Power Plants on Indian Reservations Get No Break on Emissions Rules

Four of the dirtiest plants, which sit on Native American soil, were expecting more lenient goals under the Clean Power Plan, but the EPA shifted gears.

By Naveena Sadasivam, Insideclimate News

The Navajo Generating Station is one of the country's dirtiest power plants. Credit: Wikipedia.
The Navajo Generating Station is one of the country’s dirtiest power plants. Credit: Wikipedia.

Four Western power plants that emit more carbon dioxide than the 20 fossil-fuel-fired plants in Massachusetts thought they would be getting a break under the Obama administration’s new carbon regulations––until the final rule ended up treating them just like all the other plants in the country.

The plants are located on Native American reservations, and under an earlier proposal, they were required to reduce emissions by less than 5 percent. But the final version of the rule, released earlier this month, has set a reduction target of about 20 percent.

A majority of the reductions are to come from two mammoth coal plants on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico—the Navajo Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant. They provide power to half a million homes and have been pinpointed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a major source of pollution––and a cause for reduced visibility in the Grand Canyon.

These two plants alone emit more than 28 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, triple the emissions from facilities in Washington state, fueling a vicious cycle of drought and worsening climate change. The two other power plants are on the Fort Mojave Reservation in Arizona and the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in Utah.

Environmental groups have charged  that the Navajo plants are responsible for premature deaths, hundreds of asthma attacks and hundreds of millions of dollars of annual health costs. The plants, which are owned by public utilities and the federal government, export a majority of the power out of the reservation to serve homes and businesses as far away as Las Vegas and help deliver Arizona’s share of the Colorado River water to Tucson and Phoenix. Meanwhile, a third of Navajo Nation residents remain without electricity in their homes.


Tribal leaders contend that power plants on Indian land deserve special consideration.

“The Navajo Nation is a uniquely disadvantaged people and their unique situation justified some accommodation,” Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, wrote in a letter to the EPA. He contends that the region’s underdeveloped economy, high unemployment rates and reliance on coal are the result of policies enacted by the federal government over several decades. If the coal plants decrease power production to meet emissions targets, Navajos will lose jobs and its  government will receive less revenue, he said.

Many local groups, however, disagree.

“I don’t think we need special treatment,” said Colleen Cooley of the grassroots nonprofit Diné CARE. “We should be held to the same standards as the rest of the country.” (Diné means “the people” in Navajo, and CARE is an abbreviation for Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.)

Cooley’s Diné CARE and other grassroots groups say the Navajo leaders are not serving the best interest of the community. The Navajo lands have been mined for coal and uranium for decades, Cooley said, resulting in contamination of water sources and air pollution. She said it’s time to shift to new, less damaging power sources such as wind and solar.

The Obama administration’s carbon regulations for power plants aim to reduce emissions nationwide 32 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. In its final version of the rule, the EPA set uniform standards for all fossil-fueled power plants in the country. A coal plant on tribal land is now expected to achieve the same emissions reductions as a coal plant in Kentucky or New York, a move that the EPA sees as more equitable. The result is that coal plants on tribal lands—and in coal heavy states such as Kentucky and West Virginia—are facing much more stringent targets than they expected.

The EPA has taken special efforts to ensure that the power plant rules don’t disproportionately affect minorities, including indigenous people. Because dirty power plants often exist in low-income communities, the EPA has laid out tools to assess how changes to the operation of the plants will affect emission levels in neighborhoods nearby. The EPA will also be assessing compliance plans to ensure the regulations do not increase air pollution in those communities.

The tribes do not have an ownership stake in any of the facilities, but they are allowed to coordinate a plan to reduce emissions while minimizing the impact on their economies. Tribes that want to submit a compliance plan must first apply for treatment as a state. If the EPA doesn’t approve, or the tribes decide not to submit a plan, the EPA will impose one.

EPA Causes Massive Waste Spill, Hurting Navajo Nation

 animas river

By Daniel Davis, Townhall.com

Durango, Colorado declared a state of emergency yesterday after the EPA accidentally contaminated a local river with 3 million gallons of waste. The Animas River has turned orange, and residents living along its banks have been warned to avoid it.

The accident began Wednesday last week when EPA workers accidentally leaked a local mine, releasing concentrated minerals into a stream. The mine had been abandoned for about 10 years, and ground water had accumulated inside it. EPA workers were there to clean up the mine. Now, the mine is leaking at 500 gallons per minute. It still hasn’t been contained, though workers are treating the nearby ponds where the minerals are leaking.

The EPA has tested the polluted water and reports arsenic levels at 300 times the normal level, and lead levels at 3,500 times the normal level. Both arsenic and lead pose significant dangers to humans when highly concentrated. The local sheriff has warned local residents to stay away from the river. The contaminants move along the river fairly quickly, they will not completely pass until the mine leak is plugged.

Many people who live along the Animas River depend on private wells for their water, but those are now threatened by the river’s pollution. The EPA is sending materials to these residents so that they can test their well water for cleanness.

