and engagement, designing new methods to make the grid more resilient,” said Tim Hansen, associate professor in SDSU’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and co-principal investigator on the project.

Hansen said the research project is based in strategic locations in which different weather events occur. Alaska, for example, deals with extreme cold, while Puerto Rico deals with storms and flooding.

The common issue is that all the events impact the power grid, he said. “Our focus is on power grid resiliency from different perspectives.”

As part of the project, the researchers will work with community members on engagement. Hansen told the Daily Yonder it will be a ground-up approach so see what the community is willing to adopt.

Daisy Huang is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and mechanical engineer. She also conducts research at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, which looks at optimizing power, mostly in rural communities around Alaska. She said the rural communities are mostly not connected to the state grid.

“So they’re all on their own diesel fired power plants. And so we look at ways to integrate renewables [and] optimize their diesel for maximum efficiency,” she told the Daily Yonder.

Huang said she is also interested in creating educational programs around STEM.

“The idea is looking from a community perspective – what their energy needs are, and how we can translate that – in parallel – developing educational programs around kids learning about energy systems, [like] engineering or STEM in general, math, physics.”

There will also be a virtual reality lab for remote power and energy research studies between all the participating institutions, Hansen told the Yonder.

He said that many of the researchers on the project are young investigators. “It’s a very good opportunity for the [National Science Foundation] to really build up the mentorship, and really build a lot of people’s long-term careers off of the back of this,” he added.

The post Study Looks at Climate Change Effects On Rural Electrical Grids  appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Hispanic population gains in rural counties spark South Dakota growth

Tribe bans Dupree educators from reservation over child abuse allegations

South Dakota rejects federal food funding despite 25,000 children going hungry

Sober living fraud scheme targeted Montana tribal citizens

When Autumn Nelson decided she was ready to seek treatment for her alcoholism, she knew she had to act fast.

“When someone with an addiction says, ‘I need help,’ we’re begging,” she said. “We want it.”

Nelson, who lives on the Blackfeet Reservation, knew she might have to leave home to get the help she needed. Crystal Creek Lodge provides inpatient and outpatient treatment on the reservation, but community members say the place is almost always at capacity. Journey to Recovery, another facility on the reservation, provides outpatient services primarily focused on supporting individuals after they return from inpatient treatment. And sometimes, it can be helpful for people struggling with addiction to leave their environment and disconnect from people in their circles who may be using.

So when Journey to Recovery gave Nelson the contact information for a treatment center in Arizona, Nelson was hopeful. She was ready to get clean. Little did she know she’d soon be caught up in a national scandal.

Phoenix House Recovery, a treatment center in Arizona, paid for Nelson’s plane ticket to Arizona, and Nelson was eager for a fresh start. Her father died of cancer three years ago, and just before his death, her younger brother died in a car accident.

“That really set my alcoholism off,” she said. “I kind of just stepped out of reality for a while.”

But Phoenix House Recovery wasn’t what Nelson had imagined. She has a background in health care and had been to other treatment centers in the past, and as time went on, she grew suspicious about how the facility was run.

“I started asking questions,” Nelson said. “Like, ‘Where’s the 12-step plan? Why isn’t that in our daily agenda? Why aren’t we learning about triggers, external and internal? Where is our life skills training? Why aren’t we building resumés? Why is there one therapist for 30 patients?’ I asked the clients and staff, and they kicked me out the next day.”

Out on the streets in 100-plus degree weather, Nelson had to find somewhere to go. She looked into other sober living homes but grew concerned when she was offered alcohol and drugs at one of them. She didn’t know who she could trust.

“I was scared,” she said. “I’m thousands of miles away from my family and my home. I was freaking out. I was hysterical.”

While Nelson ultimately made it home to the Blackfeet Reservation, her experience in Arizona is not uncommon.

What happened to her has happened to thousands of other Native Americans in Arizona amid a widespread Medicaid fraud scheme, where treatment centers billed the state thousands of dollars per patient for services that were not actually provided. Indigenous people from Montana, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota were recruited to get treatment at these fraudulent facilities, and experts estimate that at least 100 Native Americans from Montana are tangled in the scam.

The scheme defrauded Arizona taxpayers, and at these fraudulent sober living homes, some clients were given drugs and alcohol. Others were told to get on food stamps. And some people seeking treatment were paid to recruit more Native Americans to these facilities. As the fraudulent treatment centers have shuttered amid a government crackdown, Montana tribes and grassroots advocates are scrambling to get their relatives home. But because these facilities changed clients’ state of residency to Arizona for billing purposes, it’s even harder for tribes and families in Montana to locate their loved ones.

What exactly is happening in Arizona?

Arizona officials have called it “a stunning failure of government.”

In a widespread scam, treatment facilities in Arizona billed for nonexistent services, and the money was paid through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), Arizona’s Medicaid program. The scam targeted Native Americans because a loophole in AHCCCS’s American Indian Health Program allowed individuals to pose as a treatment facility.

Reva Stewart, who launched the campaign #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits to raise awareness of the fraud, said experts have traced the origins of the scam to the pandemic.

“They targeted Native Americans because the American Indian Health Plan would pay for everything they documented,” she explained. “Once these places found out they could get something like $1,700 per day per person, you saw them popping up everywhere. With that money, one home can make $2 million in two weeks. I even saw a YouTube video on how to open a sober living home in 15 minutes.”

