Reflections, commentary and analysis from Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.
By Alaina George,
Traditionally, nearly every Diné interaction requires a prayer of some sort. When hunting, there are prayers sung before and after the kill. There are offerings given to fire when cooking. And each morning, a Diné person is supposed to get up early and run East before the sun rises while saying their morning prayer, which helps keep a person in harmony. However, some of these traditions have fallen by the wayside as a result of Western influences.
There are many ways that the Western world has intertwined itself into the lives of tribal members. We are currently involved in lawsuits over water rights, negotiations over lease agreements, and have our own tribal government scandals in regards to leadership and money. The coalmine in Black Mesa has long been a point of contention as it moved people off their lands and caused disputes between families. Recently, it was revealed that they draw larger amounts of water from the aquifer than they had originally estimated, for the slurry line they use to transport coal. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, in traditional Diné beliefs, coal is seen as Mother Earth’s liver, and a body cannot survive without its liver to remove the toxins.
Los Angeles voted to stop using coal power plants as their power source. A source of the so-called dirty power is the Navajo Generating Station, located near Page, Arizona. Policies from the Environmental Protection Agency have all but closed the NGS, as updates to meet the air quality standards have been deemed “too expensive.” There is a clear move away from coal, so significant that BHP suddenly became interested in selling the Navajo Nation a coalmine located on the Navajo reservation near Farmington, NM
It could be said the Diné started their interaction with the West when the Spanish conquistadors came through the Southwest, bringing with them sheep, which became very important to the Diné way of life. We changed from a nomadic life to a farming life. We learned to grow corn and squash from our Pueblo neighbors, and thanks to the Spanish sheep, knowledge of weaving.
Despite these additions, we still had our language, our traditional life philosophy, and our health; our identities.
However, with the Europeans and their livestock, came diseases we had no immunities against. Large populations of indigenous peoples of the Americas died. The estimated number who died as a result of the spread of disease is about 90 percent. Imagine losing 90 percent of the people you know. Also consider that when it comes to disease, the young and the old are always hit harder because of their weaker immune systems. The elders who were meant to pass on their knowledge to the generations who follow, and the young who were meant to carry on the teachings.
Nevertheless, the 10 percent that remained persevered. As diminished as their populations had become, they still had their identities.
When the “settlers” arrived, they found a land that they thought was unsettled, because of the large population decrease. Then when America became the United States of America, and gained strength as a country, the Nation began expanding. Manifest Destiny, as taught in American History from the standpoint of the Nation, was its God-given right to expand from coast to coast and it did not matter that there were already people who had lived upon the frontiers for generations. These people were told to allow the settlers to pass through, and later to move away from their homelands, resulting in more death. Furthermore, when it was realized that the tribes wouldn’t just disappear, it was decided the best policy would be to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” Children were removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools usually far away from their people. They were forced to adopt a new language, a new religion, and forget about everything they were taught and believed in to become “American.”
Despite these attempts to assimilate a continent of unique tribes, traditional teachings live on. As I mentioned previously, my tribe’s entire life philosophy is based on living in a harmonious way in all aspects of life. Harmony in a person’s thought process. Harmony in the words that leave your mouth. And definitely harmony in the manner in which you treat your surroundings.
Because the Western world’s way of life was thrust upon us, we are required to work “regular” jobs to be able to function in this society. And because of the lack of development, due in part to historically complex land agreements between the government and the tribes, the few jobs that are available to the people are in energy. Coal mining, oil field work, and coal fire power plant operations are staples of Navajo employment.
While it provides money so that people can afford to live in this world, the current Navajo Nation energy industry is detrimental to our health, our natural resources, and our future.
Clean energy is more in line with traditional views, and given the landscape of the reservation, wind farms and solar fields should be the future of the tribe’s energy production plans. The pollution we have depended on to keep us alive needs to stop, and respecting the harmony of the natural systems should be reinstated as our way of life.
For the tribe to turn its back on centuries of keeping tradition alive, to earn a few quick bucks is disgraceful and disheartening. At present, beauty is not all around us, pollution is. The tribe should be forward thinking and realize that our traditions of respect for nature could help us continue toward a cleaner future for the generations to come.
Alaina George graduated from ASU in 2012 with a Professional Science Master’s in Science and Technology Policy. She is currently working in Albuquerque at the Indian Health Service Area office as the TeleEducation Coordinator for the TeleBehavioral Health Center for Excellence.