Colorado Mountain College students examine Native, environmental issues

Tony Skrelunas explains the concept of economic justice to Colorado Mountain College students (Photo by S.J. Wilson/Observer).

Tony Skrelunas explains the concept of economic justice to Colorado Mountain College students (Photo by S.J. Wilson/Observer).

FLAGSTAFF-Twelve students and three instructors from Colorado Mountain College's Leadville campus found themselves immersed in Native issues at the Sierra Club, Native Movement and Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) offices on Sept. 18.

What has been a typical annual visit with Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club as part of the "Outdoor Semester in the Rockies" field class escalated into an intensive immersion course with some of the Southwest's leading Native American activists, including Enei Begaye (Black Mesa Water Coalition and Just Transition Coalition), Daniel Rosen (KEYA Project), Tony Skrelunas (Grand Canyon Trust) and Elouise Brown (Doodá Desert Rock).

The Outdoor Semester puts students of various majors into the field for an entire semester for 17 credit hours. These young men and women, some from as far away as Washington, Montana, New York and Maine, live out of a trailer and tents, cooking their own meals and camping out with the goal of learning as much as possible about environmental issues. Their majors include nursing, environmental engineering and outdoor recreation.

Professor Brandt Geyerman explained, "For each outdoor semester, I set up with a dozen or so students that are part of what I view as the predominant American culture-kids who have always gone to the store to get their food, they turn on a light switch and have light, and they flush the toilet to deal with their waste. My concept is to expose students to various environmental issues [and get] them to understand where their food, water and power is coming from."

Phyllis Hogan, director of the AERA, explained the concept of plants and how they interact with mind, body and spirit. Her assistant, Jessa Fisher, went on to describe the CMC herbarium (a collection of pressed plants) as being unique.

"You can find herbariums all across the country," Fisher said. "Ours is unique-it's the only herbarium in the Southwest that includes the medicinal and ethnobotanical information of these plants. We have these tribes, we have these plants, and we strive to keep this knowledge vibrant and alive."

Robert Tohe (Diné) pursues Environmental Justice for the Sierra Club. His primary focus areas have been with uranium issues and the Save the Peaks effort. He described the recent victory in the Ninth Circuit Court against artificial snowmaking at the Arizona Snowbowl.

"The Justice Department has filed back to the court asking to have that decision reheard," Tohe said. "Our allies believe that there is no chance of that decision being reversed."

"Uranium is another issue," Tohe said. "There is a resurgence of interest in energy and fuels, leading to new exploration. This represents outstanding health issues for miners, as well as thousands of abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation that have never been reclaimed and with no responsible parties to pay for restoration."

"The Navajo Nation is now seeking ways that responsible parties can be found and forced to pay for the reclamation," Tohe continued. "A largely unknown factor in the uranium industry is the impact it has had on the Navajo people. Over 6,000 Navajo miners or their families have filed for restitution, and communities across the reservation are looking to establish their own studies on the effects of uranium."

Brett Ramey, coordinator for the Urban Lifeways Project, described other projects in the Native Movement collective. Native Movement, Ramey said, is directed by Evon Peter who was active in battling the mining of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge near his home in the Arctic Village of Alaska. Other groups include the Outa' Yer Backpack project, the Artists Collective and the KEYA project.

"We are all part of Native Movement and are accountable to each other, but we don't have the typical 'boss.' We do have a board of directors, however they are more elders and advisors rather than dictators," Ramey said. "We include [contemporary] components like straw bale building and permaculture, keeping topics fresh for young people while keeping traditional knowledge intact. We don't accept the view that a return to tradition is regression."

Andy Bessler pointed out two murals by Navajo artist Shonto Begay.

"Shonto gifted us these murals, explaining that these rooms involve work on sacred issues," Bessler said. "The decisions we make here will determine our future for generations to come. Shonto told us that many generations have been dealing with these same issues-food, environment, culture, spirituality-for many generations, and we still haven't figured it all out."

Bessler, who owns his own biodiesel company, was asked to justify using land and crops once used for feeding people as a fuel source, thereby increasing the price of food.

"Brett has nailed me several times on this," Bessler admitted. "[Biodiesel] is not the end to all solutions ... There is a lot of biodiesel and ethanol produced in Brazil at the cost to rain forests-but the answer I have is two words-shore mallow. This is a plant that can grow in alkali soil, produces a bean, and is a possible source of biodiesel."

Enei Begaye, director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Tony Skrelunas of the Grand Canyon Trust arrived, and were pressed to present their own issues.

Begaye was shocked to learn that the concepts of environmental justice and climate justice were alien to the students.

"These topics are more than environmentalism-it includes where you live, where you play and where you pray," Begaye said. "Environmental racism is also connected. There are communities of color and low-income residents disproportionately impacted by these [energy] industries because no one else wants them in their backyards. Climate justice involves climate changes-the biggest threat-we have to

face together. These changes affect first the people of color and poverty, people whose very lives depended on living off the land. Environmentalism has moved beyond saving a tree just to save a tree."

Skrelunas, who served as the executive director of the Navajo Nation's Economic Development Division in the past, pointed out that tribal governments were basically set up to have someone to sign contracts, and that economic justice was another important issue.

"The federal government picked the progressive people, the ones who wanted to make money and promote more coal mines and power plants," Skrelunas said. "Deals were negotiated by non-Native attorneys-really bad deals like six cents for an acre- foot of water. But tribes are getting smart and they know bad deals and don't want to repeat [past] mistakes. Now, when a company comes onto the reservation, the tribe has to be a part-owner-it's not like the old times where all they got were royalties."

Skrelunas named the Just Transition negotiations with California energy companies as a real solution.

"Just Transition incorporates environmental justice and sustainable economic development involving solar thermal development," Bessler added. "Energy companies have historically objected to wind and solar power because it doesn't produce a base load-stored energy-when [there is no sun or wind.] But new designs include wind towers with hollow towers to store hydrogen. Partnered with wind, we may be able to create a base load."

Elouise Brown, president of Doodá Desert Rock walked in just in time to add her group's efforts to the conversation-fighting the development of the Desert Rock Power Plant in New Mexico.

"When we formed the blockade in December of 2006, we didn't think we'd still be there nine months later," Brown said. "Everyone is ... frustrated that we can't do much."

Begaye pleaded, "If you remember one thing today, remember that whatever you are doing in a community has an impact on someone else."

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