The Arizona Mirror reported that AHCCCS was billed $53.5 million under the outpatient behavioral health clinic code in 2019. In 2020, it more than doubled to $132.6 million, and by 2022 it exploded to $668 million.

The FBI, which is investigating the fraud, is seeking to contact victims of the scam. The agency said in some cases, organizers pick up addicts at popular gathering places; sometimes individuals are given alcohol during transport; and clients are told to obtain food stamps during their time in treatment even though their enrollment brings funding to the home. The FBI investigation has resulted in at least 45 indictments by the office of the Arizona Attorney General, and at least $75 million has been seized.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs in May announced, according to The Associated Press, that the homes defrauded the state of hundreds of millions of dollars. AHCCCS has since suspended payments to hundreds of providers in the state.

As these homes have closed, Native American residents are left on the streets of Arizona in temperatures nearing 115 degrees. Some people have been reported missing, and others have turned up dead.

‘I blame them’

Mona Bear Medicine, Blackfeet, said when her 25-year-old son RayDel Calf Looking went to Phoenix for treatment, she had high hopes for him.

Calf Looking completed a longer treatment program, lasting 60 or 90 days, and Bear Medicine said he was doing well. There are many highly regarded treatment facilities in Arizona that have effective programs and competent staff, and plenty of Montana tribal members speak highly of them.

“He sent a selfie over Christmas, and he looked really healthy,” Bear Medicine said of her son. “He looked good. And I could tell he was doing good for himself.”

Bear Medicine said her son started drinking in high school, but she didn’t realize he was doing drugs until about five years ago. Calf Looking was gay, and Bear Medicine said he struggled to come out and faced adversity when people he loved didn’t accept him.

“I think that was the reason he got into drugs,” she said. “He didn’t know how to come out. He was teased for it, and it hurt him. He started doing different drugs, and it got worse and worse, and he got into meth. It was hard for me to realize the extent of it, and I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be on my family.”

Calf Looking completed the long-term program, and then went to a sober-living home in Arizona, called Calm Integrated Healthcare. Bear Medicine said, “That’s when the problems started.”

In February, Bear Medicine hadn’t heard from her son in a while, and she was worried. She and her sister flew down to Arizona and found Calf Looking, who had walked out of the home and appeared to be intoxicated.

“He was disappointed in himself for relapsing,” Bear Medicine recalled.

Bear Medicine took her son back to Calm Integrated Healthcare and almost immediately got a bad feeling about the place. She said her son was clearly intoxicated, and the staff at Calm Integrated said it was fine for him to stay with Bear Medicine at her motel for a few days.

“It was so shady,” Bear Medicine said. “When she said RayDel could stay with us, I asked, ‘What does he need to do? Does he need to go to class?’ And she just said, ‘No, he doesn’t need to do anything.’ When I drove away, I said to RayDel, ‘I’m so confused. I thought sober living was sober.’ And he said, ‘They don’t care as long as they get your money.’”

When Calf Looking stayed with Bear Medicine at the motel, he kept drinking, and after Bear Medicine left, she knew he was still drinking, even though he’d returned to the sober-living home.

In late March, Calf Looking’s cousin, Vandree Old Person, was found dead on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Calf Looking, who was supposed to fly home to be a pallbearer, was taking the death hard. Again, Bear Medicine didn’t hear from him, and again, she was worried.

One day in April, Bear Medicine got a call from a detective.

“When she called, I thought, ‘What did he do now?’” Bear Medicine recalled. “I said, ‘Is he in jail? Is he hurt?’ And she said, ‘No.’ Then she asked me, ‘Is anyone with you?’ and that’s when it started clicking. I said, ‘Oh my God. Is he dead?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”

The detective told Bear Medicine that her son broke into a house while intoxicated and the homeowner, fearing for his life, shot Calf Looking as he walked up the stairs of his home. Bear Medicine said her son was shot in the back, which she finds incongruous with the detective’s recounting. And she still hasn’t received an autopsy. She was told the FBI is investigating her son’s case, but months later, she still hasn’t heard from the federal agency.

Calm Integrated Healthcare has told Bear Medicine that her son walked out of their facility and was not under their care at the time he was killed, but Bear Medicine maintains that the sober-living home had a part in his death.

“I do think the center was responsible for his death,” she said. “They took the money but still let him drink. He was really trying. He really did try, but it was so easy for him to have a free place to stay that allowed him to drink. I blame them. I really blame them.”

AHCCCS payments to Calm Integrated Healthcare were suspended on May 15 — about a month after Calf Looking was killed.

‘It’s systemic’

Just as with Autumn Nelson, Journey to Recovery in Browning connected Josh Racine to a treatment center in Arizona. A spokesperson for Journey to Recovery was not available for comment.

Racine, Blackfeet, flew out to Sunrise Native Recovery, an alcohol and drug treatment center in Scottsdale, in March. About a month later, he was on the streets.

Laura McGee, Racine’s sister, didn’t know where he was or what happened, but she was determined to find him. She called Sunrise Native Recovery, but they were no help. She called the hospitals in the area, but no luck there, either. Racine would occasionally ask her to send him food at the treatment center — something McGee thought was odd — so she scoured previous food orders to try and nail down a timeline of his disappearance. She scrutinized past texts with her brother to pinpoint a location, but her efforts felt futile.

