By Ngoc Nguyen

New America Media

Dec 18, 2009

Wahleah Johns grew up near the coal mines of the Black Mesa region of Arizona and experienced first-hand the toll that mining takes on people, the land and the groundwater. Her community, Forest Lake, was one of several communities atop Black Mesa, where Peabody Energy ran the largest strip mining operation in the country on Indian land until recently.

Today, Johns, 34, co-directs the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a grassroots organization of Native American and non-Native activists in Flagstaff, which combines the goals of traditional environmentalism with the commitment to Native culture and reverence for the land.

Johns and the Coalition are not unique among American Indians. But their activism against fossil fuels and polluting power plants and for sustainable, environmentally friendly growth reveals a generational schism within the largest Native American tribes that has profound economic and political implications for the future. That schism was brought into sharp relief in September when the Hopi government banned local and national environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, from their lands.

The Navajo Nation supported the ban and pointed the finger at local and national environmental groups, calling them “the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty.” What triggered the ban was the environmentalists’ opposition to tribal government’s support for coal mining and power plants.

While tribal leaders blame outsiders, Native American activists on and off the reservations pose the real challenge to economic policies and leadership, and the very ideas of Native cultural ties to the environment. Young Navajo and Hopi tribal leaders – mostly women – are working to create a green economy, infused with indigenous knowledge and values. Their vision collides with that of their tribal governments, who have long depended on coal royalties to prop up the tribal economies.

Increasingly, grassroots environmental groups and their allies are viewed as a threat to those revenues. They were instrumental in pushing for the closure of the Mohave coal-fired power plant in Laughlin, Nevada, in 2005. The tribe netted upwards of $8.5 million a year from the sale of coal to fuel the plant.

Lillian Hill, a Hopi environmental activist, was among those who opposed the Mohave plant. She says she could be exiled from the reservation for carrying out her work to protect age-old aquifers.

“I’m not fearful of being banished from my homeland, because I have a connection to my homeland…and that goes beyond government,” says Hill, 28, an organizer with Native Movement. “I’m fearful for the future, because our tribal government and world governments are not looking beyond profit margin.”

The coal for the Mohave Generating Station came from Hopi lands, as did the water used to ferry the mineral via a pipeline across state lines. Young tribal leaders like Hill grew up witnessing springs, a source of water for drinking and farming, dry up, and become contaminated with heavy metals from mining operations.

Hill says what she’s most worried about is that “there might not be enough water for future generations.”

The Hopi government says their economy would “collapse” without coal revenues. But young Native American activists say those profits come at the cost of their own physical and cultural survival.

“As Indian people, we’re economically dependent on our own cultural destruction,” says Navajo activist Jihan Gearon.

Gearon, 27, who hails from Fort Defiance, a town near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, says she grew up “poor.” Her house had no running water, so Gearon used to help haul water home to be used for cooking, cleaning and bathing.

She remembers that the men in her family worked hard, mainly doing construction work. One uncle worked “blasting stuff” in the coal mines of the Peabody Western Coal Company. Her grandfather labored in an old saw mill.

“That’s the first industry people exploited, our timber,” Gearon says. She came to realize the extent of the exploitation of natural resources on tribal lands when she went to college at Stanford University. There, she realized that tribal dependence on the extraction and sale of coal, water and other natural resources was out of sync with traditional native teachings.

“Our traditional culture is about protecting the environment, and being minimalist and living in a balanced way with the environment,” Gearon says. “We realize that [the earth] takes care of us so we need to take care of it.

“On the other hand, for many of us, our only base for economic income is through the destruction of the environment — digging it up, cutting trees, burning it, exploiting and destroying it. And, in the process, we create pollution that makes our people sick.”

In college, Gearon met other tribal youth, who were interested in bringing their knowledge back to the reservation. She now works as an organizer on energy issues with the national nonprofit organization Indigenous Environmental Network.

Wahleah John’s group pushed for the closure of the Mohave power plant. They want the Navajo Nation to end its dependence on fossil fuels and transition to a more sustainable economy. They formed a coalition to push for green jobs legislation. The coalition scored a victory when the Navajo Nation became the first tribe in the nation to pass green jobs legislation. Passed in July, the Navajo Green Economy Act establishes a commission and fund to spur green jobs.

“We wanted to give back to local people and community that often get ignored,” says Johns, who adds that her people have been engaged in sustainable practices for a long time. “We want to support weavers co-ops, organic farms, organic ranching. A majority of people on the reservation still grow their own food and raise sheep, cattle and horses.”

Johns was recently appointed to sit on the five-person Green Economy commission (confirmation pending). To date, the Navajo Nation has invested no money in the green jobs fund, Johns says.

“We constantly have to prove ourselves, and show them this can work,” she says. “We have to brainstorm with leaders on how to tap into funding.”

Hill of Native Movement also wants to see green jobs benefit local people. She says tribal governments negotiated agreements to sell coal and water rights well below what they were worth, and corporations were not held accountable for environmental degradation. And, in the end, she says, coal royalties “benefited just a few people in the Hopi nation and community.”

Gearon of the Indigenous Environmental Network says large-scale renewable energy projects like wind turbine farms may not benefit local people. Gearon favors community or small-scale energy projects, locally owned and operated, in which the energy produced is used to power Navajo homes. Ironically, while the Four Corners region is currently home to two mega coal-fired power plants – Navajo Generation Station in Page, Ariz., and the San Juan Generating Station in Farmington, N.M., nearly half of Navajos do not have electricity.

Sustainable practices and green jobs creation are critical strategies for tribal members to provide for themselves, says PennElys GoodShield, director of the Sustainable Nations Development Project in Trinidad, Calif. “My take is providing food, water, shelter, and growth for our national growth before we go commercial,” says GoodShield. “Lots of people on our reservation have no electricity. There’s lots of work we have to do to sustain ourselves to act as a sovereign nation.”

Her organization trains tribal youth across the country and fosters leadership on sustainability issues. In northern California where the Project is based, GoodShield says, members of local tribes including the Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk have tapped energy from the many creeks on the reservation by building “micro hydroelectric” devices from parts purchased at local hardware stores and car alternators. GoodShield says she’s working to raise funds to support these small-scale energy projects that can generate enough power for several households.

Hill says people can draw upon traditional knowledge to find modern solutions to climate change. The use of natural building materials such as bale and straw in homes can promote energy efficiency. Another example is dry farming, an ancient Hopi agricultural technique that optimizes rainwater storage in the land to grow crops.

“We basically look at the landscape as a whole and identify the watershed,” she explains. “Rainwater flows off the mesa into valley where farmland is located.” Hopi farmers cultivated varieties of corn, beans, squash and melons that could survive during drought conditions.

Gearon and Johns attended the 11-day climate change summit in Copenhagen that ends today. Traditional knowledge and indigenous wisdom are messages they carried with them to the conference, where world governments will wrangle over how to cap greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming the earth to dangerous levels.

As world governments, including the United States, look to energy policies that could ramp up nuclear and clean coal technology and a market-based system for capping carbon dioxide emissions and trading the credits (cap and trade), the women say these policies will continue to harm health and the environment.

Gearon will tell the Navajo parable she learned from her elders.

“Black Mesa is a woman, and we’re taught that coal is her liver. Everything on her is a part of her body and coal is her liver…What coal does in the ground– it filters out the water,” Gearon says. “In order to make money, we’re taking out her ability to clean herself and clean our water that we drink in the region.” is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.