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Indigenous Power: A New Energy Economy

Graphic: Camille LaCapa. Courtesy of Honor the Earth

The U.S. is the wealthiest and most dominant country in the world, yet it can’t keep the lights on in New York City, nor can it provide power in “liberated” Baghdad. Centralized power production based on fossil fuel and nuclear resources has served to centralize political power, to disconnect communities from responsibility and control over energy, and to create a vast wasteful system. We need to recover democracy. And one key element is democratizing power production.

Let’s face it, we are energy junkies. The U.S. is the largest energy market in the world, and we consume one third of the world’s energy resources with five percent of the population. We are undeniably addicted—our economy is based on the burning of dinosaurs and on wasteful production systems. In other words, oil. Ninety-seven percent of the total world oil consumption has been in the past 70 years.

We even slather oil-based fertilizers and herbicides on our food crops. We have allowed our addictions to overtake our common sense and a good portion of our decency. We live in a country with the largest disparity between rich and poor of any industrialized country in the world. And, we live where economic power is clearly translated into political power.

Energy Addiction is Changing the Climate
America’s fossil fuel habit and the government’s response plunge us further into serious challenges that grow worse with every year. In the last 200 years, we have caused the amount of carbon dioxide gases in the atmosphere to grow by almost one-third—more than in the last 20 million years.
Indigenous Peoples, Pacific Islanders, and local land-based communities are the first to experience the devastating consequences of climate change due to its effects on hunting, fishing, and gathering rights; the loss of land and food security; respiratory illnesses and infectious diseases; and economic and cultural displacement. Climate change is clearly a human rights issue.

Global Climate Change: The Evidence

  • According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 2005 was one of the hottest years in more than a century.
  • Greenland ice is melting faster than anyone thought possible. Fifty-three cubic miles entered the sea in 2005, compared to 22 cubic miles in 1996. A cubic mile of water is about five times the amount Los Angeles uses in a year.
  • Those who live in the Arctic are experiencing shorter winters that disrupt the lifecycles of plants and animals that they depend on.

Dramatic fluctuations in water levels and warmer temperatures of lake waters have affected fish and insect populations, resulting in fish kills from growing dead zones in lakes, and severe infestations of disease-spreading insects, like mosquitoes. Ironically, even as native communities are being hit hard by climate change, some of the largest carbon dioxide emitters on the continent are located within Native communities.[1] A 2000 Environmental Protection Agency report revealed that two power plants and their coal mines in San Juan County, New Mexico released 13 million pounds of chemical toxins in the Four Corners area in one year alone.[2]

Evidence of human induced climate change is abundant. The earth’s snow cover has decreased by 10 percent since the late 1960s; and since the 1990s, the thickness of arctic sea ice from late summer to early autumn has decreased by 40 percent. Ice melt has made sea levels rise—0.2 meters overall—resulting in an explosion of water- and airborne diseases. Moreover, insects that devour trees are now able to reproduce prolifically. At least 4.2 million acres of the Alaskan forest are dying off from the spruce beetle infestation, an insect that, due to the mild weather, is now able to “clutch” (i.e. lay eggs) twice during a year and has laid to waste a good portion of the spruce forests. New vector-borne diseases are also on the rise. The West Nile Virus is thriving and spreading along the East Coast and the Great Plains.The potential impacts of climate change on our communities are far reaching. From the loss of habitat, to a rise in diseases, to the devastation of large areas of land, climate change is literally transforming our ways of living. For example, according to Robert Gough, attorney for the Rosebud Sioux tribe, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that global warming will likely cause collapses of some fisheries and expansions of others. This impact will involve territorial shifts of fishery stock and may bring about changes in present species. The level of impact will vary widely, depending upon the nature and complexity of each ecosystem.”[3]

Native communities depend on marine fisheries for subsistence use and for commercial and tourist industries. Many of these fisheries rely on spawning grounds located in the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Eastern Seaboard, and along the Gulf Coast. Tribal communities are consequently concerned about the combined and simultaneous effect of climate change and over-fishing. Climate changes can exacerbate the effects of over-fishing at a time of inherent instability in world fisheries.

Indigenous Peoples on a worldwide scale have been quite concerned about these impacts. The Native Peoples/Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop (l998) and the Second Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (2000), led to international dialogue on the issue. The Indigenous representatives were unanimous in their recommendations contained in the Hague Declaration. The series of procedural and substantive recommendations include:

Full participation in negotiations related to climate change, and decision-making with relevance to Indigenous Peoples;

Restoration of habitat previously devastated by national and international development; n Creation of a fund to deal with climate impacts in accordance with traditional cultures and lifestyles;

Increased application of renewable energy technologies in the developed and developing worlds. The Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (Intertribal COUP) is taking the lead and plans to challenge the Bush administration on global climate change. By not signing the Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. created a huge deficit in the international goal for decreased carbon emissions. “Tribal wind energy production could entirely enable the U.S. to reach the levels expected in the Kyoto Accords, and tribes could just do it,” suggests Gough. Intertribal COUP is soon launching a “March Forth!” initiative aimed at matching cities seeking partners in green house gas reduction with renewable energy producing tribes.

