Documentary Explores Conflict Between Tribes, Energy Developers

Quechan elder Preston Arrow-Weed talks to filmmaker Robert Lundahl | Screencap via Vimeo

When filmmaker Robert Lundahl calls himself a "native Californian," you can almost hear him pronounce that "n" as lower-case. Born in Pasadena around a half century ago to a mother who grew up in a Beverly Hills surrounded by bean fields, Lundahl's roots in the state stretch back further into the past then those of most Californians. But he's acutely aware that he's a newcomer compared with the people with whom he's been working lately: the capital-N Native people of the desert.

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Lundahl's forthcoming film "Who Are My People?", a one-hour exploration of conflicts between Native people anxious to defend their culture and the rush to develop the desert for utility-scale solar power, is a compelling and personal examination of the latest episode in the saga of the displacement of this land's original inhabitants. But the film isn't a mere attempt at "objective" documentary. It's a profoundly personal statement about how we live in the Californian landscape.

Lundahl's interest in Native people stretches pretty far back itself. Those seeds were planted even before he was, as his mother and grandfather spent time in Twentynine Palms to distract themselves while his father fought the war in Europe. The Native culture still apparent around the Oasis of Mara and in similar desert spots impressed his family, and they handed that fascination down a generation. He talks in the beginning of the film about his childhood connection to the desert, an asthmatic child taken on the road by his mother to breathe more easily in a few cherished desert places.

Lundahl returned to the California desert a few years ago after spending decades traveling, landing in Las Vegas, the Bay Area, and the Pacific Northwest among other places. He spent the 1990s documenting a battle by the Elwha Klallam, a tribe on the Olympic Peninsula, to remove two salmon-killing dams on the Elwha River. To many people's surprise, that battle was successful. The Elwha Dam was finally demolished last year, and the Glines Canyon Dam demolition should be complete sometime this year.

Lundahl's film documenting the campaign to remove the dams, "Unconquering the last Frontier," took him ten years to make, but in a way the film made him as well, bringing him into close communion with the Elwha Klallam people. "You cannot make films involving this depth and history -- dating to the 1870, involving original research and interviews and first person accounts from the early 1900s -- without developing an ongoing trust and familial involvement with the community," Lundahl says.

Arriving in the desert, he found himself in the middle of a battle that seemed eerily similar to the Elwha dams issue: Native people whose life ways were threatened by renewable energy generation. In the early months of the Obama administration, an unprecedented number of solar projects had been fast-tracked for construction on public lands in the desert -- lands held to be culturally vital by the Native people in that desert. It was (and is) one of the most widespread assaults on the landscape in the history of European settlement. Some of the people who would have been likely to defend the landscape in the past, the environmentalists and allies who had worked with desert tribes to help stop the Ward Valley nuclear waste dump came down on the other side when industrial desert solar was at issue. Suddenly, when the climate change argument came into play, the desert seemed expendable to the urban greens.

It was in this context that Lundahl brought his camera to the desert, to the halls where agencies held scoping meetings for seemingly innumerable projects, to demonstrations and spirit runs, and to the sites of the proposed projects. The film focuses most closely on damage to geoglyphs done by the now-bankrupt developers Solar Millennium, but the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the Genesis Solar Project, and the mothballed Rio Mesa and Imperial Solar Two projects also come up for discussion. Lundahl interviewed Native elders from Reverend Ron Van Fleet of the Fort Mojave Tribe to playwright-actor Preston Arrow-Weed of the Quechan to the charismatic Alfredo Figueroa of the group La Cuna de Aztlan. He interviewed desert biologists, utility engineers, anthropologists and activists, poets and tribal officials. On one occasion, he captured BLM staff completely whiffing public questions about the degree to which they'd followed federal law in consulting with affected Tribes in the discussion of the then-proposed Rio Mesa solar plant.

Lundahl's involvement in the issue went far beyond merely documenting events: he also became a key player in some of the campaigns against individual projects, an echo of his becoming deeply involved with the Elwha Klallam. I'll describe that aspect of his work in greater detail in a forthcoming piece.

Lundahl's colleague John Boyd, an Elwha Klallam writer, signed on to the project as Associate Producer. Boyd and Lundahl wrestled a daunting amount of footage into remarkably concise form that somehow still preserves a desert pacing. The result, an hour-long documentary still in post-production, is one of the most important documents on the solar desert land rush so far produced.


Who Are My People? Trailer from Robert Lundahl on Vimeo.

But this isn't just a film about conflict: it's about our connection to the landscape, and our responsibility to treat it well. "We're all in California because of the land," Lundahl told me. "We all have our stories about how we got here, about how our ancestors got here. Those stories are different from person to person, from tribe to tribe, but they're the context in which we live. We can't separate ourselves from that context."

A protest sign shown in one scene at the Blythe Solar site puts it even more succinctly: "This Place Matters." And so, as a consequence, do we.

Lundahl's working to find funding to put a last few finishing touches on the film. He then hopes to get it into public broadcast distribution. It's a issue of money, connections, and luck. "I've sunk $100,000 into making this film," he says. "It's not money I could afford to give up. But what choice was there? When Native people entrust you with the telling of their story you take on a huge responsibility. My job now is just to get this out there."

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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