North Star Journey

Native-led EV initiative launches by distributing millions of dollars worth of vehicles to tribal communities

A car dealership
Electric Nation unveils some of the electric vehicles included at Tenvoorde Ford in St. Cloud. The project raised $13.4 million between Electric Nation and its partners.
Courtesy of Native Sun

In the coming weeks Electric Nation will deliver 10 Ford F-150 Lightning pickup trucks, and a Ford Mustang Mach E, all EVs, to six tribal fleets across the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. Five other EVs will be delivered later. 

The project’s total value is $13.4 million. 

It’s the brainchild of Native Sun Community Power Development Executive Director Robert Blake. The idea, he said, was born out of the Line 3 pipeline protests. 

“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,’” Blake said. “Then I thought to myself, ‘What if Native people could lead the charge against the fossil-fuel companies with an alternative of electric vehicles?’”

Four people pose for a photo
Electric Nation’s Lisa Daniels, Robert Blake and the American Lung Association’s clean air Senior Director Jon Hunter pose at the Tennevoorde Ford dealership in St Cloud. The American Lung Association is one of Electric Nation’s many partners who participated in the federal cost-sharing program to raise $13.4 million for the project.
Courtesy of Native Sun

Blake saw the program as a way to resist what he calls “the fossil-fuel infrastructure.” He said he also wants to create his own pipeline: a vehicle-charging network from Red Lake to Standing Rock with plans to expand into other tribal nations across the U.S. 

Electric Nation came about when Blake teamed with Joe McNeil, CEO of Sage Development Authority in Fort Yates, North Dakota.

McNeil develops and manages renewable energy sources in his area. He says the program will help place tribes at the forefront of adapting to new modes of transportation. He said it also addresses “barriers for historically under-resourced and underserved rural tribal communities with limited access to EVs.”  

An electric charging station
A charging station with the Electric Nation logo. Electric Nation’s initial project is called the Upper-Midwest Inter-Tribal EV Charging Community Network.
Courtesy of Native Sun

“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 said. “Unfortunately, that’s what happens in a country of capitalists. If you can afford to be in the technology, then you have access to it. And if you can’t, then you’re out. So, I think this was a good way to get our foot in the door.”

McNeil said much as tribal nations banded together to answer Standing Rock’s call to action in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, he’s hopeful those same channels can carry those same groups into becoming leaders in renewable energy.   

“We’re starting off with a relationship with Red Lake to connect tribal nations between Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota as a start. And we hope that it spreads,” McNeil said. “For us, it’s a way of giving back. I think the expertise and the capacity that’s built into our relationships to help other tribal nations if they want to have access to electric vehicle charging stations and electric vehicles, to introduce themselves at their own pace. No one’s forcing anybody to do this.” 

The vehicles will be used by the Standing Rock Renewable Energy Power Authority, Red Lake Fisheries, Red Lake Agriculture Department, Grand River and Prairie Knights casinos.  

Native Sun Community Power Development will also receive an electric SUV.  

The purchases were made possible through a federal cost-sharing program with Electric Nation’s partners: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Power, Otter Tail Power, Xcel Energy and ZEF Energy.   

Native Sun’s Program Director Lisa Daniels said all the vehicles are outfitted with a data-tracking system. 

“We’ll be able to see how far and fast they go, how long their journeys are,” Daniels said. “And with some interviews and some surveys, we’ll be able to help determine if these vehicles are meeting the needs that that the fleet organizations have for their requirements.”     

Two men pose for a photo
Joseph McNeil (left), CEO of Sage Development Authority in Fort Yates, North Dakota and Native Sun Executive Director Robert Blake helped create Electric Nation as a way to transition tribal fleets to EV technology.
Courtesy of Native Sun

Electric Nation plans to expand the program into other tribal communities. Once complete Blake says the EV infrastructure will create a Route 66 type travel system through Indian Country.   

“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 said.  

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