Indigenous nations can combat climate change by noticing environmental changes, having leadership acting on it and, maybe, by just listening to grandma.
“Conservation comes more (naturally) to a Navajo grandma cause she’s always conserved her whole life. They lived through world wars, they know how to not use a lot of things and really hold things back until they really need it,” Sandra Begay-Campbell said. “You had to do with the minimal amount you had.”
Since 2002, Begay-Campbell, Navajo, has offered technical assistance for tribes with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy through her work as a researcher at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
She measures “greenest” by who is energy efficient, followed by solar energy use.
The researcher dubs the Blue Lake Rancheria tribe in northwest California as doing the best environmental work. She and her former student interns have visited the tribe to learn about their projects.
“They have their own microgrid, so it’s solar panels plus battery storage. They also have sustainability design practices for their construction and they know how to partner with academics, institutions, the utility, other tribes, government, state and federal,” she said.
The three tribal nations leading in clean energy include: the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska and the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Nevada, according to the Climate Reality Project. All of these tribes focus heavily on solar energy. For Standing Rock and the Winnebago tribe, investing in renewable energy has saved them money.
Begay-Campbell said some tribes are doing the best they can like the Navajo Nation that has to deal with its vast area and large population. In the fall of 2019, the Navajo Nation doubled its solar project to possibly power 36,000 homes and estimated a $18 million profit over the life of the project and more than 300 job opportunities, according to the Associated Press.
Of course, the transition towards renewable energy didn’t and won’t happen overnight.
Some other first steps are to be energy efficient by minimizing the electricity usage, or looking at affordable solar energy options and practicing the ‘3 Rs’: reduce, reuse and recycle.
“Put in energy efficiency light bulbs, better thermostats, weatherization, if that’s possible, to kind of tighten up your home,” she said.
For the Cherokee Nation, they’re tackling the transition to renewable energy by reducing its carbon footprint. The tribal nation recently unveiled its eco-friendly electric public transportation system. The two electric transit buses were purchased with a government grant that will be used for students at Sequoyah High School and for employees and tribal citizens to travel to work and tribal health centers.
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe plans to reduce 25 percent of emissions by 2027.
“Taking care of our land, our water and our air has always been important to Cherokees. We understand the sacred responsibility that comes with being good stewards of everything the Creator has given us,” Deputy Chief Bryan Warner said. “Replacing traditional transit buses with eco-friendly vehicles is a great way to reduce the carbon footprint we are leaving on the Earth.”
The U.S Department of Energy said the Oceti Sakowin Power Project, that is partnering with Apex Clean Energy, in South Dakota is on track to be the largest wind energy project on reservation land, AP reported. Six Sioux tribes are involved with the help of a federal production tax credit and is expected to launch in 2024, according to GreenBiz.
And the White House is another way Natives are being involved in this issue.
President Biden established the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council under his executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. It was announced March 29, three Native women — Jade Begay, Diné and citizen of Tesuque Pueblo, Carletta Tilousi, Havasupai Nation, and Vi Waghiyi, citizen of the Native Village of Savoonga on Sivuqaq — were named to the voluntary council.
“I just feel so honored to be able to be with them in this space and continue to learn from them,” Begay said.
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She said she measures being “green” by who are the people in tribal, city and state governments that are emphasizing a climate emergency. And if there aren’t any, then asking why it’s not being spotlighted.
She said it’s a hard question to answer on which tribe is doing the best job because they are doing what they can to keep their communities afloat. Begay added there has been a long standing relationship with fossil fuel industries and it’s hard to break away, but the transition is slowly happening.
“Right now there’s a lot of opportunity because of what’s happening in this new administration, where we will continue to see more investments made into tribal communities who have really beared the brunt of environmental injustice when it comes to toxic industries and extraction by gas, or coal, or uranium,” she said.
Begay said she hopes tribes will invest into clean energy and dispel the myth that environmental justice and having sustainable livelihood is not possible.