The water pollution has flowed straight into the territory of the Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous reservation Native American reservation spanning parts of northern Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Utah. The spill is already threatening the livelihoods of many Navajo residents, and the nation has declared its own state of emergency. It even looks to be preparing for a lawsuit against the EPA — the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management has directed the tribe’s Attorney General to assemble a legal team to address the grievances of local residents:


Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates told the Daily Times that residents were concerned about drinking water safety, river access, water for livestock and crops, and the possibility of compensation for failed crops. With irrigation canals shut off, many farmers are concerned about their next step, Bates said.

“If these farmers don’t get water in the next week, they’ll lose their crops,” he said.


The plume of orange waste has already reached three states, and is expected to reach a fourth by Wednesday. As USA Today reports:


Mustard-colored water flowed this week into Cement Creek, a tributary that runs through Silverton [Colorado] and into the Animas River. In New Mexico, the plume of pollution entered Aztec early Saturday morning and Farmington later that morning. Officials said they expected it to reach the Utah border on Monday and Lake Powell, in Arizona, late Wednesday.


New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez toured the damage in Farmington, NM over the weekend. She was stunned by the disaster:


“The magnitude of it, you can’t even describe it,” she said, CNN affiliate KRQE reported. “It’s like when I flew over the fires, your mind sees something it’s not ready or adjusted to see.”


Equally stunning was the EPA’s slow response in notifying states of the disaster. New Mexico officials got their first word of the disaster from Native American officials. By the time they heard from EPA officials, it was 24 hours after the spill had begun. Gov. Martinez commented:


“It’s completely irresponsible for the EPA not to have informed New Mexico immediately.”

Navajos to vote on role language will play in tribal presidency

FILE - In this Nov. 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. Voters on the country’s largest American Indian reservation are choosing a new president who will have to deal with rampant unemployment and a lack of infrastructure while helping tribal members through a bitter dispute that has divided communities. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. Voters on the country’s largest American Indian reservation are choosing a new president who will have to deal with rampant unemployment and a lack of infrastructure while helping tribal members through a bitter dispute that has divided communities. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP, File)

Tribal law now requires top leaders to understand, be fluent; voters will decide whether to continue or ease the qualification.

By FELICIA FONSECA, The Associated Press

Flagstaff, Ariz. » It’s a question that dominated conversation in the Navajo Nation presidential election: Should the tribe’s top leader be fluent in the language?

Voters will settle that question Tuesday in a referendum vote.

Tribal law now requires candidates for tribal president and vice president to understand Navajo and speak it fluently, and read and write English — a qualification that can be enforced through tribal courts. An affirmative vote on the referendum would let individual Navajos decide whether candidates speak and understand Navajo well enough to hold office.

The debate goes beyond tribal politics and to the heart of the identity of Navajos. The language is a defining part of the tribe’s culture, said to be handed down by deities, but not all Navajos believe it should dictate who gets to seek the tribe’s top posts.

Judy Donaldson says she’s willing to let a Navajo president learn the language along the way, as long as that person is well educated and can navigate politics on and off the reservation. She said voters should question candidates at campaign rallies to get a true sense of where they stand.

“The voters know who they want to lead us,” she said. “They’re not just going to pick my uncle because he gave us 20 bucks. They’ll say, ‘look at this person here, he can do it, he has a Ph.D.'”

A simple majority of voters would have to approve the referendum for it to pass. The revised requirement would be in effect for the 2018 election.

The Navajo Nation Council approved the referendum after efforts to make changes to the fluency requirement failed through other legislation. It came as the result of Chris Deschene being disqualified from the most recent presidential race because he refused to show he could speak fluent Navajo.

Some Navajos rallied around him, questioning the definition of “fluency” and saying a well-educated Navajo who intended to learn the language shouldn’t be ruled out for the presidency. But others said Deschene lied when he attested to being fluent in the language and deserved to be knocked out of the race. The tribe’s high court ruled that fluency in Navajo is a reasonable requirement for the presidency.

More people speak Navajo than any other single American Indian language, about 170,000 out of 300,000 tribal members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Tiffany Manygoats doesn’t want to be counted among the non-speaking statistic and strives to learn the language, going so far as to seek out a partner who knows it.

“Being someone who doesn’t speak fluently and trying to learn my language and culture and everything, I don’t want to have our Navajo Nation president lacking what I lack,” she said. “It’s a little scary knowing it could die out pretty soon and I would be just another wash out.”

Tribal President Russell Begaye said the Navajo people should insist that the top two leaders speak Navajo, a language that the federal government tried to eradicate but also sought out for a code that helped win World War II.

“The referendum is part of this whole brainwashing agenda to say that we should lay down our language and assimilate into the American society,” Begaye said.

Christina Platero sees learning the Navajo language as a personal decision and one made within families, not one tribal government should mandate. Not knowing the language fluently shouldn’t be a black mark against candidates, she said, and suggested the president could have an interpreter to speak with tribal members who don’t understand English.

Above all, she encouraged Navajos to vote Tuesday.

“Think about it first before you make that decision, think about the consequences,” she said.

Apache Stronghold Convoy Visits Graves of Children Who Never Came Home

Photo by Sandra Rambler, San Carlos Apache
Photo by Sandra Rambler, San Carlos Apache

Apache Stronghold Convoy nears DC for repeal of law desecrating Oak Flat for copper mining

By Brenda Norrell, The Narcosphere

The Apache Stronghold Convoy visited the graves of the children who never came home at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, remembering the Chiricahua Apache children who were held as prisoners of war.