“I was panicking because I knew what had happened to RayDel,” she said. “It was a feeling I can’t even describe. We lost our mother suddenly, and seven months later, our stepdad, who primarily raised Josh, died. And then our grandmother died, and our first cousin died of an overdose. So Josh is already an addict and now he’s out on the streets dealing with sudden death.”

As McGee did more research, she learned about the hundreds of other sober-living homes in Arizona that had been shut down. It became clear that the problem was bigger than just her and her brother, so she approached the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.

“I told council, ‘I need help,’” she recalled. “’You sent him there through a program on this reservation. I need help getting him back.’”

The council ultimately paid for a few of McGee’s family members to fly to Arizona, and they successfully brought Racine home, but McGee’s work was not done. Upon her brother’s return, she began to piece together the broken system.

Through conversations with her brother, McGee said she learned that Sunrise charged AHCCCS at least $117,000 in one month for services related to Racine — services that Racine himself said he did not receive.

“That was for one month for one person,” McGee said. “So imagine doing that for 20 or 80 people in a facility. It adds up.”

Racine told McGee that the centers would give clients $50 a week to live on, and he was reportedly told by Sunrise that if he recruited other Native Americans, they would reward him with $100.

“It’s systemic,” McGee said. “There weren’t protocols, and people were being taken advantage of.”

McGee said people struggling with addiction are a particularly vulnerable population, which worked to the scheme’s advantage.

“These are addicts who have lost the trust of their families,” she said. “So when they say, ‘This treatment center isn’t good. They’re putting me out on the street,’ families weren’t believing them. These people knew that and used it against them.”

That’s exactly what happened to Wendy Bremner. Her daughter Brooke Running Crane, Blackfeet, also went to Sunrise, and Running Crane was also suspicious of the facility. She told her mother she wasn’t comfortable at Sunrise and was scared to be there. But Bremner didn’t know what to do.

“I didn’t want to be an enabler,” she said. “I don’t know if what she’s telling me is true. I don’t want to interfere with treatment.”

Later, Running Crane’s anxiety about Sunrise rose to a breaking point, and she was hospitalized for a panic attack. Sunrise told Bremner that her daughter could not return to the facility, and as far as Bremner could tell, her daughter was going to be discharged from the hospital on to the streets.

Bremner called Sunrise over and over again until they finally agreed to help transfer Running Crane to another facility. Running Crane’s new facility is a good one, but Bremner said she doesn’t know what would’ve happened to her daughter if she hadn’t intervened.

“It was really scary,” she said. “She didn’t have anywhere to go, and I was just calling people saying, ‘You can’t just throw my daughter out.’”

Bremner said her daughter ended up at Sunrise because she’d heard of several people in Browning who’d gone there. And when Running Crane expressed that she wanted to receive treatment, Bremner said the treatment facilities in Arizona “felt like a miracle.”

“Families are desperate to get their people help when they say, ‘I want to go to treatment,’” she said. “It’s very rare, so at that moment, you really want to get them in somewhere while they’re ready to go. It’s so hard to get treatment here, and sending her far away is scary, but we wanted her to get help.”

AHCCCS payments to Sunrise Native Wellness were suspended on July 21 — almost two months after Racine went missing and five months after Running Crane’s panic attack.

Tribes take action

After the Blackfeet Council helped get Racine home, it quickly became clear that its work wasn’t done.

As McGee became more vocal on Facebook, more and more families reached out saying their loved ones were missing or stuck at treatment centers in Arizona. McGee continued to present her findings to the tribal government, and eventually, the council came out with a formalized plan of action.

Councilman Lyle Rutherford directed facilities on the reservation, including Journey to Recovery, not to send clients to treatment centers in Arizona. The tribe has worked with McGee and other advocates to bring at least 10 members home. And on Tuesday, the council issued a public health state of emergency “for Blackfeet tribal members affected by the humanitarian crisis arising from shuttered fraudulent behavioral health treatment facilities in Arizona.”

The council on Thursday instituted a ban prohibiting the solicitation of individuals on the reservation to attend fraudulent treatment facilities in Arizona and established civil penalties for individuals or entities that violate the ban at $5,000 for the first offense, $10,000 for the second offense and permanent expulsion from the reservation on the third offense.

The council also pledged to continue to help members who were displaced and said it created a task force to identify displaced individuals.

Councilwoman Shelly Hall said the emergency declaration helps bring awareness to the crisis and could allow the tribe to allocate more money toward its resolution.

“I believe there are about eight or 10 more Blackfeet down there,” Hall said. “This is important because these are our members. If they’re in any kind of trouble, we want to help them. We’ve heard horror stories of people who are on the streets in this heat.”

McGee said she also urged Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office to issue a public service announcement on the matter but was told that his office needed more information on the subject. She also reached out to members of Montana’s congressional delegation, and Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, urging the group to “immediately investigate this matter further and provide a detailed report of their findings.”

The Billings Area Indian Health Service has asked Montana tribes to let the agency know how many citizens have been impacted, and other tribes in Montana have also taken action.

Josie Fisher, Northern Cheyenne, was at a different treatment facility in Arizona and didn’t feel safe. She said a staff member made inappropriate sexual comments to her, and she wrote on Facebook that she wanted to leave.

