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Native Land Rights vs. Solar Power

Native Land Rights vs. Solar Power

We all know well the stories of how big oil and other industries disregard and harm native peoples outside of the U.S., but where do you stand when the Federal government tries to fast-track sprawling solar energy projects in the deserts of America’s wild west?

On one hand, we need solar, wind and other renewable energy now rather than later. I applaud efforts by the Obama administration to get projects moving toward a clean energy future, and the goal of generating 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 is appropriately ambitious in my book.

On the other hand, the concerns some Native Americans have about projects damaging sacred or culturally significant sites are equally important and need to be respected at all costs — even if those costs are the slowing of renewable energy projects.

“There is this sense that there is this rush to renewable energy that’s politically motivated and when tribes are consulted their concerns aren’t being taken seriously. There’s no guarantee that once the project starts that they won’t harm something.” — Michelle Raheja, interim director of the California Center for Native Nations

In some ways, it’s all the latest chapter in a long story of issues between the Bureau of Land Management and Native Americans that have been fought around oil, coal and other resources for decades. The BLM claims that it does indeed work hard to keep development away from sacred sites.

“The BLM takes very seriously its responsibilities to ensure that these projects are sited and developed in the right way and in the right places, and that we honor our responsibilities to Indian nations and the law.” — Kendra Barkoff, a Department of the Interior spokeswoman

One thing I found that both sides say is that there are sacred sites that are not officially recognized by the government that tribes still consider sacred. The hard part lies in respecting what exists in oral tradition but not in paperwork. For example, there are many geoglyphs in Southern California that are the size of football fields, with picture-messages carved into gravel long ago. Tribes still use the sites for ceremonial dances.

As Boma Johnson, a former archaeologist who worked for the BLM in Yuma for 25 years, says, “There’s plenty of desert out there to build solar panels…”

The solution, of course, would be to find land that has no specific objections associated with it. If only it were as simple as that.

Where do you stand on this issue? When it comes down to it, is it more important to protect every native land concern or to get large-scale solar programs moving that could potentially harm sacred sites?

Image from Chazz Layne via Flickr under CC

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Scott James

Scott James is a new media storyteller living and working in San Francisco. He writes, edits and manages projects in the green and social media spaces. In his free time you'll find him hunting down good coffee, camping along the coast, and spending time with his wife and their dog. You can read more of what he's thinking about on his blog.


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11:55AM PDT on Sep 10, 2012

only if the land being used is not sacred and the Native people gain from it.All right reguarding the natives must be protected...many lies have been told for personal gain

4:32AM PDT on Sep 6, 2012

somebody has to do the work to investigate the land and see if there is a sacred claim to it. Seems the native americans would benefit from solar power as much as anyone if they knew it wasn't violating their belief system.

10:07PM PDT on Jun 10, 2012

I agree with Victoria, all sacred sites can be preserved while establishing clean energy. The U.S is certainly big enough.

10:03PM PDT on Jun 25, 2011

Native land rights first over solar power energy. Compromise?

6:03PM PDT on Mar 31, 2011

Sacred sites should be respected.

1:39PM PDT on Mar 23, 2011

Very informative article. Thank you

10:34AM PDT on Mar 23, 2011

They should respect sacred lands. America is so vast, there is bound to be plenty of land to put up wind farms and solar panels without showing any disrespect.

9:36AM PDT on Mar 22, 2011

True, solar power is important but it needs to be in sync with the beliefs and culture of the natives

11:46AM PDT on Mar 20, 2011

Thanks for the article.

8:21PM PDT on Mar 16, 2011

Obviously we need to respect sacred sites, but it is tricky when some are not marked. We also need to respect fragile ecologies, but sometimes a solar array would be better than a coal-fired plant!
On another issue, I think we need to note the difference between solar panels and solar thermal in some of the comments. Solar panels do not give you base-load power, solar thermal does (it heats up salt which can then be used to power a normal turbine even when the sun isn't out.

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