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Know the West

You want to develop clean energy on tribal land? Here’s how.


Across North America, fossil-fuel extraction and production has long been robbing tribal communities of clean water, clean air and a secure future. The Navajo of the Southwest, the Houma of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Dene of Alberta, Canada, are some of the tribes sacrificing ancestral homes to oil and gas fracking projects, coal production, tar sands development and oil refineries.

Along with poisoning our land and water, these industries also poison our people with a high incidence of pollution-related diseases. The industrial culture also harms women, who experience an increase in sexual violence as “man camps” move into tribal communities for extraction projects. None of this is news; it is just the bitter truth.

This is why I so deeply support tribes developing renewable energy such as wind and solar. It is an approach that can help to ensure our survival. But the question is: How do we do it right? Seeking answers, I attended a conference in February called Renewable Energy Development on Tribal Lands, which was held in Anaheim, California. The aim of the event, sponsored by Electric Utility Consultants, was to better understand the dynamics between the renewable energy industry and indigenous communities, where there are vast opportunities for wind, solar and other clean energy projects.

It was both encouraging and cautionary. 

Not surprisingly, the majority of the conference focused on the business aspects of energy development, such as obtaining financing and understanding the legal considerations for developers. For indigenous folks, however, the most important topic was building relationships. Tribal communities have learned through experience that they need to create partnerships that don’t continue the cycle of exploitation of Native lands and Native people.

The conference seemed a good start, but pitfalls remain for energy developers. Here are some of my suggestions for how they might build trusting and respectful relationships:

First, take a look at who is at the table. For instance, although this conference was about tribal lands and working with tribal governments and communities, a majority of the tribal representatives were non-Native, and among the 50 or so conference attendees you could count actual tribal community members on one hand. As an indigenous person, it was disconcerting to see so many non-Native people telling other non-Native people how to relate to indigenous communities.

Second, developers need to spend time learning the history of a tribe and its current political and social-justice climate. Each tribe has experienced centuries of colonial oppression that have resulted in the mistrust of non-Native businesses and organizations. In addition, every tribe faces a unique situation and has a unique set of solutions that aligns with its cultural values. It is strategic and honorable – especially if you are the dominant culture (white, educated, well-funded) – to step back, listen, and engage in deeper conversations about a tribe’s history.

Third, it would be smart for clean energy developers to engage with young indigenous leaders and community organizers. These are the people who may end up trying to kill your project if it is not in the best interest of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Across North America, young indigenous leaders are leading decolonization movements to reclaim our identity and our ancestral homes. We’ve been in relationship with the lands we call home since time immemorial. The land is the foundation of our identity.

Native American students learn about small-scale wind energy at a workshop at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, hosted by Trees, Water & People and Lakota Solar Enterprises.
Dan Bihn/Courtesy Trees, Water & People

Unfortunately, what many young indigenous people see is that our elected tribal leaders fail us by allowing the fossil-fuel industry to continue to exploit our land and people. These leaders have sold out – sacrificed our culture for dollars that are usually far below the value of what is being given away. Because our leaders are in some cases suspect, it would be prudent of renewable energy developers to look beyond the walls of tribal government to the people. The more connections to our communities, the better.

There is lots of hope and optimism when it comes to clean energy development. This is especially true for places like the Navajo Nation, where, inexplicably, some 15,000 homes still have no electricity, despite three massive, coal-burning power plants located on or directly next to tribal land. 

Now we have an opportunity to divest from oil and coal, develop new energy projects, and most importantly, to build healthier relationships between non-Native and Native peoples. Oppressive patterns can be broken if we encourage and fight for business models that favor fairness and justice. 

Jade Begay is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. She is Diné and Tesuque Pueblo, and is participating in a year-long Sustainability and Justice Fellowship at Resource Media in Boulder, Colorado.