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Navajo Nation commits to green economy

Young Navajos are taking on some of the most tenacious issues on the 28,000-square-mile Navajo reservation (population 180,000) in the Four Corners area: Unemployment rates that run from 44 percent to 66 percent; heavy reliance on the extraction of fossil fuels by outsiders to fund the tribal government; families split by the need to find work off-reservation; lack of opportunities for college graduates; a per-capita income of less than $8,000 a year; and the loss of 77 percent of the revenues earned on the reservation to border towns.

“We want to bring families and communities back together, to create jobs on the reservation, and to make the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to sustainable energy development and sustainable businesses,” said Nikke Alex, executive director of the grassroots Black Mesa Water Coalition.

The coalition’s strategy was bold: To convince the Navajo Nation Tribal Council to pass legislation that would make “green” and “sustainable” and “jobs” top priorities for the government.

Photo courtesy Kelvin Long This is the impromptu press conference held immediately after the 21st Navajo Council approved the Navajo Nation Green Economy Commission legislation. Green Jobs supporters gathered alongside Navajo council delegates to listen to Dr. James Davis, Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan’s chief of staff.

The Navajo Green Economy campaign started in April 2008 with two overarching goals: To transition to a sustainable green economy and in the process to democratize Navajo tribal government. The Black Mesa Water Coalition – an organization largely under the leadership of young Navajo women – met with stakeholders including Navajo Nation chapter presidents, economists, youth in tribal and non-tribal universities and colleges and non-Native allies to discuss what the concept “green” meant for the Navajo people. The consensus: Renewable energy projects designed, built and managed at the community level; green manufacturing such as wool mills or carpet manufacturing; energy-efficiency and weatherization projects; local business development such as a weavers’ cooperative or green construction jobs; and the traditional agriculture that is part of Navajo cultural inheritance.

In May 2008, the Navajo Green Economy Coalition was ready to craft legislation that it planned to ask the tribal council to vote on in October. The time frame was too short, however, and the coalition changed its strategy. In July, the coalition asked Tribal Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan to sponsor its agenda. The speaker agreed, and the coalition began working on a bill that would form a Navajo Green Economy Commission to operate as part of the tribal government.

In the fall of 2008, the coalition launched an all-out informational campaign to let people know what they were thinking and to ask for ideas and support. Wahleah Johns, Navajo Green Economy Commissioner and co-director of Black Mesa Water Coalition, described their efforts. Youth joined the Navajo Nation Fair with banners and slogans, as well as every other tribal parade and fair. They made presentations at the Navajo chapter houses and garnered 26 chapter resolutions supporting their work. Most of the presentations were in Navajo. They made school visits, conducted workshops, organized a Power Shift to Navajo Green Jobs conference in January 2009, and used social media such as Facebook and Twitter to reach Navajos who did not live on the reservation.

In the meantime, the Green Energy Coalition and the tribal council hammered out compromise legislation. For example, the coalition wanted to form a seven-member commission that included a Hataali, a medicine man or woman, but the final bill called for a five-member commission that did not require the membership of a Hataali or a chapter representative. The establishment of five regional teams proposed by the coalition was dropped. The coalition dropped its request for $10 million in funding from the Navajo Nation because economic conditions have been difficult during the recession.

The bill passed in July 2009, a historic milestone since Navajo was the first tribal nation to pass green economy legislation, said Johns. The first five commissioners were confirmed in February. They are Johns, Anna Rondon, LeVon Thomas, Keith Betsuie and Samuel Woods. The legislation was signed into law by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., and is currently under review by the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which has oversight of the commission. A second bill, establishing the Navajo Green Economy Fund, was passed at the same time.

Wrote Yvonne Yen Liu in her conclusion to the March 2010 case study of the Green Commission effort for the Applied Research Center: “BMWC and the Navajo Green Economy Coalition identify themselves as an indigenous rights movement, concerned with global warming and the destructive impact of fossil fuels, but first and foremost focused on the national question of tribal sovereignty. This has meant redefining the Navajo economy and political structure, using a democratic and participatory process to achieve different ends than what over 200 years of colonialism has imposed on their peoples.”

According to Johns, the plan is to spend the first year conducting a needs assessment at the chapter level so everybody is on the same page, while continuing to monitor fossil-fuel development, examine pollution by coal-fired power plants on or near the reservation, and mentor youth leaders. But the commission has no money and faces the same difficulty in raising it that other new non-governmental organizations face – lack of a track record and visibility. Johns is not deterred, though. “I have so much faith that we can get funds. I have a lot of confidence in the green investors we’ve been meeting with through Just Transition.”

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