“We need to know our history, where we have been will guide us to where we are going. ” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., Apache.

“The Apache Stronghold visited our relatives who never made it back home. It was a real emotional experience for all of us. The Chiricahua Apache children who were there did not arrive as students like other tribes, but arrived as Prisoners of War,” Nosie said after being present at the Carlisle Indian School cemetery.

The Apache Stronghold Convoy is enroute to Washington DC to demand repeal of the law which would desecrate the Apaches sacred Oak Flat with copper mining, which Sen. John McCain sneaked into the defense bill.

The Apache Stronghold will be in New York Times Square at noon today, Friday, July 17. It will be in DC on July 21 and 22 for a spiritual gathering. In DC, Ariz. Congressmen Raul Grijalva and others will join the Apache Stronghold to urge repeal of the law.

The San Carlos Apache Nation said, “Stops have been made in Denver, where Neil Young offered the pre-opening show to the Apache Stronghold.  Other spiritual prayers were also provided by members of the Sioux Nations in South Dakota when stops were made at the Crazy Horse Memorial and at Wounded Knee.  Radio, TV and newspaper interviews followed in various cities. The convoy continued into Minneapolis, MINN and Chicago, and were graciously greeted by those in support of the repeal of the land exchange.”

“The spiritual journey of the Apache Stronghold caravan led by Wendsler Nosie, Sr., former Tribal Chairman and now the Peridot District Council for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, first stopped at the Gila River and Salt River Indian communities for spiritual prayers.”

“On the Navajo Nation, they met with spiritual leaders. After stopping at the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in Dulce, N.M., members of the Tribal Council unanimously passed a Tribal Resolution in support of the H.R. 2811, a bill introduced by Arizona Representative, Raul Grijalva to stop the implementation of Section 3003 of the National Defense Authorization Act which was passed last December 2014, that allows federal land at Oak Flat to be given to a foreign mining giant, Resolution Copper Company-Rio Tinto-BHP to construct a billion dollar mine while promising jobs.” Read statement and more: http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2015/07/gathering-power-apache-stronghold.html)

Back in Arizona, Dine’ (Navajo) walkers enroute to the Sacred Mountains are speaking out about the coal mining and power plants that have devastated the Navajo Nation.

On Big Mountain at Black Mesa, the Nihigaal bee Iina, Journey for Existence, described the enormous impact and loss of water from the Navajo Aquifer as a result of Peabody Coal’s mining for the Navajo Generating Station, one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the world. While it provides electricity to southern Arizona, Navajos on Black Mesa live without running water and electricity. This coal mining and power plant are the real reason for the relocation of more than 14,000 Navajos and the heartbreak of those families. Read the Dine’ walkers words about Peabody Coal’s abuse of water: http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2015/07/nihigaal-bee-iina-on-big-mountain.html

Meanwhile across Indian country, deception, fraud and plagiarism dominate national online Indian country news. When the casino industry took control of online national Native media, reporters were replaced with stay-at-home plagiarizers. Currently, there are no watchdog media actually present in DC.

The lack of authentic reporters who are present in Indian country also means that there are no Indian country reporters on the Tohono O’odham Nation to expose how the Israeli Apartheid defense contractor Elbit Systems is building spy towers and pointing those at traditional O’odham homes. Homeland Security gave the border contract for surveillance towers to Israel’s Elbit Systems, responsible for Apartheid security surrounding Palestine.

The lack of authentic reporters on the Arizona border means no one is covering the fact that US Border Patrol agents kill with impunity and run drugs, while the agents abuse Indigenous Peoples, including Tohono O’odham, in their homeland. There is no one to expose the real role of the US in the so-called drug war, including the fact that the US ATF armed cartels with assault weapons.

Read more on ‘Deception online: Media in Indian country and corporate criminals’ http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2015/07/deception-online-media-in-indian.html

In Sonora, Mexico, Yaqui defenders of water rights remain imprisoned, regardless of judges orders to release them. Even with an appeal from Amnesty International and judges orders, two spokesmen for Yaqui water rights defense remain in prison, Fernando Jiminez and Mario Luna. http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2015/04/yaqui-water-rights-defenders-released.html

Meanwhile, in Chiapas, Zapatistas SupGaleano, formerly known as Marcos, continues to speak out on the truth of capitalism and the reality of the ongoing struggle for dignity, autonomy and justice. Read his latest words:


Why Obesity and Heart Disease Hit Harder in Indian Country

Woman from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs prepares salmon. (Photo: Alyssa Macy)
Woman from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs prepares salmon. (Photo: Alyssa Macy)

And how to fix it.

By Francie Diep, Pacific Standard

The Navajo Nation covers 27,413 square miles. Serving that entire area, the territory has just 10 grocery stores. This means that, in order to get fresh, affordable produce, some Navajo Nation residents must drive at least 155 miles round-trip, according to one recent study.

This makes the Navajo Nation, like many other American Indian reservations, a food desert—a region in the United States where residents can’t easily buy fresh, healthy, affordable food. (Because of their setting, these food deserts are unlike those that normally show up in the news, which tend to be in urban centers.) In recent years, American public health researchers and policy experts have done a lot to document the effects of food deserts on people’s health, and to suggest solutions. Yet, in all that talk, nothing quite seemed like it would work for the people Crystal Echohawk and Janie Simms Hipp serve. “The policy levers were off,” Hipp says. “They were not a good fit because of the uniqueness of Indian Country.”

