Whether I’m speaking to my Anishinaabe relatives on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota or to you on the vast Navajo Nation, all of us are subjects to the same self-proclaimed warden: The United States. My question is: How sovereign do we plan to be?
Even if you don’t work for the federal or tribal government, surely you’ve heard the words “jurisdiction” or “red tape.” And more often than not, you probably heard it in a negative connotation. That’s because these concepts are constantly used against our people.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs will claim ownership of rights-of-way. Energy companies –both on and off the reservation – seek ways to seize land through eminent domain, legal loopholes, or dishonest bargaining.
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And tribal citizens have to jump through a plethora of hoops just to open a business, a process that takes longer than obtaining an engineering degree from Arizona State University.
Energy development in Indian country is no exception.
The Navajo leadership took a stand with Standing Rock last year, despite the Four Corner’s poor track record for easing the exploitation of oil, coal, and uranium resources. And it’s a tricky place to be. On such a large nation with a tragically high rate of unemployment, it takes a lot of commitment to turn down even the most meager of energy contracts for an undeveloped dream of a just, green economy.
In fact, when Trump announced recently that he would not be supporting the Paris agreement and would instead move towards the four-year-long process of withdrawing, I couldn’t help but laugh a little for the administration was actually keeping its promise to all of the coal miners who had voted Trump into office. (When has the government ever kept promises?)
Yet Appalachia, where many of these coal miners are, is also an impoverished collective of Americans who often have a shared history of how they came to be in the mines. Streams run orange with acid mine drainage, the education systems are rated among the worst in the country, and rarely does a presidential candidate seem invested in the people there.
So, just as some Navajo politicians talk about the need for jobs, I could imagine many Appalachians feel equally backed into the corner with the threat of things like the Paris agreement –something that is foreseen to run the coal industry out of business
However, coal, oil … none of these products are the solution, not to our energy demands, and not to our local economies.
Instead, places like Appalachia and Indian country need presidential candidates who can affirm the necessity of such promises as the Paris agreement while also promising those who work in the mines that a green economy will receive them as well –and with far less health risks.
Appalachia may not be waking up to the reality that they have an alternative to an extractive economy, but the Navajo Nation has that opportunity to genuinely take care of its people.
The Navajo Nation’s modern government was birthed by the federal government in order to sign over oil leases to corporations less than a century ago. It also won the largest lawsuit any tribe has ever won for the BIA’s failure to honestly and transparently maintain its bookkeeping responsibilities for decades worth of Navajo energy transactions.
And the health consequences? Just watch the documentary “Broken Rainbow.” It’s any wonder the Navajo Nation hasn’t furiously severed all ties with each atrocity that has surfaced.
The problem is federal entities still have such a stranglehold over Indian resources, especially energy ones. Leases that may take a matter of days off a reservation will take up to seven years on tribal lands.
Even if tribes wanted to develop their resources, the layers of red tape scare away business. In addition, the BIA must negotiate, approve, and oversee all leases –meaning exorbitant amounts of funds are used on bookkeeping and oversight.
Meanwhile, tribes see very little of the revenue –and little to no accountability for the reclamation afterwards.
Should our tribal leaders take a stance in controlling this process in a manner that more closely resembles that of a sovereign nation’s power? If so tribes like the Navajo Nation might finally see some energy justice.
That also means our leaders could choose to protect the people regardless of Trump’s decision to pull out of international agreements about climate.
In addition to dedicating themselves to a just, green transition for the Navajo people and energy employees, Navajo leaders could be putting together their own climate plan. This plan could hold outside corporations accountable according to Indian law –not lax federal law –and force outsiders to respect tribal sovereignty.
By doing so, we would also see our precious cultural resources protected – from the snowy mountain caps to the medicinal plants that are all threatened by such things as rising temperatures and vanishing precipitation.
So, respectable members of the Council and the OPVP, how will you be responding to the needs for leadership committed to a climate plan and a just energy transition for the Navajo people?
Kayla DeVault (Anishinaabe/Shawnee) is an engineer and journalist living on the Navajo Reservation. She studies Diné Studies at Diné College and tribal energy policy graduate studies at Arizona State University while conducting research for the Diné Policy Institute and Department of Energy. She participates in many organizations, including as a Generation Indigenous, Youth Ambassador, an AISES Sequoyah Fellow, and a COP22 delegate.