Commentary: An energy company plans a project that would destroy land Native people hold as sacred. Despite Native protests, neither state nor federal agencies intervene to protect those cultural sites. The project proceeds. The land is forever altered. Hundreds of Native people and their supporters converge on the site to protest and to grieve their loss.
Given recent news, not to mention the choice of photo at the top of this story, you could be forgiven for assuming I’m describing current events at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. That’s where the company Energy Transfer Partners is trying to push the new Dakota Access Pipeline through burial grounds and medicine wheels sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The project has already destroyed important sacred sites, and threatens to pollute the Missouri River and local groundwater if it’s built and the inevitable spills ensue.
But I’m actually describing a gathering four years ago in the southernmost parts of the California desert. There, near the little desert town of Ocotillo, hundreds of Native people from across the southwestern United States gathered on June 24, 2014. They were there to mark the destruction of ancient cremation sites, ceremonial locations and other important cultural resources by Pattern Energy, which built the Ocotillo Express wind power facility in Imperial County.
Indigenous people often pay the greatest price when the landscape is developed for the benefit of the world’s industrial economy. When your culture is intimately interwoven with a healthy and diverse natural landscape, you’re much more likely to take it personally when outside investors propose to pave that landscape.
Far too often it’s not just Native culture at stake, but Native people’s very lives. A 2015 survey by the group Global Witness documented 908 environmentalists killed in retaliation for their activism between 2002 and 2013. Of those 908 activists killed, 40 percent were indigenous people.
Right now the eyes of the nation are focused on Standing Rock. Non-Native environmentalists are lending important logistical support, and for good reason: aside from the cultural sovereignty issues raised by the project, the Dakota Access pipeline would make it a lot easier to ship oil from the intensively fracked Bakken oil and gas fields to shipping ports on the Gulf Coast. Climate change activists fear the consequences of making it easier to burn fossil fuels from the Bakken.
Those activists were largely silent when cultural sovereignty was under threat at Ocotillo.
Ocotillo wasn’t the only project that posed a dire threat to Native people’s culture and history. NextEra Energy’s Genesis Solar Energy Project in Riverside County, which went online a month prior to the gathering at Ocotillo, made the news late in 2011 when workers discovered a large number of archaeological artifacts on and near the project’s footprint. That discovery included human remains from an ancient cremation site along a transmission line route. When representatives of the Colorado River Indian Tribes attempted to rebury those remains nearby, in accordance with tribal custom, they unearthed even more remains. There were three separate discoveries of artifacts made by Genesis workers before the project was completed.
Federal archaeologists had declared the site more or less free of cultural significance. Native activists and independent archaeologists charged that those findings said more about the Obama administration’s desire to get projects approved in a hurry than it said about what the landscape actually held. They were not at all surprised by the discoveries. Ford Dry Lake wasn’t always dry. Eight thousand years ago the lake had water in it, and abundant people living on and near its shores for millennia. The landscape remains sacred to the Mohave people on the CRIT reservation, as well as to their Chemehuevi and Cahuilla neighbors.
Before Genesis went online local Native people held a funeral ceremony for the landscape, as they knew it would be hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before the land around Ford Dry Lake would be able to restore itself to a more natural state.
Some environmental groups opposed Genesis steadfastly. Others filed a formal protest of the Interior Department’s decision to approve the project, then later withdrew that protest. Very few non-Native people mentioned damage to cultural resources as a concern in permitting Genesis to go ahead. Only one non-Native group — the labor group California Unions for Reliable Energy — mentioned cultural issues in comments on the project’s final Environmental Impact Statement.
Thousands of individual artifacts from the site are now stored in a Southern California museum, a fate that deeply disturbs the likely descendants of the people who put them there.
Perhaps the direst threat to desert Native people’s cultural resources never got built, but that had more to do with the global economy than it did with respect for native culture. Tessera Solar’s Imperial Valley Solar Project would have occupied more than 6,300 acres in the Yuha desert in western Imperial County, not far from where the Ocotillo Express project’s turbines stand today.
Imperial Valley Solar would have deployed hundreds of generators across the landscape, which would have focused sunlight with parabolic mirrors onto complex Stirling engines that would convert the energy contained in solar-heated fluid into electricity.
The 6,300-plus acres slated for the plant turned out to contain, in the words of California Energy Commission staff, more artifacts of cultural importance than all the other power plants the Commission had ever considered in its history, combined. The state’s Energy Commissioners approved the project anyway, citing the immense importance of developing renewable energy.
On the federal side, the Bureau of Land Management, which manages that part of the Yuha, insisted that Tessera Solar take care to document, record, and where possible preserve archaeological resources on the site… if those resources related to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. There was no such requirement that Tessera pay attention to the incredible wealth of Native cultural resources on the site. The BLM deemed evidence of one group of European settlers passing through once as more important than evidence of tens of thousands of people living in the area for centuries. The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition, which resulted in the first permanent non-Native settlement in the San Francisco Bay area, is certainly of major significance in American history. But so are the cultures that subsequent waves of settlement ended up devastating.
The cultural resources that Imperial Valley Solar would have destroyed were saved not by the BLM, or by the California Energy Commission, or by a massive outpouring of opposition from non-Native environmentalists. (There was no such outpouring.) Those artifacts were saved by the People’s Republic of China, which chose to dump a very large number of photovoltaic cells onto the world market, lowering their price from al suppliers. With photovoltaic solar cells – the kind you can put on your rooftop – becoming cheaper and cheaper throughout 2009 and 2010, it was increasingly hard to sell solar power from more complicated solar thermal plants like those Tessera planned to build. Tessera went belly-up in 2011, and its two projects in California – the other being the proposed Calico Solar in the Mojave Desert – were eventually abandoned.
The collision of California renewable energy development and Native culture isn’t limited to those few projects. From completed solar power plants like Ivanpah and Desert Sunlight, to a number of abandoned solar projects once proposed for culturally significant landscapes, to wind power, geothermal, and transmission projects, California’s laudable desire to de-carbonize its energy supply is hitting the state’s Native people hardest.
That conflict isn’t limited to energy. Later this month, the Winnemem Wintu tribe will be staging a two-week protest run to draw attention to federal plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet, which would drown dozens of the tribe’s sacred sites in the Pit and McCloud River watersheds. Farther west, in the Klamath River drainage, Native people including the Karuk and Yurok are protesting a massive post-fire salvage clearcut that they say would further endanger their way of life. Increasingly, whenever a massive alteration of the non-urban landscape is planned in California, it’s Native people who stand to lose the most.
But it’s in the California desert where those conflicts show the biggest contrast with the struggle at Standing Rock, at least when it comes to the level of support Native people receive from non-Native environmentalists. Environmentalists oppose fossil fuels, so the pipeline battle in North Dakota receives widespread support, and again: rightly so. Environmentalists favor renewable energy, and so they largely fall silent when renewable energy projects pose threats to Native culture that are strikingly similar to those being protested at Standing Rock.
In fact, some of those groups are pressing the Bureau of Land Management to complete the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which would – among many other things – concentrate large solar projects on an area in eastern Riverside County that’s replete with culturally important sites and larger areas, and streamline the environmental assessment process for projects proposed for those areas. One representative of the Sierra Club was quoted in the Washington Post as saying the area was “a pretty decent area to be what you might call a sacrifice area for solar.”
Native people and non-Native environmental activists are wonderful potential allies. Allies can and often do disagree. But if you support your allies only when their goals coincide with yours, and ignore or oppose them when they express concern that your objectives stand to do them damage, that’s not an alliance. It’s using those people to further your own aims, and not giving anything back.