Hipp is an agriculture lawyer who directs a research institute at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Echohawk runs her own consulting firm in Colorado that advises non-profits working on American Indian issues. Together, they advocate for American Indians to gain better access to healthy food, which would in turn reduce rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related ills that run rampant in the Native American population as a whole. Over 80 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native adults are overweight or obese; about half of American Indian children are at an unhealthy weight; and it’s estimated 30 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have pre-diabetes. Compare those statistics to American adults in general, two-thirds of whom are overweight or obese, and 27 percent of whom are estimated to have pre-diabetes.

“Oftentimes, when conversations are had with policymakers or philanthropy or public health, people just turn away and say, ‘We don’t know where to start. The problems are too big for us to solve.’ But there’s no shortage of opportunity for real change.”

Conventional fixes probably won’t work. But Echohawk and Hipp have ideas for what will. Together with lawyer-activist Wilson Pipestem, they put together a report for the American Heart Association about how to address the unique burden of diet-related disease that the U.S.’s indigenous people carry. “I think, oftentimes, when conversations are had with policymakers or philanthropy or public health, people just turn away and say, ‘We don’t know where to start. The problems are too big for us to solve,'” Echohawk says. “But there’s no shortage of opportunity for real change.”

Pacific Standard recently talked over the phone with Echohawk and Hipp about what makes it hard to stay healthy while living on reservations and trust lands—what’s collectively called Indian Country—and how a local food movement and cultural programs can make it easier:

What are some examples of policy ideas for reducing obesity that weren’t good fits for Indian Country?

Janie Hipp: I’d served for six years or so with the Bush and Obama administrations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I was always struck when policy, at the national level, was really bearing down on food deserts. They talked about encouraging retail food outlets to carry more healthy food products or fresher produce. That’s great, but if you have no retail food outlet, then you’re actually talking about a whole different policy arena that you need to wrap your head around.

Crystal Echohawk: There’s just the assumption that people already had outlets, that they were in urban centers. There’s also the lack of understanding of tribes as sovereign nations and their ability to institute a level of policy change over their tribal citizens. Now, a lot of the policy change that is being advocated is at the state level. But when we really look at the biggest levers of change in Indian Country, we look at the level of tribal government and we also look at federal because of the government-to-government relationship that tribes have with the federal government.

I saw that the Navajo Nation this year instituted a tax on junk food. It also made fresh fruits and vegetables tax-free. I can’t imagine a state doing that. New York City tried to institute a sugary-drinks tax and it failed.

CE: There’s immense opportunity for real change in Indian Country. What Navajo Nation did, I think, is just one example. There are just so many more opportunities aside from a tax.

What’s one of your favorite ideas for improving healthy food access in Indian Country?

JH: The vast majority of the foods that are raised for human consumption on our reservations leave the borders of the reservation. If the levers are pulled in such a way that feeding people healthy, local food comes first, before you feed folks outside of those reservation boundaries—you can do both—then we are within reach of having a major shift in our health. And oh, by the way, [by selling locally grown food locally] we also can build strong rural and remote economies.

Why does all the food leave?

JH: What is lacking in all rural communities—it’s not just Indian Country, but the lack is more profound—is the infrastructure necessary to do the harvesting, grading, packing, storage, freezing, all of those things that allow you to store and move food around more locally. Re-building those infrastructure pieces, or building them outright, is an important piece that can’t be ignored.

What’s wrong with growing food on tribal land and having that shipped out, and then having something else shipped in, instead?

JH: Being able to retain as much healthy local food around our communities as possible is going to lead to fresher produce being available to us. On the meat side, that’s been a phenomenon for years, where livestock is raised on our reservations, but they leave the reservation boundaries and, in many cases, never return. Or they make a circuitous route across the U.S. before they get back. Think about the cost associated with that. All you have to do is go into a grocery store close by any of our remote reservations and you will noticeably see the cost of food is much higher, and that’s not even talking about Alaska.

Why do you think American Indians have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than Americans in general?

CE: Poverty is a root cause. It’s a lot cheaper to go to McDonald’s and order stuff off the Dollar Menu than it is to go in and buy fruits and vegetables in a store when you’re looking at many families that are surviving on one paycheck and feeding a dozen people.

Another important component is how we’re addressing historical trauma within Native American people. There’s been increasing research out there linking trauma to health disparities. When you look at the history regarding Native Americans, of forced removal, of genocide, the boarding schools, it’s layer upon layer of trauma that Native American people, over generations, have sustained

Gay marriage is still illegal for the Navajo. This man is trying to change that.

Alray Nelson lives in one of the last places in America where gay marriage isn’t legal.

By Jorge Rivas, Fusion 

He’s a member of the Navajo nation, the largest Native American reservation, whose territory spans three states in which same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling last month that declared the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples has no immediate legal impact on Nelson, the Navajo, or any of the 566 federally-recognized tribes in the United States.

Just like the 50 states had different positions on gay marriage before the Court stepped in, the 566 tribes have a variety of different stances on same-sex unions.

