Indigenous Communities Lack Access to Growing Green Economy

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

As the nation moves past President Biden’s first 100 days, hopes are that the green energy future can begin to take shape more tangibly. 

Yet despite the green jobs promises of the American Jobs Plan, some communities still feel cut off from the new green economy. For Indigenous communities, a lack of access to higher education and job training programs leaves worries that more privileged communities will be picked first for green jobs. 

Why This Matters: Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change and are often located in flood plains and regions prone to extreme weather events. For centuries, tribes have had their sovereignty violated for the sake of development and economic profit while reaping none of the rewards–the green jobs revolution is an opportunity to change this.

Especially because, as Silvio Marcacci wrote for Forbes, tribal lands across the lower 48 states are home to an estimated 17.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar energy potential, yet funding for solar projects on tribal lands has largely come from government sources, but rarely covers full project costs, and poor management has hindered development. Tribal communities are already prime places for green jobs, thus training opportunities must be made available to all who want to participate in the green energy economy. 

What’s more, is that for tribes like the Navajo, solar energy development is an important step in ensuring that the 15,000 homes on tribal land that lack electricity are able to equitably electrify. The jobs solar electrification can bring are also crucial to employing and empowering Indigenous women.

Breaking Barriers: According to a 2017 study, white Americans hold roughly 80% of positions in the green energy sector, and men hold about 75% of all “green-collar” jobs. Indigenous people are often unable to access job and skills training to prepare them for roles in this sector. Trainings they can attend often focus on technical skills instead of utilizing environmental knowledge and cultural practices that have been proven to aid in climate change mitigation. Meanwhile, Indigenous and low-income communities don’t have the resources to create their own training programs. These disconnects have prevented Indigenous communities from entering the middle class and left young advocates disheartened and disillusioned. 

Indigenous people are natural stewards of Mother Earth,” said Dayne Goodheart. “And … when I pass on, I want to be able to leave behind a place for my kids where they don’t have to worry about power or water.” Goodheart is determined to use solar power to relieve the Nez Perce reservation of its dependence on outdated energy sources, but it’s been an uphill battle. Goodheart and other advocates want to make it easier for other Indigenous environmentalists and job seekers to join the green economy without abandoning home or community.

To start, advocates say that federal funding for career and technical education (CTE) is crucial to bringing the green revolution to Indigenous communities. 

  • Each year, the federal government authorizes $14 million to federally recognized tribes, Alaska Native organizations, and Indigenous education entities to provide CTE and gives grants to support workforce development. 

But community leaders say that programs have to be constructed with Indigenous students in mind. “Especially in a mainstream institution, there are these extreme silos around what environmental [science] is and what math is, and that’s just not how the world works,” explained Kendra Teague, who oversees environmental sustainability programs for the American Indian College Fund. “And that’s definitely not how Black and Brown folks – and Indigenous folks – relate to place.”


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