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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

A Diné woman who knows what it’s like to live without electricity and has fought for solar energy for her people has been selected to head the U.S. Office of Indian Energy Programs and Policy. She’ll be taking over a program that the Trump administration nearly brought to its knees by cutting its budget by two-thirds.

Wahleah Johns is co-founder and director of Native Renewables, a company that brings solar energies to Native American homes and trains Navajo solar installers. She’s also been a community organizer and advocate for water protection, and economic and environmental justice. She’s chairwoman of the Navajo Green Economy Commission.

Johns grew up on and near the Navajo reservation, where about 15 percent of homes lack piped water and 10 percent lack electricity. Water and energy became core issues for her.

In a May New York Times op-ed Johns wrote, “How is it that the Navajo Nation borders 80 miles of the Colorado River and doesn’t have access to one drop of water? How can it be that coal and water from Navajo lands helped create electricity for Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, and yet 15,000 families on the reservation don’t have power?

“Our tribal government was formed in 1923 with the express purpose of completing a business transaction to sign oil lease agreements with Standard Oil,” Johns wrote. “This was the beginning of a system in which corporations could make billions pillaging our homelands for uranium, coal, oil and gas deposits, leaving our groundwater contaminated and our people sickened with uranium radiation exposure, lung disease, asthma and cancer.”

Without power lines, families on the reservation rely on batteries and gas generators. She said families can pay anywhere from roughly $150 to $700 a month just on fuels, depending on the season. “And usually in the winter, it's more.”

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Johns will be taking over an office that sustained a 64 percent budget cut. The Office of Indian Energy's 2020 budget was $22 million. The Trump administration requested only $8 million for its 2021 budget.

The Indian Energy website reports “infrastructure development in Indian Country is limited due to limited funding and financing, inadequate infrastructure, limited technical capacity and a complicated legal and regulatory structure governing Indian lands.”

The office has a staff of seven people, with three in Washington, D.C., and two each in Golden, Colorado, and Anchorage, Alaska. To provide services to the nation’s 574 tribes, the office works to:

  • Promote Indian tribal energy development, efficiency and use
  • Reduce or stabilize Indian tribal energy costs
  • Strengthen Indian tribal energy infrastructure
  • Electrify Indian land, housing and businesses.

“I feel honored for my nomination to serve in the Biden-Harris administration as the Director of Indian Energy at DOE. As the original caretakers of this land, I believe Tribes can lead the way to solving our climate crisis and building a regenerative and clean energy future,” Johns said in a Tweet.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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