At least 11 tribes have created laws that either prohibit same-sex marriages or define marriage as between a man and a woman, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. About 12 have developed laws that approve and recognize same sex marriage, according to the New York-based gay-rights group Freedom to Marry. Many others stay silent on the issue or follow the lead of their surrounding states.

And then there’s the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, which has a law that states a “person of the same gender will not be allowed to marry or divorce.”

Except from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Code of Law.
Except from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma Code of Law.


The second most populous tribe, the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation, passed its law banning gay marriage in 2004.

The Navajo, who count 300,000 members and to whom smaller tribes often look for direction, passed a law in 2005 explicitly banning gay marriage. It followed in the footsteps of the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law recognizing marriage as between a man and a woman that was signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, according to Native American LGBT advocates and historians.

But Nelson, 29, says times are changing on reservations, too.

“Now there’s Navajo couples that are becoming more vocal, and we’re seeing transgender youth also talking about their rights,” he told Fusion in a telephone interview.

He said he plans to appeal to his tribe’s traditional notions of respect and fairness to help change hearts and minds.

“There were same-sex couples from our creation story all the way to today. Those relationships were there, they were recognized, and they had every right to be productive members of our community,” Nelson said.

“If they repeal the [Diné Marriage Act] it brings it back to what our traditional values used to be. They’re using the whites man’s language, a foreign way of speaking, to redefine something that was already sacred and defined, we didn’t need to redefine it at all,” he said.

Historians say many Native Americans have embraced more fluid notions of gender and sexuality than the current gay-marriage bans might suggest.

“There is overwhelming evidence for the historic and cultural presence of multiple gender roles and same-sex relations among most if not all Native North Americans, including the Cherokee, and that they historically shared in the institution of marriage,” said Doctor Brian Gilley, an anthropology professor at the University of Vermont, in a 2005 brief submitted in a Cherokee court case after tribal leaders tried to invalidate a marriage license to a lesbian couple.

The highest Cherokee Court ultimately ruled that the two women couldkeep their marriage license.

Photo by Jerry Archuleta courtesy of Alray NelsonAlray Nelson, left, and his partner, Brennen Yonnie, are leading the fight to get the Navajo Nation to recognize gay marriage.
Photo by Jerry Archuleta courtesy of Alray Nelson
Alray Nelson, left, and his partner, Brennen Yonnie, are leading the fight to get the Navajo Nation to recognize gay marriage.

For the last 16 months Nelson was the deputy manager for former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr.’s re-election campaign. The candidate lost after a long contested election.

Now Nelson is using his political connections to set up meetings with tribal leaders to talk about eliminating the Diné Marriage Act. (Diné is a term some Navajo use to describe themselves.) He’s scheduled meetings with lawmakers to discuss eliminating the act now so they address it in the upcoming tribal session in October.

Nelson is also reaching out to the broader community to change people’s views culturally.

“When we talk about discrimination in regards to taking away someone’s rights, Navajo people get that,” he said. “They get it because they’ve dealt with decades of assimilation policy and continue to deal with those issues. So when a certain segment of the community feels left out and aren’t treated with respect and fairness, Navajos understand that and they get that fight.”

The office of Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

There are other significant issues affecting the LGBT Navajo community. LGBT bullying and teen suicides are high, and the Navajo Nation has seen an unprecedented spike in new HIV diagnoses.

But Nelson said starting with gay marriage can help bring attention to the other issues.

“The Diné Marriage Act is the only law in the books that directly discriminates against the Navajo LGBT community,” Nelson said.

Approval given for gambling compacts with New Mexico tribes


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Gambling compacts negotiated by the state and a handful of American Indian tribes have cleared their final hurdle.

The U.S. Interior Department reviewed the compacts but took no action. Under federal law, the agreements are considered approved by the agency as long as they’re consistent with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, spelled out some concerns the department had with the compacts in a four-page letter sent Tuesday to Gov. Susana Martinez and tribal leaders.

Washburn pointed to an apparent increase in revenue sharing rates for some tribes, but he acknowledged that the agreements had the support of the tribes.

Under the compacts, the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache nations and three pueblos can operate casinos for another two decades.

Tribes say law requiring return of remains, relics, hasn’t met promise

By Kristen Hwang, Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – Manley Begay Jr. stood surrounded by boxes “stacked to the ceiling” that were filled with the remains of more than 1,000 Native Americans, when one label caught his eye.

Canyon Del Muerte.

It was where Begay’s family took their livestock to winter on the Navajo Nation. But here, at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University more than two decades ago, it was the label on a box of human remains.

“It’s as though you’re experiencing the death of a loved one right before your eyes again and again and again,” said Begay, now a professor at Northern Arizona University.

Back then, he was a graduate student at Harvard and part of the museum’s repatriation committee, formed in response to a new law – the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

He and others were optimistic that the law would help tribes regain the sacred items and estimated 180,000 human remains that had been taken from them years before by museums and collectors across the country in what has been called the “Native American Holocaust.”

But 25 years later, more than 70 percent of Native American remains are still in control of museums and federal agencies, according to the 2014 report by the agency overseeing the repatriation program.

