Update: Read the full Indian Country Today obituary.
With heavy hearts and abiding gratitude for the life of Pat Spears, Plains Justice bids goodbye to one of our most important leaders since our founding in 2006. His faith in the mission of Plains Justice to support a self-determined sustainable future for the people of the Great Plains never faltered. His quiet certainty inspired us all. Pat was a founder and President of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP), where he and his colleagues Bob Gough and Bill Schumacher made great strides in advancing the cause of native-owned clean energy infrastructure. In Pat’s own words from an interview for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Wind Powering America project,
COUP was formed in 1994 to provide a forum for utility issues discussion from regulatory and economic perspectives. The Intertribal COUP Council has representatives from nine Tribes located in a three-state area in the Northern Plains: South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska. The Tribes include the Cheyenne River; Flandreau Santee; Lower Brule; Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara; Omaha; Rosebud; Sisseton; Spirit Lake; and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribes. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Telephone Authority is also a member.
We provide policy analysis and recommendations, as well as workshops on telecommunications, climate change research, Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) hydropower allocations, energy efficiency, energy planning, and renewable energy, with a heavy emphasis on wind energy development.
Pat discusses his work with COUP in a 2008 interview with the REAMP clean energy network. In another video, Pat discusses the first native-owned utility scale (750 kW) wind turbine, installed in 2003 on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, home of the Sicangu Oyate. Pat doesn’t mention his large role in bringing the turbine to the reservation, including helping to create the Rosebud Tribal Utility Commission, which owns the turbine and sells its power. Together with Bob Gough, Pat won the 2007 Award for Courage at the World Clean Energy Awards, for this project. The story is told in greater detail in a 2007 Earth Island Journal article, and as a chapter in Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots.
In 2009, I was lucky enough to visit Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud reservation, where Pat was leading construction of a straw bale building to house the university’s new bison husbandry program. As anybody who knew Pat can imagine, he wasn’t standing off to the side with a clipboard. Out in the heat and wind, hair tied back, sleeves rolled up, he was up to his elbows and knees in the project, with respectful native students imitating his every move. He wasn’t too busy to step inside frequently to be sure that our meeting with tribal leadership about reforms to the local electric cooperative was going well.
Pat saw the national and global relevance of energy politics in Indian country and didn’t hesitate to engage. During 2011 protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, Pat spoke out at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on behalf of indigenous North Americans opposed to tar sands extraction. Flanked by tribal allies, he said:
We stand opposed to this extraction of tar sands oil on our treaty lands, both in Canada and the U.S. It’s our position that these environmental damages to water, the earth, plant and animal nations and the human health costs are just not worth the profits that will be made by a foreign company…. And while the rest of the world is meeting right now to figure out how to lessen their impact, their carbon footprint, the U.S. and Canada seem to be going backwards. If this tar sands oil land is fully developed, the climate change impacts are irreversible. It will literally push us over the carbon cliff.
More tar sands oil is not needed to supply oil here in the United States. It’s intended to go to refineries in the Gulf and export to other countries. It’s admitted that this will drive up the cost of oil here in the U.S., by TransCanada themselves. This’ll drive up the cost of food, transportation and every sector of our economy. It’ll even mean loss of more jobs, in an already depressed economy. So the temporary/permanent jobs that are estimated by TransCanada here in construction and operations are extremely inflated. This analysis is based on a study by the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University. So how can the contamination of the earth, water, death of the plant and animal nations and the ruin of human health for profit by a foreign company be in the national interest?
Pat continued by discussing tribal efforts to advance renewable energy and create green jobs, and the long-term positive economic impact of clean energy alternatives. He could go on at great length without notes on these topics. His knowledge, both technical and historical, was profound and nuanced, and he had a way of sharing it without lecturing or condescending.
Pat’s diverse background includes service as the Director of the Minority Business Office in the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development. He worked as Planning Director and served a term as Tribal Chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe or Kul Wicasa Oyate.
We at Plains Justice wanted to honor Pat’s memory with a few facts about his life. There is much more to tell. We are grateful for comments, additions, and corrections to what is posted here. Mitakuye oyasin.