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Collective Genius: The Oceti Sakowin Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Exceptional entrepreneurs from Oceti Sakowin are on the move.

Meet Rose Fraser. She leads the Medicine Root Garden Program of the Oyate Teca Project, teaching families on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota how to grow, harvest, store, and cook healthy food. Her entrepreneurial work is scaling food sovereignty and healthy living in a community that the US Department of Agriculture has designated a “food desert,” because Pine Ridge’s only full grocery store has limited fresh produce, which is often too expensive for residents to afford.

Rose came to MIT from South Dakota this past May as a Fellow in the MIT Solve Oceti Sakowin Fellowship to exchange with faculty, staff, students, and other guests about her work, along with five other Fellows from Sioux tribes of North and South Dakota. MIT Solve enables talented innovators to share their work and better connect with MIT and broader entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Entrepreneurs have insight, grit, and passion. Ideas and talent mix with persistence, ingenuity, luck, and deep teamwork to drive progress. Network connections make an extraordinary difference for any team—the denser the network, the better. Colleagues, mentors, friends, funders, and partners each bring a range of expertise and resources, forming entrepreneurial ecosystems. Everyone can find a way to support the journey of an entrepreneurial team.  

One resource often not recognized for its incredible value is diversity of perspective. Achieving mutual understanding among various cultures and identities—inclusive of a respectful relationship to nature—builds individual, community, and ecosystem agility, flexibility, and strength. These are essential qualities for the unprecedented scale of collaboration and cooperation needed to solve our world’s greatest challenges. We will need to support and foster collective genius for scaled innovation.

Indigenous Peoples have understood and practiced this for millennia, and their collective genius is vital for guiding the systemic transformation urgently needed at all levels, local to global, to enable just and sustainable development. Recognizing this, MIT Solve launched the Oceti Sakowin Fellowship this year, which brings the MIT community into collaboration with innovators from a number of Sioux tribes who lead renewable energy, affordable food and housing, or clean water projects that contribute to health, economic prosperity and sovereignty.

Meet Phyllis Young. She is a tribal elder leading a team effort to bring energy efficiency and solar power to Standing Rock tribal buildings. She recalls participating in a “survival gathering” in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1980. Held 35 years before the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the gathering was focused on sustainable development, with a vision of communities powered by the wind and sun.

“Our reservations were put on land nobody else wanted because it was too hot, cold or windy,” relates Henry Red Cloud. “We have found that the harsh land we were put on has a power that was originally unknown. Today it is known as solar power and wind power and it is giving us a way forward and the strength we need in these difficult times.”

Meet Henry Red Cloud—the direct fifth generation descendant of Chief Red Cloud, and co-manager of the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. At the Center, tribes from around the US learn renewable energy technology and sustainable building practices from Native American trainers. The Center also installs off-grid solar furnaces and develops mini-grids with the tribes. This project enables tribal members to access off-grid energy, while growing workforce development, reducing energy costs, and supporting environmental health.

Meet Chance Renville, the Energy Program Manager at the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC) in Pine Ridge. TVCDC builds family homes as part of its Regenerative Community Development initiative. Chance explains that these homes use passive and active solar energy, and are extremely well insulated, reducing energy use and costs by as much as 50 percent. The TVCDC Workforce Development Through Sustainable Construction Program trains 18 to 26 year-olds in the skills and methods necessary for eco-friendly, sustainable home construction, helping to support youth employment.

Meet Kimberlynn Cameron, who is leading the Sustainable Community Development on Standing Rock project, which empowers youth to co-develop a sustainable community housing that is culturally appropriate and affordable. The project’s second goal is to harness renewable energy resources to enable the tribe to develop a year-round net-zero greenhouse operation for economic growth, thereby offsetting commercial and residential energy demands—and increasing access to healthy food.

Meet Joe McNeil, President of Standing Rock Development Corporation. Joe is planning the building of solar power installations for reservation communities to offset the high cost of energy in Standing Rock. These communities pay some of the highest electricity costs in North and South Dakota. By reducing the cost of electricity, these offset solar installations will reduce the cost of living, thereby enabling residents to better afford food, medication, clothes, housing, and improve overall quality of life.

These six leaders, and many other exceptional entrepreneurs from Oceti Sakowin, will gather this August 12-13 at Solve at Standing Rock to celebrate and uplift innovative sustainability work in Indian Country. This free and open event will bring the Oceti Sakowin Fellows together with other innovators from the Oceti Sakowin and MIT communities, government, business, and NGOs, to experience Indigenous Peoples’ leadership of the sustainability movement and advance collective genius around solutions. In the Dakotas, creativity and ingenuity abound, yet so often entrepreneurs in these regions have been far too under-resourced. Together we can drive abundant collaboration for all doers in Oceti Sakowin and beyond.

In the words of Henry Red Cloud, “It is time to use the power of determined and peaceful people and to utilize traditional Native Wisdom to return to a positive and healthy relationship with Mother Earth.”

To learn more about the 2018 Oceti Sakowin Solve Fellowship, join us at Solve at Standing Rock August 12-13. Contact us at ocetifellows@solve.mit.edu for more information.


The Oceti Sakowin Solve Fellows pose for a photo at the "Healthy Planet, Healthy People" plenary during Solve at MIT, May 17, 2018. (Photo: Adam Schultz / MIT Solve)

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