“When NAGPRA was enacted, it was really an attempt to right some wrongs,” Begay said. “However only some museums and only a few individuals have really adhered to the intent – the legal intent – of the law and also the spirit of the law.”

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, for example, has refused since 2004 to return six “sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” to the Western Apache tribes in Arizona.

And the American Museum of Natural History in New York has agreed to give tribes 77 items, but without the legal classification of “sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” that would confer ownership to the tribes – the items would essentially be on loan from the museum.

Critics say both museums have ignored recommendations by NAGPRA and by Smithsonian review committees to return the items.

The American Museum of Natural History did not respond to requests for comment. But the Smithsonian defended its compliance with the act, with a spokesman saying officials at the Washington museum are “extremely proud of our repatriation program and feel it has done much good through the Native community.”

In a statement to Cronkite News, the Smithsonian noted that its National Museum of Natural History had returned 200,000 different objects and the skeletal remains of about 6,000 individuals to more than 100 tribes. That does not include repatriation by the Smithsonian?s National Museum of the American Indian, which operates its own program.

The Smithsonian statement said the six items referenced by the Apache were among nine, three of which – cradles from infant grave sites – have been offered for repatriation. But the other items – a shirt, a medicine stick, two medicine hats, a war cap and a wooden charm – have not been shown to have come from the Western Apaches or that they rise to the level of sacred object, the statement said.

“The Smithsonian is willing to reconsider its determination with respect to the six disputed items if the Working Group can provide new or additional evidence to support its claims,” the statement said. “As of this date, the Working Group has not done so.”

Tribal members chafe at the fact that they have the burden of proof and that museums and federal institutions are given final

authority to decide whether to return items. They say institutions have dragged their feet for years, but the National NAGPRA office has little power to force compliance.

The road ends there for the tribes. They have no power under the law to force the museums to comply.

“It’s a standoff at this point,” said Vincent Randall, cultural preservation director with the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona. “We have found that the review board has no power. They have no teeth.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

When the law passed in 1990, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said it “is not about the validity of museums or the value of scientific inquiry. Rather, it is about human rights.”

The law was intended to foster good faith between the scientific community and tribes by recognizing that the tens of thousands of Native American human remains should be treated with dignity and returned to their descendants.

While consultation and collaboration between museums and tribes was supposed to be at the heart of NAGPRA, tribes have found in many instances that it is hard to overcome the prejudices of old institutions.

“It’s the world of academia meeting the world of Native thought and understanding about life, and often that can clash,” Begay said.

Randall has seen that clash with academics firsthand.

“They say, ‘Where did you get that information?’” he said. “I tell them: All of you sitting up there went to school and you have a Ph.D. behind your name. Well, these guys right here sitting in front of you are well beyond your Ph.D. because they lived it and they lived it all their life and they are experts. You are dishonoring our elders.”

Begay said he has seen a shift in viewpoints in the archaeology and anthropology communities, but it has been a “slow, snail-paced” movement.

But still, the museums hold all the cards, said James Riding In, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.

“What NAGPRA did was it gave the museums and federal agencies a great deal of power over the determination of cultural affiliation,” Riding In said. “So they could have said, even if Indians did the consultation process and said, ‘These remains are ours or these cultural items are ours,’ the museums could use their own determination of what was returnable under the law.”

Critics say problems with enforcement of the program are compounded by the fact that NAGPRA is part of the National Park Service. It has underfunded NAGPRA, they say, and it has its own conflicts – the Park Service has a collection of human remains and cultural items that qualify for repatriation.

Grant money available to tribes and museums from NAGPRA to help with consultation and repatriation has fallen from a high of nearly $2.5 million in 1998 to just over $1.6 million in 2015. In fiscal 2011 and 2012, the National Park Service took $581,000 from NAGPRA grant money and moved it to support administrative costs, according to agency budget documents.

But the National NAGPRA office said all federal agencies have had to tighten their belts.

“Any federal budget changes affect all agencies. Sequestration affected everyone,” said National NAGPRA program officer Melanie O’Brien. “I don’t see NAGPRA holding the burden of the budget any more than any other federal agency.”

Sequestration is not the only problem the National NAGPRA office faces. It lost its civil penalty investigator in 2010, and while O’Brien said a new one was hired six months ago, there are 63 backlogged cases against museums for failure to comply with the law.

The office can prescribe civil penalties for museums, but advocates say those penalties – $42,679.34 paid by nine such facilities since 1996 – are “pennies” to large institutions.

“The only avenue they say we have is to bring a lawsuit,” Randall said of the Apaches’ struggle to get items returned. “But to be honest, we don’t have the money to fight a big institution that has money.”

There is no avenue under the law to encourage federal agencies to comply. The agencies have returned less than half of the human remains they held when the law was passed.

For museums, the exact number is uncertain because reporting the information to the national office is voluntary, but the latest report from National NAGPRA estimates museums have more than 140,000 human remains left to be repatriated.

“While much is being made of foreign auctions and the like, and the efforts of Jews to get back artwork stolen during the Holocaust, museums in this country are still falling short in returning items taken in the Native American Holocaust – by those very same museums – even when faced with completely legitimate claims,” said Seth Pilsk, a tribal official for the Western Apaches.

For tribal nations the “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” that NAGPRA dictates be returned are integral to their religious and cultural identities.