Energy: Problems and Solutions
“Energy is the biggest business in the world; there just isn’t any other industry that begins to compare,”[5] says Lee Raymond, Chairman of the Board and CEO of ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the world.[6] Energy is, indeed, an immense business. Turnover in the world’s energy markets is at a whopping $l.7 trillion a year. This number will only continue to grow as more and more countries and communities become electrified (one-third of the world’s population is currently without electricity).

The potential for renewable energy in Indian country is now well understood. In the summer of 2000, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced the release of a new report on Indian Energy Consumption and Renewable Energy Development Potential on Indian lands. The study noted that “sixty-one Indian reservations appear to have renewable resources that might be developed for power generation at a cost of less than two cents per kilowatt-hours above regional wholesale prices.”[7] In other words, cleaner renewable energy resources might prove more lucrative for Indian Country than the non-renewable sources that presently dominate tribal economies.

Tribes have historically played a large role in the “big business” of U.S. energy production. In fact, even a conservative estimate will find at least 10 percent of the U.S. energy market and its reserves dependant on tribal resources. Therefore, even if the U.S. energy market is valued at $280 billion (a highly conservative estimate), then at least $28 billion should be going to tribes. Yet, in 2000, tribes received only $750 million for their resources—far below the market value. By the same token, however, the U.S. energy industry has played a major role within tribal relations. Although tribes have generally received a pittance in return for their resources, this still represents a significant portion of tribal treasuries. For instance, the Navajo Nation received the majority of its annual $100 million operating budget from royalties, leases, and taxes generated from coal, oil, and gas in the year 2000. Those revenues provided for basic infrastructure and the salaries of the entire tribal government employees and officials.[8] Indian Country relies on energy revenues for many of its basic needs. This has often come at the expense of the health of the land and the people, but there is potential for these revenues to continue and in a way that is healthier for tribal communities.

Photo: Solarpanelinstallation Courtesy: Native American Photovoltaics

Wind Solutions
Wind energy is now the fastest-growing renewable energy source across the country. There was 35 percent more wind generation capacity in 1998 than in 1997, or enough to power more than one million households in the U.S. alone.9 Attorney Gough says it all, when he says, “We can either give you coal, or we can give you wind.”10 We stand on the cusp of something important. It is our choice to determine the legacy we leave for future generations.
Alternative energy represents an incredible social and political reconstruction opportunity and one that has the potential for peace, justice, equity, and some recovery of our national dignity. Renewable energy makes economic sense.
The European Union estimates that there will be 2.77 jobs in wind for every megawatt produced, 7.24 jobs per megawatt in solar, and 5.67 jobs per megawatt in geothermal. Or, in short, l000 megawatts of alternative energy power averages 6000 jobs, or 60 times more high paying jobs than in fossil fuels and nuclear power. It is our choice. We can either create jobs and economic stability in Indian Country, or we can continue to line the pockets of utilities and energy companies.
Some of us believe that instead of nuclear waste going to Yucca Mountain, there should be solar panels. And we know that the wind blows endlessly on Pine Ridge, where we believe that, in the poorest county in the country, there should be wind turbines. We must be about democracy and about justice. We must put the power back into the hands of the people where it truly belongs.

Excerpted from Indigenous Peoples Power and Politics, A renewable Future for the Seventh Generation, an Honor the Earth Publication. Order copies online at:

1 Of the top 11 emitters of air pollution in New Mexico, most are on or near the reservation: Four Corners Power Plant (Arizona Public Service Company), San Juan Generating Station, BHP San Juan Coal Mine, BHP Navajo Coal Mine, Giant Refining Ciniza Refinery, and San Juan Refining Company.
2 Norrell, Brenda 2000. "Four Corners Power Plant Fouling Navajo Air," Indian Country Today, June 14 , 2000.
3 Gough, Robert 1999. "Stress on Stress: Global Warming and Aquatic Resource Depletion." Native Americas. 16, nos. 3 & 4 (1999): 46-48.
4 Gough, Robert 2002. Personal Interview with Winona LaDuke, February 5, 2002.
5 The Economist, February 10 , 2001.
6 “The World's 100 Largest Public Companies," The Wall Street Journal, 22 September 22, 2003.
7 Norrell, Brenda 2000. "Four Corners Power Plant Fouling Navajo Air," Indian Country Today, June 14 , 2000.
8 Gough, Robert 2002. Interview, February 5, 2002.
10 American Wind Energy Association,

Winona La Duke is a member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg. She is the program director of Honor the Earth and the founding director of White Earth Land Recovery Project. Her books include All Our Relations and Recovering the Sacred.

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Getting Ready for Change: Green Economics and Climate Justice      |      Vol. 13 No. 1    |       Summer 2006      |      Credits
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