Fisher got connected with advocates through Facebook, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe paid for her plane ticket home.

“I’m so thankful to be home,” she said. “I’m at peace now. When I was there, I was just in survival mode.”

Northern Cheyenne Councilwoman Melissa Lonebear said as of Aug. 1, the tribe had helped three members get home from Arizona and added that the council is working with the tribal health department to develop a plan to get more people home.

She said part of the issue is that there is no treatment center on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

“The way the system is set up is if someone hits rock bottom and they want treatment, they will do an assessment at the Northern Cheyenne Recovery Center and then get referred to an outpatient 10-day program,” she said. “After 10 days, there’s a chance a bed will open in Billings or Butte, but that person may have to just return home. And because we don’t have sober living homes here, people come back and return to the same environment.”

Lonebear is hopeful that the tribe will be able to help people return home from Arizona, but acknowledged the council will have to overcome significant barriers in doing so. To be eligible for AHCCCS, treatment centers had clients change their residency address to Arizona, so it’s hard for tribal councils in Montana to know how many of their members are there. And tribes have noted that even when someone returns home, it can take time to change their residency back to Montana and re-enroll them in Medicaid.

“I just posted on Facebook asking, ‘How many Cheyenne members do we have in Arizona?’” Lonebear said. “I’m getting names from families, and it’s hard. It’s hard to reach people because there’s no way to communicate if that person doesn’t have a phone. This is a lot bigger than we know.”

Fisher’s boyfriend was at the same facility in Arizona, but it wasn’t as easy for him to get home. Jacinto Brien is Crow, and he tried reaching out to his tribe, just as Fisher had. But he had no luck.

“I tried reaching my tribe on the phone, but I couldn’t get ahold of anyone,” he said. “And because I’m Crow, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe couldn’t help.”

Reva Stewart, of the #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits campaign, ultimately fundraised to help get Brien home. Her GoFundMe has raised more than $8,000 to help Native Americans caught in the scam.

“I’m really grateful,” Brien said of Stewart’s efforts. “I’d just say, for any tribe that’s willing to help, please answer your phones. People need your help. This is important.”


If you or a loved one is at an Arizona treatment center or was at an Arizona treatment center and wants to come home, here are some resources:

  • Call your tribe. See if they can help bring you or a loved one home.
  • The Billings Area Indian Health Service is asking each tribe to let the agency know how many members have been impacted. Send relevant information to and or call 406-247-7248.
  • For an updated list on which Arizona treatment centers have been suspended, visit
  • To either verify or report an existing treatment center, visit
  • If you suspect Medicaid fraud or a health violation, call the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ fraud hotline at 800-201-6308.
  • If you would like to file a report to add to the ongoing FBI investigation into Arizona treatment centers, visit
  • Advocates Reva Stewart and Laura McGee can be reached on Facebook.

This article was first published in the Missoulian. 

The post Sober living fraud scheme targeted Montana tribal citizens appeared first on Buffalo’s Fire.

South Dakota population on track to top 1 million by 2030 after ‘significant’ growth

Renewable Energy Meets Affordable Housing on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation

This story was originally published by Homegrown Stories.

Video by Homegrown Stories.

When storms on the Pine Ridge reservation, home of the Oglala Nation, in South Dakota begin to build, they can be seen from miles away. Above rolling hills, clouds turn into waves and bring the rain. Strong gusts of wind stir up the smell of dirt and sagebrush. Wildlife begins to move along the Badlands long before the weather hits ground and radio broadcasts from KILI radio station warn the community of what’s to come. Evidence of the storm comes slowly at first, setting the scene and then it hits all at once.

In the same way storms build power, slowly and intentionally, there’s something else gaining momentum on Pine Ridge. People that have been too long at the mercy of colonialism and industrialization have begun to gather, organize, and build the foundation for a more prosperous tomorrow. Red Cloud Renewable has been a landmark for sustainability on Pine Ridge, but there was a crucial piece missing in order for the efforts being made in renewable energy to work: housing. Solar panels on poorly insulated, mold-infested homes cannot solve the energy crisis on the reservation.

In 2015, Pine Ridge was hit with several severe storms which prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send 50 trailers to aid people during the flooding. This temporary housing is still being used today.

It is estimated that 89% of people living on the Pine Ridge reservation are in need of housing. According to the American Indian Humanitarian Foundation, at least 60% of the homes on Pine Ridge are without water, electricity, adequate insulation, or sewage systems. Summers can reach a blistering 110 degrees Fahrenheit and higher, while winters can drop to -50 degrees. It is not uncommon for monthly heating bills to reach $500 during the winter months.

With the average per capita salary of $7,000-$9,000 per year, an energy alternative is not just a means of cutting costs, it’s survival.

Solar energy goes a step further than just being a more cost effective form of energy, it also connects the old way of life for the Lakota people to a new way of living. It has the power to give Indigenous people back autonomy by giving people the option to live off-grid.