“I didn’t know those individuals but they’re still my people, they’re who we came from,” Riding In said. “And I don’t put a timeline on that feeling.

“It can go back deep in time that these are our ancestors and they deserve full human rights and no one asked them if they consented to be dug up and put on display and studied,” he said.

Many nations believe that social ills like alcoholism and domestic violence are caused by the unrest of their unburied ancestors, and because objects the tribe considers holy have been separated from the people.

“Those who don’t fulfill the spirit of the law, if that doesn’t happen, then these traumas continue to happen,” Begay said.

Telehealth Project Aims To Improve Health Care Access for Inland Empire Tribes

By Lauren McSherry, California Healthline

A health care system serving nine American Indian tribes in the Inland Empire is using telehealth to reach patients in remote areas and address rising rates of diabetes, a particular problem among American Indians.

Riverside-San Bernardino County Indian Health serves nine tribes in the expansive Inland Empire region of Southern California. The region encompasses nearly 30,000 square miles, an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Patients who live in rural parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties must travel long distances for health care. Those who live near the Colorado River and in cities such as Needles and Blythe, which lie along the Arizona border, sometimes must travel several hours for specialty care.

“If you think about that vast expanse with an urban corner, it makes all the sense in the world to have all forms of telehealth,” said Mario Gutierrez, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy. “Telehealth has always been thought of as a rural tool.”

Indian Health is the largest tribally owned health care system in the state and one of the largest in the West, aside from the Navajo Nation and some tribally owned systems in the Northwest, said Bill Thomsen, chief operations officer. There are more than 50 health systems serving Indians in California, he said.

The health system exclusively serves Indians belonging to nine tribes in the Inland Empire and their eligible dependents. The health care system has seven health centers and 14,000 patients, Thomsen said.

In recent months, Indian Health has rolled out a telehealth project, which is initially focusing on endocrinology to combat high rates of diabetes among tribe members. In San Bernardino County, for example, 13% of American Indian adults suffer from diabetes, and nearly 80% are overweight or obese, according to Healthy San Bernardino County.

“Native Americans are the largest diabetic population in the world,” said Karen Davis, Riverside-San Bernardino County Indian Health’s clinical services director.

Overall, Indians face a scarcity of health care resources and unusually high rates of asthma, diabetes and heart disease. American Indians are 177% more likely to die from diabetes, according to Native American Aid.

Pulmonology, cardiology, gerontology and dermatology will be addressed in the project’s subsequent phases.

The project focuses on specialty care because 45% of the Indian health system’s patients don’t have health insurance, restricting their access to certain medical services, Davis said.

“The value that we have seen is increased access to care, which ultimately affects outcomes,” she said.

Gutierrez said that because of the region’s shortage of specialists, the endocrinology project can have a big impact because it is crucial to diagnose diabetes early and control it, he said.

“The earlier you intervene, the more likely you are to avoid debilitating effects — loss of limbs, eyesight, all those complications that can be prevented,” he said.

‘A Model for the Rest of the State’

Steven Viramontes, clinical applications and telemedicine coordinator for California through the federal Indian Health Service, said implementing telemedicine in rural areas is a “no brainer.” It addresses cultural considerations in providing medical care to American Indians and improves access for patients who would otherwise not be able to receive certain specialized medical and psychiatric services.

“They are taking this on in a stepwise fashion,” he said of the health system’s telehealth project. “And I think that can serve as a model for the rest of the state.”

Davis said cultural awareness is a particularly important component of the project. Patients prefer receiving care through the Indian Health system, rather than seeking specialized care outside of the system, she said. She added that building trust with patients is important.

“We want people who can interact with the patient in an appropriate and sensitive way,” she said.

Diabetes treatment must address cultural influences, such as diet and lifestyle, and providing treatment through a tribal health system ensures much better compliance and understanding among patients, Gutierrez said.

“It’s not just diagnostics,” he said. “It’s education.”

Coordination of Care

Davis said one of the reasons she has become such a proponent of telehealth has to do with improved efficiencies and savings through better coordinated care.

The health system is expanding its pilot project to include more clinics and specialists. The initial project linked three clinics with an endocrinologist who works for a separate Indian health system in Santa Barbara. Through the project, a primary care doctor or nurse and a patient can video conference with a specialist.

Primary care doctors can learn from the specialists by observing how they interact with certain health issues, and when they encounter a similar case, they can handle it more effectively, she said. The health system has found that costs drop because continuity of care is improved and duplication of services and tests is avoided, she said.

In addition to remote locations in the region, another challenge for the health system has been the Inland Empire’s shortage of primary care doctors and specialists, Davis said. Telehealth helps the health system circumvent that problem.

Gutierrez said this type of coordination of care is in step with the medical home model of care. Medical records can be kept in one place, and the primary care provider retains a full record of coordination with the specialist, he said.

Support Growing

While the implementation of telehealth has lagged for financial, regulatory and technological reasons, support for telehealth has been gaining momentum in recent months. Congressional backing for financial provisions for telehealth appears to be growing. In April, a number of senators expressed support for expanding telehealth. Also, an unprecedented number of telemedicine bills are awaiting action.

