Update: Also see this (sort of) counter-story: Native American Tribe’s Push For Solar & Wind (To Replace Coal & Keep Out Natural Gas)
Originally published on San Diego Loves Green
by Roy L. Hales
While Secretary of the Interior Jewell addressed the Clean Energy Summit 6.0 in Las Vegas last week, a very different examination of America’s solar policy was happening just down the street.
If you were to go by the media says, it was the Nevada premiere of San Diego filmmaker Robert Lundahl’s documentary “Who Are My People?” Lundahl interviewed on Nevada Public radio and featured in The Las Vegas Review-Journal,Thomas Mitchell’s column, and The Ely Times. (That last article is listed in the Bureau of Land Management’s California News Bytes.) San Diego Loves Green also did a write-up, which was picked up by The Native News Network and Salem News.
Lundahl contends that, in their rush to develop supposedly “green” energy in the desert, the Department of the Interior is destroying pristine habitat, failing to consult with the tribes and violating Native American sacred sites.
These charges are not new.
According to Resolution #LNK-12-036 of National Congress of American Indians, the Bureau of Land Management “has failed to conduct meaningful consultation with Tribes, particularly with CRIT (the Colorado River Indian Tribe), and has taken actions that violate federal laws which include provisions designed to protect Tribes’ sacred places and cultural resources, such as the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.”
“… these projects are destroying our cultural resources, desecrating our sacred places, impairing our abilities to practice our traditional and religious beliefs, and severing our physical and spiritual connections to lands that are fundamental to our cultural identities…”
This document mentions “over 40 proposed solar and wind renewable energy projects … within a 50-mile radius of the Colorado River Indian Reservation,” which includes the solar projects at Blythe, Ivanpah, Palen, McCoy, Rio Mesa, Genesis and Desert Harvest.
The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona also passed a resolution against the fast tracking on these projects.
The California Native American Heritage Commission came to a similar conclusion when it recognized that the Ocotoillo Wind Project, in Imperial county, was built on sacred land.
Lundahl invited all of the speakers and workshop leaders at the Clean Energy Summit to see his film: Secretary of the Interior (Sally Jewell), Secretary of Energy (Dr. Ernest Moniz), Chairman Jon Wellinghoff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were there along with an array of Governors, Senators, former Senators, the CEO of the American Wind Association, the Director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory etc.
None came. Instead, they announced a 2,000 acre solar project to be built among the Moapa Paiutes. The Las Vegas Review Journal’s front page proclaims, “Paiutes’ solar project highlight of National Clean Energy Summit.”
Lundahl had another Moapa story, “In my conversations in advance of the August 13th event with Senator Reid’s office and staff, when I invited the Senator to the screening to hear the voices and opinions of Native American peoples opposing large solar and wind development, that staffer referred to the the Moapa Paiutes as content with the contract signed for on-reservation solar with K-Road Solar. Unfortunately, as I pointed out, the Senator’s office was mixing apples and oranges, since the Moapa Paiute project is on reservation land and the Obama renewable energy build-out large solar and wind projects on millions of acres of Public Land. That is why the Senator’s office holding the Moapa Paiutes up as ’Poster Children’ and ’Happy Campers,’ relative to large solar development, in general, across the West, in disingenuous and disrespectful of all Native people of the region, with whom they have failed to consult for over 3 years.”
Both Phillip Smith and Reverend Ron Van Fleet knew of Moapa Paiutes that were opposed to the solar farm. Smith had been at meetings where, on two separate occasions, a Moapa had spoken against it. Van Fleet said 4 or 5 of the Moapa came to the Las Vegas Premiere. Two were elders. The younger generation approved this project.
San Diego Loves Green interviewed a Las Vegas Paiute who came to see the film and was disturbed by “what the BLM was doing in California.” He said the Moapa did not have any sacred sites and were in favor of the solar project.
Judy Bundorf, the local activist who booked the Clark County Library for Lundahl’s film, pointed out that three of the Native American speakers – Ron Van Fleet, Alfredo Figueroa and Phillip Smith – “are a force to be reckoned with.” They are respected elders who had been “instrumental in the occupation and ultimate defeat of the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump near Needles in 1998.”
Alfredo Figueroa and Ron Van Fleet started forging the alliance of Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Colorado River, Quechan and Cocopah tribes in 1991.
The central issues at Ward Valley are similar to those at Ivanpah, Blythe and the other solar sites mentioned in the film. One of the Mojave elders wrote:
“They intend to transport nuclear waste through our reservation and through the town of Needles. They have never asked our permission or held a hearing on this issue. There is no provision to train our people should there be an accident, no plans to deal with the terrible dangers of a nuclear waste transport accident.
“We will be needing water to grow. There is much water beneath Ward Valley and it will eventually become contaminated. This is a terrible crime. Our poor desert tortoise never even had a chance. Both the tortoise and the land are sacred to us. We have used this land for thousands of years. We use the plants there to heal ourselves and renew ourselves. Now it will all be destroyed. It’s wrong all the way around.”
The climax came during an 118 day occupation of the proposed site. Preston Arrow-Weed, from Fort Yuma, was visiting his niece, when they saw all the people in Ward Valley. When he drove over to see what was happening, some of the Mojave recognized him.
“This man is a lightening singer,” they said.