Henry Red Cloud poses for a portrait in front of a solar panel array at Red Cloud Renewables, October 2022. (Photo by Jessica Plance)

For Henry Red Cloud, it started with a calling. After spending many years working in construction and building with every industrial material, Henry felt a calling back home to the land, to Pine Ridge. For a year, he lived out of a tipi, and he educated himself on sustainable building. “We honor the Sun, we coexist here on the Earth, our language, our song, our dance, our ceremony, our way of life is all based around the sun. So I wanted to take this new way of living and honor the old way, by becoming sustainable,” said Henry.

After spending six years traveling and learning about solar and all of its applications, Henry returned to Pine Ridge to put what he had learned to work. In 2002, he began doing research on thermal solar heating panels, which led him to turning an old freezer door into a solar heater. Using reclaimed materials from a landfill, some metal and an exhaust tube connected to his car battery, Henry built a heater fueled by the sun. Not long after that, he found himself volunteering to do some solar heating installations with a nonprofit. This would lead him to opening Lakota Solar Enterprises, creating jobs for two employees, and himself.

Jason Mackie and Leo Bear apply a self leveling flooring in a model home. (Photo by Jessica Plance)

By 2003 they had started manufacturing heating panels. After meeting with the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewert Udall, Henry secured funding to continue building what he started. With the mission of creating economic opportunities and lessening what Red Cloud calls the tribes’ “moccasin print,” he began working with other tribes.

Red Cloud Renewable became a certified training program and created over 500 jobs across those tribes. This allowed Henry to hire 12 more employees to his own operation as well. These partnerships began to grow and build on each other. “That partnership beginning from 1997, I firmed up and did everything that I could to train myself around solar electric grid-tied battery based systems, standalone systems and then brought a training facility, the first ever of its kind in Indian Country,” explained Henry. Since then, Red Cloud Renewable has added programs in food sovereignty, natural-home builds and reforestation.

Not one of these programs functions fully on its own. Without economic and job security, a community has fewer resources to focus on food sovereignty. Without well-insulated and energy-efficient housing, renewable energy cannot function at its full potential. That housing also needs to be affordable for the community that it intends to serve. Red Cloud Renewable has dabbled in various sustainable housing projects and methods but more recently has partnered with a nonprofit, InOurHands.

Founded by Jason Mackie and Aaron Resnick, InOurHands is working with the Oglala Sioux Tribes and others to address the need for proper housing on the reservation. “There’s a need here for about 20,000 homes,” explained Jason, who has been working with Red Cloud since 2018. “And it’s been common in my five years out here. In fact, every year, somebody that we know, a family member of theirs, has died of exposure, during the night, in their own home, because maybe they thought they’d wait it out, wait another night, and then it got a little bit too cold,” said Jason.

Using a material known as cellular concrete, Red Cloud Renewable and InOurHands have developed a version of a tiny home that ranges in cost from $7,500 to $9,000. The dome-shaped homes are naturally insulated, take only a few days to assemble, are fireproof, and can be heated with a small solar panel. “It’s important to me that we can give something to someone that will sustain them for a really long time and allow them to cultivate some hope and participate in their community and help heal other wounds,” said Aaron.

The first phase of the partnership was focused on training, building warming shelters, and providing one home per each of the nine districts on the reservation. They are also laying the groundwork so that this project can continue to grow beyond addressing housing insecurity. In the future, they hope to train more Lakota people in building the domes, so that others can start their own businesses. InOurHands was granted $700,000 from the Turner Foundation, Kind World, and the Minnie Miracle Foundation to continue this work, and the organizations will continue to build on a charitable basis for families with the greatest need. In the future, these homes will be built by Lakota-owned businesses. Families will be able to purchase the homes with a mortgage that the Lakota Federal Credit Union has agreed to underwrite.

Addressing the housing crisis could also lead to an increase in community involvement in government, policies, and voting. Having a permanent address makes the voting process significantly easier. “Once you help folks find hope, they can begin to engage in self-advocacy. And when they can advocate for themselves, they can become stewards of the land,” said Aaron.

South Dakota sees 275 sunny days a year, on average — enough to heat and power homes if the proper infrastructure and policies were to be put in place. New policies could change the narrative for those facing housing insecurities not just on the reservation but across the United States.

Red Cloud Renewable and InOurHands employees stand in front of a newly built tiny house. (Photo by Jessica Plance)

“It’s at that point, we need to be coming together. Our native history with a non-native history has been a terrible time,” said Henry. “But we’re still in that history book. We’re just in a new chapter and we know now what we can do and what we should be doing. And then we can close the book, bring it to a better ending.”

Homegrown Stories is a storytelling project from the advocacy group Western Organization of Resource Councils. It celebrates the hardworking people across the West doing things right. The people of these stories are creating community-based food systems, investing in clean energy economies and jobs, supporting just transition work, and fighting for a sustainable future.

The post Renewable Energy Meets Affordable Housing on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

Grocery taxes face the chopping block in South Dakota 

A person wearing a bucket hat, jacket, and neon green gloves places a cardboard box into the trunk of a red car. Behind them, two women wearing blue shirts and a man wearing a neon green shirt holding another box stand waiting.

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High food prices and the end of extra food-stamp allotments mean hard choices around the country for lower-income people:

“You’re having to make the decision between ‘am I paying my mortgage, or my medical bills or my medication or buying food?’” said Stacey Andernacht with hunger relief organization Feeding South Dakota.

