It's true: Chief Joe Brings Plenty

Brian Wright O’Connor | 5/19/2010, 5:49 a.m.
Cheyenne River Sioux Chief Joe Brings Plenty shown with students at Harvard College after speaking at a Winthrop House forum. Erint Images

After 10 years as a tribal police officer and four as a social worker, Brings Plenty decided new leadership was needed at tribal headquarters to offer more than just promises of a brighter day to a generation in danger of self-extinction. In 2004, he ran for tribal council and lost after a close recount. Defying the odds, he ran for tribal chairman two years later and won in a landslide.

Intent on shaking things up, he made the tribe the first in the U.S. to endorse the presidential campaign of a little-known U.S. senator from Chicago and began courting renewable energy developers to bring jobs and revenues to the reservation.

Thanks to federal stimulus funds set aside for tribal projects after aggressive lobbying of President Obama by Brings Plenty and other tribal leaders, a new health center is rising in Eagle Butte.

More help is needed, including some $65 million to repair the antiquated water system serving an area the size of Connecticut. Many homes have never had running water, sewer hook-ups or electricity. The tough budgetary climate has dimmed hope for relief, making alternative sources of funds even more important.

While in Boston to speak at Harvard, he met with former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, chairman of non-profit Citizens Energy Corporation, which is partnering with the tribe to build a 120-megawatt, utility-scale wind farm on the reservation.

Too far from population centers to harness casino revenues, Brings Plenty said Cheyenne River’s future lies in harnessing its own resources through deals that offer not just lease payments but ownership and control.

“They say the Dakotas is the Saudi Arabia of wind,” he told the mixed crowd of graduate and college students at Winthrop House. “It does blow out there sometimes over 50 miles an hour. We can use what we have to provide power that produces jobs but no pollution.”

The chief’s approach has attracted notice on both the national and international scenes. He serves as president of the Council of Large Land-Based Tribes, a coalition of tribes from seven western states covering 60 percent of all Native American lands, and has traveled to Latin America to meet with indigenous leaders from throughout the continent.

The chairman grew up on the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations during a period of frequent clashes between members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and less radical Native American factions.

He was too young to remember the 1973 takeover and shoot-out at Wounded Knee between AIM and the FBI, but said intra-tribe violence continued long after the lethal stand-off at the site of the 1890 U.S. Army massacre of hundreds of defenseless Sioux.

At age 8, while taking a short-cut home through territory controlled by AIM, Brings Plenty and his pet dog came under fire. “A bullet passed through my leg,” he said. “Right through my jeans and my calf. I used a willow stick to get out the .22 bullet and had to throw away my jeans because I didn’t want my parents to know.”