While California has not led the nation in telehealth implementation, it has remained in the middle of the pack. The American Telemedicine Association gave the state an overall “B” grade for its telehealth delivery and an “F” for its Medicaid coverage of telehealth rehabilitation and home health services, according to a report released May 4.

In California, one obstacle has been access to high-speed broadband in rural areas, Gutierrez said. Another has been cost. A lot of health centers don’t have the money to invest in technology and training, he said. However, he expects that health care reform will drive the adoption of telehealth as health systems move away from the fee-for-service model.

Viramontes sees telehealth as the future. He believes it can benefit Indian health systems across the state. Not only is telehealth a useful tool in rural areas, but it also brings people together to share skills and knowledge, he said.

“We see an opportunity here,” Viramontes said. “This is where we are headed.”

Native Americans Use Sweat Lodge Ceremonies To Recover From Heroin Abuse

(Laurel Morales)Ken Lewis stands in front of Indian Rehab in Phoenix. He says he has been clean for eight years thanks to the people here and the traditional methods they offer.
(Laurel Morales)
Ken Lewis stands in front of Indian Rehab in Phoenix. He says he has been clean for eight years thanks to the people here and the traditional methods they offer.

By Laurel Morales, Fronteras

Native Americans have some of the highest substance abuse rates compared to other racial or ethnic groups. Alcohol and meth are the drugs of choice, but many tribal police have been overwhelmed by a new crop of heroin. Black tar heroin is cheap, addictive and destructive.

A decade ago, Ken Lewis almost lost his arm to an IV drug addiction. Twice he developed cysts in his veins that exploded in the hospital. When he came out of surgery the doctor prescribed pain killers. So he traded his meth and heroin for the prescribed opiates.

“I was at my wit’s end,” Lewis said. “I mean I was mentally gone, dead. Spiritually, I didn’t believe in a god. Emotionally, didn’t feel, didn’t realize I was hurting people or hurting myself. Physically, I probably should’ve been dead.”

A judge finally ordered Lewis to rehab. He went to Native American Connections. Indian Rehab, as it’s called, is an old two-story house in the middle of downtown Phoenix.

“The lady behind the desk came out and she gave me this big old hug,” Lewis recalled. “And inside I’m cussing her out. And she told me, ‘it’s going to be ok.’ And I was more mad because nobody told me that in a long time. I hadn’t heard those words. People gave up on me.”

The recovery program combines western practices like the 12 steps with traditional indigenous healing ceremonies. Lewis, an Akimel O’odham member, said the God talk wasn’t working. It was the sweat lodge that gave him the hope he so desperately needed.

“This is the type of forgiveness of self, of cleansing, of a rebirth,” Lewis said. “And so when you’re coming out you’re feeling purified. You’re feeling worthy and that I can go into recovery. And so you’ve cleansed all those negative feelings and thoughts and decisions you made.”

Lewis has been clean for eight years and now works for Native American Connections. Many aren’t so lucky. A person addicted to heroin often winds up in jail or dead.

At the Coconino County Jail on the edge of the Navajo Nation, half of the inmates are Native American. So the sheriff invited Shannon Rivers to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies. Inside the razor-wire fence, Rivers recently built a fire next to a rebar structure. When the fire has heated a dozen or so stones he covered the frame with blankets. He then poured water over the hot rocks inside the sweat lodge.

(Laurel Morales)Shannon Rivers, an Akimel O'odham member, leads purification ceremonies at the Coconino County jail, where half of the inmates are Native American.
(Laurel Morales)
Shannon Rivers, an Akimel O’odham member, leads purification ceremonies at the Coconino County jail, where half of the inmates are Native American.

“My job here is to help these men down a path of sobriety,” Rivers said. “And how we do that is through these ceremonies. Because what we know is a lot of the ways the western ways aren’t working.”

Rivers, himself a former addict, said the reasons why Native Americans have such high rates of incarceration and substance abuse are complex.

“For me, I still had that baggage that I grew up with as a Native person coming from a reservation,” Rivers said. “So I struggled with my shortcomings, my insecurities, my anger, my jealousy. That baggage is tied to our history as Native people.”

(Laurel Morales)Navajo Nation police officer Donald Seimy says making alcohol illegal on the reservation doesn't stop people from bootlegging and selling drugs.
(Laurel Morales)
Navajo Nation police officer Donald Seimy says making alcohol illegal on the reservation doesn’t stop people from bootlegging and selling drugs.

A history of government-run boarding schools, destruction of language and forced relocation.

And there’s a new problem: a recent FBI report shows the Mexican drug cartels are specifically targeting Indian Country. High unemployment on the reservations means many turn to trafficking and dealing. The cartels know the tribes lack law enforcement resources.

On the Navajo Nation, about 200 full-time officers patrol a reservation the size of West Virginia. On a ride along Navajo Nation officer Donald Seimy said a recent false report of a car accident pulled all four officers on duty to one remote location. Seimy’s theory: the calls came from drug dealers trying to sell or traffic drugs across the reservation.

“And we show up and then there’s nothing,” Seimy said. “I think they have that knowledge of us not being everywhere or the short manpower that we have they know it. So they’re getting smart about it.”

The Navajo Nation and many other tribes just don’t have the law enforcement to keep the drugs out. That means more and more Native Americans are getting hooked.