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Leading on energy and environment is proper for tribes

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Throughout the Americas, tribal societies produced peoples and cultures of great restraint. The marshalling of natural resources ? animal, plant or mineral ? was most often carefully considered.

Universally, within most Native traditions, the bounties of nature were appreciated as gifts of the Creator. Respect for all living things, as relatives of the human being, was inherent in cultural and spiritual approaches that continue to the present. From our ceremonies, from our languages, and from our histories we have known this to be a collective guiding maxim.

This is not to romanticize either our ancestors or us. We know that survival has sometimes required difficult decisions. We also know that much has changed and that such deep and appreciative thinking is not nearly always at the forefront of tribal actions.

We often espouse such claims, but if we are not ready to live our values, then what good are they? If the principles of our general philosophies do not guide our living practice in realistic yet ethical applications for our present-day societies, are we not just demeaning ourselves? And, are we not helping to cheat our children of a future which, in fact, belongs to them?

As often reported in these pages, we are aware that issues of climate change and global warming, the poisoning of the air and water, the rapid and all-too-wanton depletion of basic resources, are gravely important. The majority of these environmental problems arise from humanity's need to produce energy ? for cooking our meals, for heating our homes and businesses, for transportation, and for industrial production.

That these are requirements of modern life is true enough. But we are surrounded by a North American society where the energy created ? which in whatever form remains a gift of creation ? is often wasted.

The United States, with 4 percent of the world's population, consumes more than 25 percent of the world's resources. Yet, as a modern society ? and this clearly includes our tribal nations ? we know more everyday about how to improve by reducing this waste, how to produce energy in ways that are not as destructive to land, water and air as past practices.

There are whole movements dedicated to finding and developing practical solutions, many which are increasingly available, even if the predominate leadership most often chooses to ignore them. But Native peoples should not, not if we would hold true to our most cherished values.

There is more scientific consensus on the reality and growing problematic effects of global warming than on any other single environmental issue. The whole world is looking to confront this issue, including many good and wise people in America. We know that Earth's mean temperature climbed nearly a full degree in the past century, and that this is linked to the fact that energy demands from fossil fuels have increased carbon dioxide concentrations from 280 to 365 parts per million over the same period.

We know that the decade of the '90s was the warmest ever on record, unleashing super-storms and fueling huge fires in patterns that are now all too predictable. We know both from scientists and from Inuit hunters that Arctic ice is melting at unprecedented rates. We know that impacts of severe weather now routinely stimulate preparations for 'super-disasters' among relief agencies. We know there are solutions to these problems, but we also know that these must be fought for.

In the creation of energy, in the building of homes and other necessary structures, in the protection of resources, American Indian tribal governments are properly challenged to lead the struggle for healthy solutions. There are ways to do this and just a few projects and tribes have stepped out ahead of the many more that have not. These are developing practical applications that are consistent with the values our ancestors understood and, indeed, succeeded against all odds in maintaining and passing on to the generations that gave us life.

Excuses for lack of positive action are many. It is not our fault, some say. We are among the poorest, most marginal of peoples, so why should we be the ones to shoulder the responsibility? But these remain just that, excuses.

American Indian tribes, who are certainly among the most impacted victims of radioactive waste, flooded homelands and pollution, cannot afford to merely follow those who do not see far enough to consider their future generations.

Consider the Hopi and Navajo, who although sometimes in disagreement, have both developed active projects in solar power for their communities. Even in its current infancy stage, this is a hugely important effort, where the sun's energy can supplement power to homes while lessening demands on existing electricity generating plants.

Some say such approaches are inadequate, but they can be effective in helping make families more energy independent while inducing policy makers to implement needed building and energy code changes.

Consider the wind projects of several Plains tribes, organized under the auspices of the Intertribal Council on Energy Policy (Intertribal COUP).

This visionary group is engaging in a project that can have practical and even profitable applications. North and South Dakota have been called the 'Saudi Arabia of Wind' and for good reason. The U.S. Department of Energy notes that the wind resources of the Great Plains could supply the lower 48 states with 75 percent of their electricity demand. COUP staff estimate that just 12 Indian reservations in the Dakotas (most significantly Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Pine Ridge and Rosebud) could generate in excess of 250 gigawatts of power.

COUP's plan proposes to use this great wind power potential on reservation lands as economic development that promotes sound environmental policy. In contrast to nuclear power and the region's environmentally destructive huge hydropower dams, wind power is completely renewable and compatible with wildlife, cattle ranching and other beneficial land-use projects. Financial partners are needed in what would seem a natural investment for any of the big ten gaming tribes.

Then there are the more than 100 tribes fighting to gain treaty-based rights to higher air and water quality standards. Following the commendable leadership of Isleta Pueblo and Montana's Salish and Kootenai, a number of tribes filed for TAS (Treatment as State) authority under amendments to the 1986 Clean Water Act, opening a way to apply higher water-quality levels on treaty lands.

With U.S. Supreme Court decisions to back them up, this movement opened the door for more than 100 tribes throughout the country to press for higher air and water quality standards. Twenty-one have been granted TAS authorization, of which 18 have gained approval of higher standards of water quality.

The list goes on, but it is not long enough. We say, again: to be at the forefront of clean energy standards and of the fight for a sustainable future is a good and proper place for American Indian tribes.