One of Arrow-weed’s best memories of the occupation was taking his high school students on a 200 mile run from Fort Yuma to Ward Valley. They ran 50 miles every day and then held a ceremony with singing and dancing. Some of them had to turn back at Parker, because they were involved in sports, but the rest continued on to join the demonstrators on the site. Preston believes this ceremonial run helped bring the victory at Ward valley.
Arrow-weed and his students were in the front, singing sacred songs, the night that the federal officers were supposed to arrest everyone at midnight. Figueroa says they seized upon the excuse that the protestors did not have camping permits. At one point, the authorities seized upon the fact the activists did not have a camping permit and tried to arrest them. They backed down and the struggle for Ward Valley came to an end after a judge ruled that the US did not have to give California the Federal lands at Ward Valley to be used as a Nuclear dump.
The Mojave have held a victory celebration every year since and it is no accident that two of the main speakers at the 15th anniversary were Ron Van Fleet, “Mojave tribal leader” and Alfredo Figueroa, “Chicano-Chemehuevi activist and historian.”
Figueroa has suggested that this is not the place to chronicle his participation in the United Farm Worker’s movement, or how he and his family came to set up America’s first private chicano/indigenous school in 1972. His fight for social justice has continued for decades. He also wrote “Ancient footprints of the Colorado River: La Cuna de Aztlan,” which examines the history and sacred sites of his people and was explaining his findings to an assembly of 300 archaeologists at the Pecos conference at Flagstaff, Arizona, days before the premiere in Las Vegas. (You can order his book for $45 by writing Alfredo Figueroa at 424 North Carleton Ave, Blythe, CA, 92225)
He met Lundahl at Blythe’s airport, in 2010, in that segment of the film where they took an airplane to view the sacred sites in that area.
Preston Arrow-weed delivers one of the best remembered lines of the film. Asked if the solar plants were taking his culture, Preston responded, “They aren’t taking it away, they are destroying it.”
He could not make it to the Las Vegas screening because, among other things, he was involved in a mitigation attempt around Blythe. When the solar company asked what the Native Americans would like, Arrow-weed said for them to obey the law. He says the renewable energy companies are fast tracking everything and then trying to “mitigate” afterward.
He does not understand why they always seem to pick Native American sacred sites like Ocotillo, which is filled with cremation sites.
Developers are tearing up the desert soil in Imperial valley, releasing the spores that causes people to get sick with Valley fever. Imperial County’s Board of Supervisors do not like to hear about this because they are hoping these projects will create jobs – but that doesn’t really seem to be happening.
Arrow-weed and some singers held an all night vigil at Ocotillo just before the turbine blade flew off on May 16. He believes the accident occurred due to the ceremony and notes that the wind farm still isn’t working.
Reverend Ron Van Fleet makes his appearance in a clip that shows people running at Ivanpah. He said they do this often, running all day, praying for the land, the people and the animals as they go. It is their form of spiritual warfare.
His grandmother came from the Ivanpah area, before the Indians were put on reservations so that white ranchers could use their land to graze cattle. This was a sacred site, to both the Mojave and Chemehuevi and a number of ancient alters are depicted in the film. Van Fleet said there were 7 or 8 of them, dedicated to the wind, fire, flesh, corn etc.
Speaking as a Christian minister who takes God’s command to look after animals (Genesis 1:28) very seriously and a Mojave whose clan symbol is the tortoise, Van Fleet refers to the Ivanpah solar project’s impact upon the environment as genocide. Tortoises normally live to be 120 – 200 years old. They spend much of their time sleeping/dreaming, which is a sacred thing. When they moved the desert tortoises to make way for Ivanpah’s solar project around 1,300 adult males are believed to have died “and they did not count the juveniles or the eggs.” Nor did they count the foxes, rabbits, coyotes, buzzards, lizards, snakes, ants, moles, eagles, hawks and other animals. Ivanpah will never be restored to what it was.
“When I was a young man the migrating river ducks used to blot out the sun for fifteen minutes when they flew past. Now you barely notice them. The locusts are gone because of pesticides and the river is contaminated.”
”The solar panels are raising the desert’s temperature. It is 120o now, but will go to 140o and 150o. We won’t be able to breathe, It is going to kill plant life. The sun is already penetrating the ozone layer from the outside. These solar panels will shoot the sun’s rays into the ozone from the inside.”
Lundahl asked Reverend Van Fleet to say these things, for the benefit of the Mojave, Chemehuevi, Colorado River, Quechan and Paiutes, on the night of the Las Vegas premiere.
Alfredo Figueroa was the last speaker that evening. This is not the first battle he has fought for his people and he concluded by saying, “We are lucky to have Anglos who did so much, but it is really up to all of us to continue the struggle in protecting Mother Earth.”
“It’s history repeating itself,” Lundahl said. “The idea that liberal, environmentalist greens in a Democratic administration are committing cultural genocide and ecocide is certainly something they don’t want to hear, and so they tune out, like blind mice, but I have seen it with my camera, and with very little embellishment–what needs to be embellished, after all? It simply is the raw truth, the ugly truth of who we are, and how we operate, that to my eyes and ears is 100% unacceptable. And I personally, would be less of a human being if I kept silent.
“Like my father said following World War Two–when we kids asked, ‘Why did the Germans do this (genocide) and did not speak up?’–he responded, ‘Because it did not affect them.’ And so we all become complicit in a horrible tragedy, a nightmare of death, weakened by self-interest, greed and fear to the point where we forget the air that fills our lungs is the same. And we can not even muster the courage to be human. May God have mercy on our souls.”
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