But in her state, there’s yet another factor pushing up costs: South Dakota is one of just three — along with Mississippi and Alabama — that levies its full sales tax rate on groceries without a credit or rebate to offset the costs.

That hits low-income people hardest because they spend a higher percentage of their income on groceries than wealthier residents, said Rick Weiland, co-founder of grassroots advocacy organization Dakotans for Health. It’s the reason that most states have eliminated sales taxes on groceries over the past couple of decades.

Rick Weiland, co-founder of Dakotans for Health, speaks at the nonprofit’s Democracy Center, where ballot measure petitions are signed and notarized and voters are registered, in Sioux Falls, SD on Oct. 24, 2021. Photo courtesy of Dakotans for Health.

A bill to do the same has been introduced in the South Dakota Legislature for years to no avail. But in November 2024, South Dakotans may have the opportunity to repeal the grocery tax themselves.

Dakotans for Health began collecting signatures earlier this month on a ballot measure that would eliminate the state portion of the grocery tax. Municipalities would be able to continue taxing groceries, as the state has more resources than localities, Weiland said. Dakotans for Health is forming a coalition of nonprofits and faith-based groups to work together on the campaign.

“This is just something that’s long overdue,” Weiland said. “And so I don’t think the timing could be any better than to do this after 20 years of failed attempts to get it done by the Legislature.”

Grocery taxes falling out of favor

Statewide sales taxes originated in Mississippi during the Great Depression and quickly spread throughout the nation. Groceries were included in the general sales tax in most states at first, said Eric Figueroa, senior manager of strategic projects and initiatives at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Eric Figueroa, senior manager of strategic projects and initiatives at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (Photo by Jason Dixson, courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

A few decades ago, concerned about the impact on hunger, states began to exempt groceries from that tax. Of the 45 states that impose sales taxes, only 12 still apply it on groceries. And nine of those — Hawaii, Oklahoma, Utah, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri — do so at a reduced rate or offer rebates or credits.

A surge in food prices has brought repealing grocery taxes back to the forefront of policy discussions. “It has always been an issue that anti-hunger advocates have rallied around, but I think recently we’ve seen both parties be involved in efforts to try to eliminate it and try to figure out how to pay for the loss of revenue,” Figueroa said.

Earlier this year, Virginia eliminated its 1.5% state sales tax on groceries. (Local jurisdictions there can still levy up to 1%.) Alabama’s Legislature is poised to cut its state grocery tax rate in half. A cut already went into effect in Kansas in January, while Idaho increased its credit on the tax beginning this year. Illinois residents are in a year-long pause on collection and Tennessee instituted a three-month suspension that begins in August.

During South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s re-election campaign last year, she promised to eliminate the grocery tax. But the proposal died in the House earlier in the year. There was also concern that eliminating the tax could reduce $2 million that goes to the nine Native American reservations’ tribal government operations, though Noem later said that the tribes’ contracts would be renegotiated so they would not be economically affected.

However, state leaders did agree to reduce the statewide general sales tax for four years, starting in July, from 4.5% to 4.2%, which will also affect groceries.

Noem originally expressed support for Dakotans for Health’s petition. She backed out due to fear that as written, the ballot measure would jeopardize an annual $20 million that the state receives through a 1998 agreement with major tobacco companies to settle lawsuits for healthcare costs related to smoking.

“She supported it in the past, in the present, and will in the future. But that tax cut needs to be written appropriately,” her chief of communications, Ian Fury, said in an email. He added, “The language proposed by the Governor and legislators during the legislative session did not have these problems and is the right way to go for the state.”

Weiland expressed skepticism about the potential risk to the settlement.

“If the initiated law we are currently circulating passes, and if the courts determine that it exempts tobacco from state sales tax, the Legislature with its one-party supermajority has full authority, before the initiative goes into effect on July 1, 2025, to eliminate any of the Governor’s recent concerns about any potential problem by amending the initiated law to fix any alleged problem,” Weiland said in a press release.

In 2004, over 67% of South Dakotan voters cast ballots against a similar initiative to eliminate the tax on groceries. But Weiland, whose group was among those coordinating a successful 2022 ballot measure to expand Medicaid in the state, believes that the governor’s campaign for eliminating the grocery tax and legislative action in recent years will help garner widespread support for a new citizen-led proposal. He said the organization is working with the tribes to try to ensure that the loss in revenue won’t impact them.

“By letting the people vote on it, we can bypass all the politics that goes on in the Legislature and do what we did with working on the Medicaid expansion campaign — by taking it directly to people and letting them make the decision,” Weiland said.

The organization is going door-to-door, attending events and standing outside public buildings to collect the 17,509 valid signatures needed from registered voters. Those signatures must reach the secretary of state by May 2024 in order for it to appear on the November 2024 ballot.

The state of hunger

Accessing healthy food is already a challenge in the rural state of South Dakota, where grocery stores are sometimes few and far between. One in 12 people in the state, and one in nine children, experience hunger, according to Feeding America.

A 2021 study that looked at grocery taxes between 2006 and 2017 found that areas with the tax experienced some of the greatest food insecurity in the nation.

In South Dakota, food insecurity is particularly pronounced in the state’s nine Native American reservations, where residents face the additional challenge of lack of transportation. On the Rosebud Indian Reservation in St. Francis, Feeding South Dakota’s Andernacht said, residents shop at a convenience store when they can’t reach the closest grocery store 40 miles away. Getting a ride there and back can cost around $100. The nonprofit has increased its food distribution to the reservation from every other month to once a month.

