Bob Whitener: Sustainability Offers Tribes a Meaningful Way to Diversify Their Holdings

Bob Whitener, Indian Country Today Media Network

Sustainability truly matters to the tribes. The rivers and the fish kept them alive. Their natural resources provided them with jobs. They still want—and need—to provide jobs. And sustainability can help do that.

That’s one of the main reasons why investing in sustainable companies, partnerships and projects that have a chance to change the future makes a lot of sense for the tribes today.

The tribes have always prioritized the health of their environment, and I strongly believe that the economic and social conditions are ripe for them to contribute meaningfully to environmental improvement right now.

I used to be a tribal fisherman who dug clams, but now I’m a consultant who advises the tribes when it comes to natural resources, economic development and environmental protection.

As part of my upbringing, and part of my current job, I know how important it is for the tribes to diversify their holdings beyond gaming. But I also know that this diversification absolutely must preserve the tribes’ ethical and social values. This is simply non-negotiable.

Indeed, many green technologies need investment, and those tribes whose economic resources permit can play an important role by providing financial support that allows profit-oriented enterprises in this area to thrive.

Looking forward, the alignment of environmental values and economic opportunity creates a synergistic benefit for future tribe generations. Greater wealth helps all tribe members, and a better environment leads to increased health for the tribes, too.

There’s also long-lasting tribe pride in having enhanced both the economy and the environment.

I’ve seen several good examples that illustrate how the tribes are achieving both these goals through smart sustainability investing and commitments.

Washington State-based MicroGREEN, for example, is transforming recycled water bottles into recyclable products for retail, food-service and packaging needs. The company is the closest thing to full-cycle recycling I’ve seen. And it’s a rare kind of business, because it can make money and still be good for the environment. Some day in the future, I believe that MicroGREEN’s cups will be ubiquitous, and the tribes that have invested in it will be very proud.

In the wind-power market, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes are installing wind turbines on their land in order to offset fossil fuels and power all operations with wind energy. This move is expected to save more than $9 million for the tribes over the next four decades. In the past, the tribes have spent more than $200,000 a month for electricity, including generators that help power its casinos.

One of the nation’s first 100 percent Native American-owned-and-operated renewable energy companies can be found on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Founded in 2006, Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE) manufactures solar air collectors and complete supplemental solar heating systems. It also provides employment and green-jobs training for Native Americans.

Meanwhile, the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) in Montana are developing a pioneering project aimed at creating a viable biofuel industry using waste wood that blankets the region’s vast forestlands. The CSKT have agreed to partner with a team of researchers from the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) on an expansive $40 million research project. NARA is a broad collective of scientists and engineers from public universities and private industry that is studying the feasibility of creating jet fuel using wood debris and residuals.

Working with companies that prioritize environmental sustainability, such as MicroGREEN, will help the tribes diversify their economies and help green, in a cost effective way, their gaming operations if they have them.”

Bob Whitener is a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe and co-owner and managing partner of The Whitener Group with his brother Ron. The Whitener Group is a consulting firm dedicated to the sustainability and advancement of tribes. The company advises Indian Tribes, as well as businesses and organizations that want to work with tribes to advance tribal objectives. Prior to The Whitener Group’s establishment in 2009, Bob Whitener served as the CEO/Board President for Island Enterprises Inc., the tribe’s economic development corporation, for more than 8 years. And before he created the Island Enterprises Inc., Bob served for over 6 years as the executive director of the Squaxin Island Tribe.