by Caitlin Sislin
- USA -
The Navajo Nation, the United States’ largest Native Nation, spans 26,000 square miles in the Southwestern United States. This expansive, sun-baked desert terrain offers a dependable, constantly renewable supply of solar and wind energy which has largely remained untapped – until now.
Making my way through law school and environmental law practice I began to engage with the North American indigenous environmental justice movement. In my work with Women’s Earth Alliance, a global organization uniting women on the frontlines of environmental challenges, I began working to mobilize a network of legal and policy advocates in support of indigenous women leaders at the helm of powerful movements to stop pollution and encourage sustainable forms of energy and economic development on tribal lands.
Thanks to a diverse array of activist leaders at the helm of groups like Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC) and the Navajo Green Economy Coalition (NGEC), the Navajo Nation is moving towards a sustainably powered bright future. Women’s leadership has played a central role in bringing forth the shift towards collective support for green economic development that is in alignment with traditional Navajo life ways.
Among the many powerful, inspiring women leading environmental justice campaigns throughout North America, Navajo activists Wahleah Johns and Enei Begaye stand out as remarkable leaders. They have both worked their entire adult lives to successfully protect Navajo sacred land from coal mining, water extraction, and fossil-fuel based energy development – all while maintaining strong ties to their community and starting families of their own.
BMWC was founded in 2001 as a student group at Northern Arizona University, in response to the egregious misappropriation by the Peabody Coal Company of the Navajo Nation’s water resources. Wahleah Johns and Enei Begaye later joined the organization, moving the group off-campus and rooting it in the communities directly affected by the mining. Over four decades, Peabody’s operations drained billions of gallons of clean, drinkable groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer beneath the mine in order to "slurry" (move) coal to affiliated power plants.
Grassroots leaders were able to shut down one mine at the Black Mesa complex and the Mojave Generating Station, the primary recipient of slurried coal. The operation of the remaining mine complex, however, continues to threaten water quality and the health of humans and the biotic community. In her essay “Black Mesa Syndrome: Indian Lands, Black Gold” Judith Nies explains “The land has turned gray, all vegetation has disappeared, the air is filled with coal dust, the groundwater is contaminated with toxic runoff, and electric green ponds dot the landscape.”
After the 2005 shut-down of the mine and generating station, BMWC leadership began to search for a solution to both the prevailing dearth of economic and educational opportunity for Navajo Nation young people and the chronic threats to public health and ecological integrity. BMWC and their colleagues took a hard look at the political and economic inequities at the heart of the dirty energy boom on Navajo land – the close relationships between fossil fuel energy corporations, tribal governments, and U.S. government agencies interested in promoting mineral development at any cost on tribal lands.
In 2008 BMWC’s leadership and their allies joined forces to form the Navajo Green Economy Coalition (NGEC). Enei Begaye explains that “you can’t just translate green into Navajo. It’s a color, but once you relate it to the Navajo identity and our relationship with Mother Earth, it makes sense because it’s life—it’s a normal and healthy relationship with our land, our creator.”
The NGEC works towards restructuring the Nation’s economy - prioritizing green economic development and moving away from coal as the primary economic engine - while simultaneously promoting and reinforcing civic engagement from the ground up. To move towards its goal of a green economic development renaissance on the Navajo Nation, Coalition members mobilized a grassroots organizing campaign across the Navajo Nation, and built strategic alliances within the Navajo Nation Council.
The Coalition introduced legislation at the Tribal Council to establish a Green Economic Commission and Green Economic Fund for promoting green businesses and the proliferation of green jobs. The Coalition defines green jobs as “well-paid jobs created by sustainable businesses and/or industries that are low- or non-polluting. Green jobs respect traditional Diné (Navajo) culture and Mother Earth.”
The NGEC made history with the July 2009 passage – by a vote of 62 to 1 – of the Green Economy bill, unprecedented among all Native American nations. Wahleah Johns said to the Navajo-Hopi Observer after the bill’s passage that “this is the just the beginning for Indian Country. We hope our efforts pave the way for other tribal nations to bring local sustainable green jobs to their communities.”
In February 2010, the Council seated the Green Economic Commission. The Commission works to promote a favorable climate for green business development and to fund green economic projects like “community renewable energy projects; green manufacturing, such as wool mills; energy efficiency projects, such as weatherizing homes; local business ventures, such as weavers’ co-ops and green construction firms,” among others.
The profound success of the Navajo Green Economy campaign, along with two recent decisions by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Surface Mining to suspend or revoke previously-issued permits for the Black Mesa Mine Complex, signals a sea change in both the Navajo Nation’s and the federal government’s view on the viability of coal mining and coal-fired power plants over the long-term. Most importantly, the Navajo Green Economy campaign catalyzed a shift in the cultural and political climate among Navajo people, especially young people, towards collective support for green economic development as fundamentally in alignment with traditional Navajo life ways.
About the Author
Caitlin Sislin is an American environmental advocate based in Berkeley, California and the Advocacy Director with Women's Earth Alliance, where she developed and facilitates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network, a legal and policy advocacy network supporting indigenous women environmental justice leaders and their campaigns. She received her BA in Anthropology from Stanford University, and her law degree with a Certificate in Environmental Law from Berkeley Law School. As a law student at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, Caitlin chaired the Environmental Law Society and coordinated the first annual Environmental Justice Symposium. She has a regular column in High Country News, and her article “Exempting Department of Defense from Federal Hazardous Waste Laws: Resource Contamination as 'Range Preservation” was published in Ecology Law Quarterly, one of the nation’s foremost environmental law journals.
Caitlin is also a student of herbal medicine, and her poem entitled “The Nation Waits” appears in Imagining Ourselves, an anthology of women's art and writing published by the International Museum of Women.