Tribal leaders learn from each other at energy conference

By Colleen Keane
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, June 13, 2013

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W hen Roger Fragua took the stage during the Developing Tribal Energy Resources and Economies conference, he sent a message loud and clear.

"This is not the Department of Energy's conference, this is your conference," Fragua (Jemez Pueblo) told about 300 tribal and non-tribal energy leaders and companies from across the U.S. and Canada during the conference held June 10-12 at Sandia Pueblo casino in Albuquerque.

Facilitating the Tuesday morning panel, Fragua explained that the purpose of the conference was to help tribes increase their self-sufficiency efforts, explore energy policies, and resource development (which he said are needed more than ever as tribal populations are increasing with some populations doubling every 25 years).

"We deserve affordable utilities that everyone else has. Some of us are still stranded using expensive propane and wood; not all of us (in this country) have affordable energy resources," he said.

In a landscape of dwindling federal funding and increased encroachment on sovereignty, the panel of eight tribal energy leaders, including Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, strategized how to increase economies through natural resource and alternative energy development.

To develop resources, Fragua encouraged an expansion of tribal coalitions.

"Let's get the family back together on where we are headed, not only on policy, but on coalition building that would include Hawaii and Canada. We need to pray together and stay together," he said.

"We need to develop our own resources. We need to purchase from one another," added panelist Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations.

The conference also provided an opportunity for tribal energy leaders to learn from one another. Energy development in Hall's community pointed out that new technology, using horizontal and lateral drilling, is helping to locate gas and oil deposits. The Bakken shale formation is partially located on tribal lands.

"We are currently in a boom. We are the number one gas producing tribe in the country," he reported.

Derrick Watchman, chairman of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, also a panelist, said that learning best practices from other tribes is an important step towards self-sufficiency.

"You can't have business without power," he said.

An informal discussion between the panel and participants also brought attention to the need for community input, while protecting natural resource development from exploitation.

Conference attendee, Milton Bluehouse Sr., former Navajo Nation president, said that too often community people are left out of energy planning.

"Too many times we start digging without asking grandma or the medicine man," he said. "I believe that there has to be due diligence. They (the elders) are concerned about how the land is to be used, how the water is to be used.

"They are afraid about how the air is being polluted and how Mother Earth is being torn apart," he added.

The impact on community and cultural resources was a focus of the conference, according to another panelist, Jefferson Keel, of the Chickasaw Nation.

"We are here not only to develop our resources, but also to protect our sacred sites and to be good stewards of our land, so that we can better maintain the quality of life," he said.

There was also a call to engage youth in energy development and resource protection.

"Give the ownership and the opportunity for them to help," Isleta Tribal Councilman, Juan Abeyta, an attendee, requested of the tribal leaders present.

Shelly suggested that entry-level positions be carved out for youth.

"They (young people) are out there. Every year I go to their graduation – 200 to 300 graduates," Shelly said. "I tell them the tribal government needs you. But, they tell me that they are not qualified.

"They are on our doorstep but we are not letting them inm" he continued. "We have to look at our own tribal policies. You always go back from where you are born."

Panelist Susan Masten, of the Yurok Tribe, added that the expertise needs to come from within the tribes. But, she warned, "You have to think outside the tribal box and you have to have the tenacity to follow through."

Shelly agreed that tenacity is critical because federal trust responsibility is being increasingly threatened.

"You have taxpayers who are supplying us with funding who are losing their homes and their jobs. They ask, 'When will those Native Americans get on their feet? ' Congress needs to hear from us," he said.

Ron Solimon (Laguna), who gave the Tuesday morning welcoming address, acknowledged forerunners who helped to set the stage for tribal energy development - the late A. David Lester Creek; Delphine Lovato, Ohkay Owingeh; and Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet, to name a few.

"Their legacy will carry into the next generation," Solomon said.

On Tuesday night, former Navajo Nation president Peter MacDonald, Sr. gave a special talk on how the Indian energy movement began.

During the remaining conference, some of the additional issues include financing, energy plans, renewable energy alternatives, negotiation of tribal leases and right of ways, re-licensing, human capacity, resource protection and casino energy consumption.