Another client in the central part of the state lives 30 miles from a discount grocery store, so she bought more expensive groceries at a nearby shop where her food stamps didn’t stretch as far. As a result, she used the nonprofit’s mobile distribution food drive to supplement her groceries until she found a better paying job. Now she’s returned to the food drive due to increased food prices, Andernacht said.

Feeding South Dakota provides food for hungry families throughout the state through programs including drive-through sites, school pantries and food boxes for seniors.

Over 11,500 families are served through mobile food distribution per month, which Andernacht says is a 22% increase since last year. She attributes that rise to higher food costs and an end to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s emergency allotments, which resulted in a $90 a month decrease in grocery money for the average SNAP recipient nationwide.

Filling the revenue gap when grocery taxes disappear

Any state repealing its grocery tax must account for the loss of revenue. In South Dakota, the tax brings in about $102 million annually.

The sales tax on groceries has an even greater impact in Alabama, generating about $500 million that goes toward the state’s already strained education coffers.

“It’s been a very hard political problem to eliminate the tax and make up for the revenue in a way that satisfies everybody,” said Figueroa, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

However, a 2020 paper he co-authored suggests that states can raise revenues in ways that don’t hit lower-income people hardest, such as expanding taxes for the wealthy and corporations and cutting special-interest breaks.

Figueroa also referenced a proposal in Alabama he found powerful. Proposed by the organization Alabama Arise, the plan would replace grocery-tax revenue with a cap on the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes, which would bring in an estimated $520 million annually.

Carol Gundlach, senior policy analyst at Alabama Arise. (Photo courtesy of Alabama Arise)

“We are in this peculiar position that we have an incredibly regressive tax in the sales tax on groceries and we have a tax cut that is really a tax break that benefits … mainly the top 5% of income earners in the state,” said Carol Gundlach, senior policy analyst at Alabama Arise.

The plan would require a constitutional amendment, so it was not included in a current state bill to cut the sales tax for groceries in half, which Gundlach expects will pass. Eliminating the sales tax on groceries has been a priority for Alabama Arise for three decades. The organization was involved in writing the bill, education, outreach and lobbying.

Gundlach is hopeful that South Dakota will manage to eliminate its grocery sales tax next year.

“We get Alabama and South Dakota, then all we’ve got to do is Mississippi,” she said.

The post Grocery taxes face the chopping block in South Dakota  appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.

Native Hawaiians are overrepresented in prisons. Here’s how cultural education could help. 

Alisha Kaluhiokalani spent most of her first year at Hawaii’s only women’s prison alone in a 6-by-8 foot cell.

She fought, broke the rules, and lashed out at everyone around her. Because of that, she was frequently sent to “lock” – what everyone at the Women’s Community Correctional Center called solitary confinement.

On a rare afternoon in the prison yard Kaluhiokalani heard a mellow, hollow sound. “What was that?” she whispered to herself.

She looked across the yard and saw a prison staff member playing the ukulele.

“You play?” he asked.

She nodded, taking the instrument and starting to strum. She sang “I Kona,” a traditional Hawaiian song loved by her father.

“You want to continue to play that?” the man asked her.

“Yes,” she said.

“Stay out of lock.”

So she did.

It was the ukulele, a Hawaiian language class, and her encounter with the man in the yard more than 20 years ago that changed Kaluhiokalani’s educational trajectory.

‘Not Knowing Who You Are’

Native Hawaiians like Kaluhiokalani are disproportionately locked up in the Hawaii criminal justice system, making up only 20% of the general population but 40% of people in prison. Similar imbalances are true for Indigenous people across the country.

Among other states with significant overrepresentation of Indigenous people are Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. Native women in particular have higher incarceration rates than the general population.

Native Hawaiians are more likely to struggle with addiction, drop out of school and go to prison. Many feel alienated from Western education systems, Kaluhiokalani said, and that their cultural identity has been suppressed in the wake of historical losses of land and language.

“They call that the ‘eha … the hurt, and not knowing who you are,” she said.

That was something she has struggled with personally. She has often felt like a screw up given the life she has lived, she said. There have been times in her life when she had a hard time seeing herself as anything other than an addict or a prisoner.

Kaluhiokalani became pregnant with her first child at 17. She finished her GED before the baby was born by taking classes at night. Her boyfriend, Jacob, enlisted in the National Guard, and over the next few years they had three more children. During that time, they both struggled with addiction and cycled in and out of jail. She went to prison for the first time on drug-related charges at the age of 23.

In prison, shortly after that first year in solitary, Kaluhiokalani enrolled in her first college class, Hawaiian 101.

“That was a tipping point,” she said.

Being able to learn her language taught her about her identity, helped her see that there was a place for her in higher education. After that, she started working in the prison’s education department and created informal Hawaiian culture classes for her peers.

“I full-force dedicated myself to my culture, to helping people,” Kaluhiokalani said.

All higher education in prison has been shown to reduce recidivism, but incorporating culture into college programs can empower incarcerated Native Hawaiians in different ways, said Ardis Eschenberg, chancellor of Windward Community College.

