Our Future Should Respect Our Past

"Hearsay." Storytelling.  That is how somebody described Native American history in an attempt to urge approval for a massive solar project in the desert. The individual was urging the California Energy Commission to overlook the presence of sacred sites on the same land where BrightSource Energy plans to build an industrial solar facility near Blythe, California.  But our history is not "hearsay." We are talking about centuries of cultural heritage and tradition.  If you discard that, you have an empty future ahead of you.

A series of articles in the Los Angeles Times has shed light on this tension by covering the mishaps at the construction site of NextEra's Genesis Solar power project in California.  At first, the solar project garnered attention when the eviction of kit foxes from their dens on the site likely led to an outbreak of deadly canine distemper that has now spread well beyond the construction site, which could affect the kit fox population throughout our deserts and upset an ecological balance.

But then the construction disturbed something more sacred to society.  A Native American burial site and other artifacts were found during construction, probably because the presence of such sites was dismissed during the environmental review process. Even the California Energy Commission (CEC) acknowledged that the rushed review and approval process for the initial pipeline of massive solar facilities in California is partly to blame.  At an informational meeting for another massive solar facility currently under review, the CEC Staff Counsel explained that a review of cultural resources would be delayed because a CEC expert was "off to fight fires at Genesis on the cultural resources there that, by the way, grew up because of, I think, you know, the rush-rush with that project in getting it sited without actually analyzing the cultural resources on the site."

The result is that NextEra is impatiently waiting to finish construction of its solar site, while Native American tribes rightly want to treat their ancestor's remains with respect.  But the commentary that has ensued is indicative of a society that is willing to jettison Native America cultural history as if it were never a part of this land's history.  Public comments posted in response to an LA Times article regarding the presence of Native American burial sites show disgusting disregard, using slurs and stereotypes to slander Native American concerns, some going so far as to call the Native Americans "savages".

But we have not only seen this ignorance expose itself in the context of the Genesis solar project.  That individual that reduced Native American history to "hearsay" -- a labor representative showing support for BrightSource Energy's Rio Mesa solar power project -- claimed that we have "had ample time" to record those sacred sites "on paper".

No.  We have not had "ample time" to record, let alone appreciate, our heritage.  It was only in the 1800s that we relegated the Native America tribes of the southwestern deserts to reservations, and we have very little recorded history of their cultural traditions.  We have so much to learn about their, and by extension, our history.

In another example of ignorance, an editorial printed in the Imperial Valley Press unabashedly exclaimed that Native American concerns about Pattern Energy's Ocotillo Wind Energy project in California were irrelevant today, because "aspiring to something greater did not exist in Indian societies, at least not in the way it did in white societies."  Essentially, the writer proclaims that Native Americans are now a stumbling block to progress, at least the way the writer defines progress -- massive industrial facilities consuming wildlands.

This greed-driven discrimination is unfortunate, and the hypocrisy is evident when you look at how we treat other aspects of our history.  We protested the planned destruction of a town's old cemetery in West Virginia that was threatened by coal mining.  In California, we made the Mojave Cross -- memorializing the sacrifice of an earlier generation in World War I -- the focus of political bickering.  In the eastern Mojave, dozens of artifacts from a not so distant era of blood, sweat, and tears shed by miners and other pioneers in our deserts adorn the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA) site, where the Goff's schoolhouse was rebuilt, and a replica of the Goff's train station now stands.  Elsewhere, we covet our Civil War battlegrounds, historical slave sites, and the places where Presidents, authors and musicians lived and died.   So why do we slander Native Americans when they object to bulldozers pushing around the remains of their dead to make way for a solar project?

Our history is not always convenient, but there are reasons the CEC and Department of Interior were supposed to conduct thorough surveys of the Genesis site and the locations of other energy projects.  At some point we wrote our laws to ensure that we cherish our cultural and natural heritage.  This idea may seem incongruous to a society with heads bent down to smartphones and tablets tweeting about what a drunk celebrity did on TV the night before.  But whether you like it or not, knowing and respecting our history does make us richer and better as a society.  Those bones found on the site of the Genesis Solar project are a part of our history.  We call this land home, and we have to learn to understand and respect its heritage. Rushing to destroy that history -- and the places we still find sacred -- is a tragedy that we will forever regret.


  1. Excellent post, Shaun.

    I too read the comments, the racist and neanderthal- like ramblings, you referred to.

    One thing I can guarantee though. Those folks and the ones who run things understand the power of money.

    And this time, the industrialists may just have crossed a line in the sand. First they bulldozed the intaglios out by Blythe, ignoring the rightful objections by the tribes affected by the desecration, and now they are bulldozing burial sites, and offering up the flimsiest of excuses, legalistic mumbo jumbo, like it is all hearsay.

    Since none of us were alive then, I guess you could say the Buddha or the Prophet or the Christ, they are all "hearsay!"

    Mark my words, I believe this is really the final insult, the final indignity that these
    Sovereign Nations will take, and this time the gloves will come off. I believe that right now
    talks are taking place between the richer tribes and the ones along the Colorado, or are about to, because if this isn't stopped right now, it never will.

    Lawyers and legal briefs and court filings cost money, lots of it. The rich tribes have it, lots of it. They know that their lands may be next. Their culture, unlike most Americans today, honors the past and their ancestors, and that is a sacred trust to them, that they will honor.

    And there is a powerful federal law on the books, just waiting to be used against these folks, which just might stop the whole process in its tracks.

    Finally after all the destruction that has occurred and is still going on, the arrogance and hubris, those old and ancient human traits, fully in evidence on the industrialist's side, may finally be the levers that can and should be used to bring them down, to "mow them down to size" as it were.

  2. Thank you for clear writing & thinking, Sean. Time to make common cause with the Southern Paiute, Paiute, Chemehueve, and other First Nations in the desert to which we all share a sacred connection. The racists at the Imperial Valley Press may pound sand.


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