It was a cloudy Friday morning in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of Navajo Nation. Nearly two hundred individuals came to listen to dozens of organizations presenting on the potential for Navajo Green Jobs. I attended this conference as someone who’d spent weeks handing out “Green Jobs” Power Vote stickers and who was fairly familiar with Van Jones speeches. I realized that day that the idea of Green Jobs has taken flight beyond the theoretical. It is becoming an opportunity for real change, to deliver power to the people of Navajo Nation.
My friend and colleague, Alana Miller, and I were traveling to Navajo Nation as part of our internship for 1Sky New Mexico and New Energy Economy. We spent our first night in Gallup, a bizarre intersection between Navajo tribe-land and American Sprawl. On one side of historic Rt. 66, the town’s main artery, lay the original Old West train tracks and the striking Red Rock mesas. On the opposite side was building after building of standard American franchises: Sonic, WalMart, McDonald’s, Texaco. Beyond the strip malls, we could see neighborhoods of government-built houses. That weekend, we listened to the stories of several members of the Navajo tribe: stories about oppression, hardship, resilience, and courage.
We rode to Window Rock with Anna Rondon and Norman Brown, of 1Sky New Mexico, long-time activists instrumental in banning uranium mining on Navajo Nation. They told us about the pivotal subjugations of their people: in 1862 the prison-camps of Fort Sumner, in the 1934, the massacre of ½ million Navajo livestock, and in the early 1900s, the discovery of coal and uranium on Navajo land. Despite this historic oppression, Anna and Norman believe that today the grassroots influences the government more than ever: especially now, with the prospect of Green Jobs.
There are many problems facing Navajo Nation today. Most strikingly, there are not enough job opportunities for tribe members, furthering economic hardship and unemployment. According to the advocacy organization Navajo Green Economy Coalition, unemployment in Navajo Nation is a staggering 54%, ten times higher than the national average. Also, 37.5% of homes on Navajo reservations don’t have electricity while Navajo homes represent 75% of tribal homes in the U.S. without access to electricity. Currently, the Navajo economy is dependent on extractive industries, namely coal power. The EPA recently approved the creation of Desert Rock, a new Coal-Fired Power Plant on Navajo territory, though this energy is fated to be sold off to Phoenix and Las Vegas, instead of going to power Navajo homes. On the other hand, Navajo Nation will retain the negative by-products, such as asthma and other health effects.
On Saturday, six students from Navajo Technical College exemplified the possibilities of creating new competitive job opportunities, rural access to electricity, and a revitalized Navajo Nation. These students and instructor, Ray Griego, presented their project, entitled, “Renewable Energy: Operation Niyol (Wind)”. They took turns sharing knowledge and demonstrating their hand-crafted wind turbine. These students are using many high level skills: from science, to technology, to engineering. And the training they receive at this institution can be used to benefit the community. Training programs will help grow green jobs leaders, enabling Navajo country to partake in this new energy economy.
These students shared the stage with the grassroots (such as Navajo Green Economy Coalition), public (representative from Navajo Tribal Utility Authority), entrepreneurial (solar energy company, Sacred Power Corporation), and political (vice-president of Navajo Nation Council, Ben Shelley chief of staff for Speaker of Council Lawrence T. Morgan, and the representative for long-time Green Jobs advocate Congressman Tom Udall) representatives for Navajo Nation. One initiative on the Green Jobs horizon looks especially promising: the Navajo Green Jobs project, which seeks $10 million to be allocated by the Navajo Nation Council, for the creation of green jobs projects to be implemented by tribal groups and communities throughout the Nation.
Many of us are familiar with the outcomes of an effort such as this: thousands of good, local jobs, an infrastructure for alternative energy, and a strengthened economy. We know Green Jobs are a crucial part of building the clean energy economy. But it is evident that Green Jobs can mean so much more to communities in need of pathways to prosperity and empowerment. For people who’ve for centuries been oppressed, whose land has been exploited, and whose cultures and values dominated by those of Western society, Green Jobs provide an avenue to economic and political independence, jobs that show reverence for the earth, and life-ways that honor subsistence and traditional wisdom. It is both encouraging and essential to see such work continue.