“Pushing back on the narratives of colonization and racism through Hawaiian studies,” she said, “fights the very systems that have led to our unjust incarceration outcomes and underscores the agency and value of our students in education, community and society.”

Left: Alisha Kaluhiokalani at the University of Hawaii Manoa graduation on May 13. Photo courtesy of Alisha Kaluhiokalani. Right: Alisha Kaluhiokalani has kept the text book – Ka Lei Ha’aheo: Beginning Hawaiian – from the first college course she took in prison 20 years ago.

A Lack of Programs

Despite the benefits, there are few college programs in the United States that specifically target Indigenous people in prison. Windward Community College’s Pu‘uhonua program is an exception. It’s the only higher education institution in Hawaii offering culturally focused classes in prison, and one of only two offering degree programs.

Last fall, the college started an associate’s degree in Hawaiian studies at Halawa Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison. The college was selected for a federal program known as Second Chance Pell, which has provided federal financial aid to people in prison on a pilot basis since 2015.

Eschenberg said that their focus on cultural education for incarcerated Indigenous students is part of Windward’s mission as a Native Hawaiian-serving institution. Almost 43% of their students on campus are Native Hawaiian, the highest in the University of Hawaii system.

For Native Hawaiians, learning about their culture is “validating them in a society where so much of Hawaiian existence has been invalidated in history,” Eschenberg said. And cultural education, she adds, benefits everyone.

“There’s robust research that shows that even outside of Native Hawaiian studies, ethnic studies courses in general helped to build resilience and success for students.”

Windward has also offered a psycho-social developmental studies certificate with coursework in sociology, psychology, and social work at the women’s prison since 2016. They offer Hawaiian studies classes as electives, and focus on the Hawaiian context for the other coursework, Eschenberg said.

In addition, Windward faculty teach Hawaiian music-related coursework, such as ukulele and slack-key guitar, at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. The students earn both high school and college credit.

The college’s prison education program has primarily been funded by a five-year U.S. Education Department grant for Native Hawaiian-serving institutions that runs out this year. The expansion of Pell Grant eligibility for people in prison in July will help sustain the Pu‘uhonua program going forward. Eschenberg said that Pell dollars will help pay for instructor salaries for courses taught inside, but there are still costs not covered by federal financial aid.

Eschenberg had hoped that the Hawaii Legislature would approve a bill appropriating state funding for staff positions, such as academic counselors and coordinators, to support the Pu`uhonua program because those positions aren’t covered by Pell Grants. The bill stalled in the Legislature in April. Eschenberg said she’s currently applying for two federal grants to secure the necessary funding to keep the program running.

Elsewhere, other college-in-prison programs also have started to provide more opportunities for people to focus on their own cultures. In California, San Francisco State University last year created an ethnic studies certificate in state juvenile facilities. Portland State University’s prison education program also recently received a national grant to offer humanities courses focused on identity, including Indigenous Nations Studies, at Oregon’s only women’s prison.

While more programs in the United States are offering ethnic studies classes, few of those courses focus on Native people. Full degrees like Windward’s Hawaiian studies program specifically focused on Indigenous language and culture are even rarer, said Mneesha Gellman, political scientist and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative, which offers a bachelor’s degree in Massachusetts. Gellman’s research focuses on Indigenous language access and education.

Much of the cultural learning that currently occurs in prisons is informal education offered through community groups, prison arts organizations, or classes organized by incarcerated people. Those are valuable, Gellman said, but more academic programs should incorporate culturally relevant curriculum into traditional degree pathways.

Having culturally relevant content makes higher education in general more relatable to Indigenous students, she added, so they are more likely to go after a degree in the first place. And that in turn helps them get the credentials they need to get jobs when they leave prison.

A Wake-Up Call

While Kaluhiokalani’s path through education has had plenty of detours, a connection to her culture has resonated throughout. When she thinks about her elementary school years, she remembers the kupuna – Native Hawaiian elders – who would visit her school to share their cultural knowledge.

“Everything that I learned, I held on to …I loved to sing, play the ukulele, and dance hula.”

Kaluhiokalani grew up in Honolulu less than a mile from Waikiki beach, where she learned to surf.

She associates Waikiki with her father, Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, who was one of the top young surfers in the United States in the 1970s. As a young teenager, she would hang out with him at the beach and smoke pot. Buttons, too, struggled with addiction throughout his life.

“I was a surfer, party animal, like my dad,” she said.

Kaluhiokalani was in and out of prison for most of her 20s and early 30s. Her father’s death in 2013 was a wake-up call, she said, for her to do things differently when she got out.

The associate in arts degree in Hawaiian Studies that Alisha Kaluhiokalani earned from Windward Community College.

In 2017, Kaluhiokalani was released for the last time. A few years later, she ran into a woman she had been incarcerated with who encouraged her to enroll in college. She immediately signed up at Windward when she found out there was free tuition for Native Hawaiians and she could pursue an associate’s degree in Hawaiian studies. She wanted to use what she learned in her classes to use Native Hawaiian practices to help others in the criminal justice system.

The Hawaiian language class, and the ukulele in the prison yard, started Kaluhiokalani on a 20-year journey. She earned an associate’s degree last year from Windward and then, this month, she crossed the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Hawaii Manoa.

This story was co-published by Honolulu Civil Beat.

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